‘Humans of New York’ Tells Heartbreaking Story of Syrian Refugee

Muhammad, a man profiled by the popular photo series, made it to Europe but encountered tragedy after tragedy along the way.
(Photo: 'Humans of New York'/Facebook)
Sep 28, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

The popular Facebook and Instagram photo series Humans of New York typically features stories of nameless inhabitants of the Big Apple. But for the next week or so, photographer Brandon Stanton is heading into the heart of the refugee crisis, highlighting personal stories of Syrian refugees who have made their way to Europe.

“Together, these migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history,” Stanton wrote in an introductory post on Friday. “But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies.”

Stanton plans to feature several refugees and aid workers as he travels across Europe; he started by telling the story of Muhammad, a displaced Syrian he met last year in Iraqi Kurdistan. A lot has happened to Muhammad in a year’s time.

In a series of six photos, Muhammad shared his story, including the loss of his brother at the hands of the Islamic State. Nearly a quarter of a million people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it broke out in 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

After paying a smuggler to take him to Europe, Muhammad survived a journey on a plastic boat with a faulty motor before landing on a Greek island. Others haven’t been so lucky. A haunting image of a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while taking a similar journey from Turkey to Greece—as have thousands of other migrants who have gone missing or died while attempting to cross into Europe this year—indicates just how dangerous the trek can be. And when people like Muhammad do make it, they aren’t always welcomed with open arms.

“The island we landed on was called Samothrace. We were so thankful to be there. We thought we’d reached safety. We began to walk toward the police station to register as refugees. We even asked a man on the side of the road to call the police for us. I told the other refugees to let me speak for them, since I spoke English. Suddenly two police jeeps came speeding toward us and slammed on the brakes. They acted like we were murderers and they’d been searching for us. They pointed guns at us and screamed: ‘Hands up!’ I told them: ‘Please, we just escaped the war, we are not criminals!’ They said: ‘Shut up, Malaka!’ I will never forget this word: ‘Malaka, Malaka, Malaka.’ It was all they called us. They threw us into prison. Our clothes were wet and we could not stop shivering. We could not sleep. I can still feel this cold in my bones. For three days we had no food or water. I told the police: ‘We don’t need food, but please give us water.’ I begged the commander to let us drink. Again, he said: ‘Shut up, Malaka!’ I will remember this man’s face for the rest of my life. He had a gap in his teeth so he spit on us when he spoke. He chose to watch seven people suffer from thirst for three days while they begged him for water. We were saved when they finally they put us on a boat and sent us to a camp on the mainland. For twelve days we stayed there before walking north. We walked for three weeks. I ate nothing but leaves. Like an animal. We drank from dirty rivers. My legs grew so swollen that I had to take off my shoes. When we reached the border, an Albanian policeman found us and asked if we were refugees. When we told him ‘yes,’ he said that he would help us. He told us to hide in the woods until nightfall. I did not trust this man, but I was too tired to run. When night came, he loaded us all into his car. Then he drove us to his house and let us stay there for one week. He bought us new clothes. He fed us every night. He told me: ‘Do not be ashamed. I have also lived through a war. You are now my family and this is your house too.’” (Kos, Greece) (5/6)

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More than 160,000 migrants have arrived in Greece in 2015, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. The influx has created tension among the European Union. With no end to the conflict in sight, countries such as Greece, Germany, and Hungary are struggling to adequately care for asylum seekers.

However, Muhammad’s story ends on a happy note. After living in Austria for seven months, he officially became a citizen.

Muhammad’s pictures have been shared and liked hundreds of thousands of times, with several followers noting how his story will forever change their perspective.

“I promise to remember this man’s story and the millions I’ll never hear,” wrote Facebook user Rachel Harary, “to keep perspective and be thankful every day.”