1/11,400,000: Humanizing the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Abby Chamberlin

Artwork by Abby Chamberlin

“The Refugee Crisis.” That’s a pretty loaded title. Before the unit on the refugee crisis in a class I’m taking called Global Studies, when I heard about the refugee crisis I immediately thought Syria, Syrian refugees, ISIS. But of course, there is so much more to it than just those few associations. In this unit we looked at the refugee crises that are mainly stemming from conflicts in the Middle East, but rather than focusing on why people were forced to leave, we did a lot of work on the journeys people endured, the places they ended up, and who these people actually are.

I took a quick break from writing this to think and stretch out my hands. I made a fist with one of my hands and then stretched my fingers wide. In a way, this motion reminds me of the refugee crisis. My hand starts in a fist, which is like a population of people (before becoming refugees) living in their own homes, living their normal lives. And then all of a sudden, something huge happens, and these people are forced to leave their homes and, as with the fingers of my hand spreading out wide, they go in all different directions, tailoring their destination to the needs, size, health, and capabilities of their family. But within my hand, to make my fingers spread out, there are endless interactions between cells, nerves, muscles, bones, and probably a million other things that make that action possible. This is true of the refugee crisis as well. There are so many steps that a refugee must take to get from one place to another, starting with deciding in a number of minutes what it is they can carry with them on a long journey, and then getting more and more complicated as they approach borders of countries.

All of the stories we read in my class about different people’s journeys from their homes to some new area were extremely eye opening. It’s easy to see the refugee crisis as simply a number: over 6 million Syrians are internally displaced, almost 5 million have fled the country, leaving more than half of Syria’s pre-civil war population either out of the country, internally displaced, or dead. Yet, when you read a story about an individual person, it’s no longer just a number and instead is someone’s, very much like your own, life.

I read about and watched a short video about a 7-year old girl named Maya. She and her family used to live in Homs, Syria, but now live in the Gaza Building at a refugee camp in Lebanon. I’ve done a project on Maya’s story and I shared it with some of my friends and family, but I still remain really struck by how Maya has maintained so much of her childlike innocence, yet at the same time is completely aware of what is going on in her old home. In the video, Maya talked about where her family lives in this refugee camp. She describes it as always dirty, very smelly, and talks about how she helps her mother clean, yet it always seems to be dirty. She talks about how lonely it is. There are no other children around for her to play with, no place to play even if there were other kids, and so Maya describes this feeling of being surrounded and trapped by the walls around her. Maya said she wished that they would stop the war in Syria, that she just wanted to go home, go to school, and that’s all. It was hard for me to process her story, with the mixing of her childlike innocence shown by her talking about playing with friends, and telling a story about how she ate a whole bushel of bananas one day in Syria, with her awareness of the war tearing apart her home and her status as a refugee. When I was little, I moved from Montana to Maine, a move that seemed life-ending. I was so concerned that I wouldn’t make new friends to play with, that my new house and room wouldn’t be cool. I try to imagine if instead of moving from one comfortable home to another comfortable home with lots of friends in both places, I had had to face something like Maya had to face: being forcibly displaced from my home in a war-torn country and being forced to flee with my family and any belongings I could carry not by car, train, or plane, but most likely by foot, to another country. And I can’t even begin to imagine it.

Watch Maya Tell Her Story:


This feeling of not being able to imagine the scale and scope of an issue is one I found myself experiencing throughout this unit. It was overwhelming: the numbers, the tragic images, the feeling of wanting to help but being unable to do the one thing you really want to, end the violence, fear, tragedy. So I started to think of the crisis in terms of 1 refuge out of 11,400,000, which is still a huge number, but it helped me to feel more connected by having individual faces and names I could learn about. When you read a story about an individual person, it’s no longer just a number and instead is someone’s life, very much like your own at times. That is where I got my idea for the project that will have a few installations in this paper. I have researched band compiled information to form profiles for a number of specific refugees. The profile includes a name, age, description of their journey, and more, and for each refugee there is a collage that ties together this profile. This project has allowed me to put a face under a very large number, humanizing a situation that is so often referred to numerically.