A look inside Syrian refugee homes By Andrew Reed Weller

The process of making these photographs in Turkey required establishing certain level of trust. My method involved approaching wary, sometimes traumatized Syrian refugees and asking them to let me into their homes. I usually worked with a translator and, later in the project, had the help of local NGOs that already had established relationships with the refugees. This was not quickly snapping a photo of a stranger on the street; it was gaining access to people’s most intimate spaces. Some people simply said no and asked me to go away, others asked for money, many cited fear of reprisal from the Assad regime, some told of previous bad experiences with journalists. A few were happy to talk politics or ask me about New York City but casually declined my request to photograph. Many people I met, however, welcomed me as if I was a long-lost cousin. Women hurried to tidy up, which I asked them not to do, children crowded behind me as I adjusted the frame and checked exposure, and the men watched with mild interest from a distance. After shooting for a few moments, I would usually be told to sit and offered tea or coffee, sometimes even a meal

© Andrew Reed WellerThe conversations I had in these homes covered the conflict that was taking place sometimes only 20 or 30 miles away, the U.S.’s reluctance to get involved in Syria, and the difficult realities of trying to settle in a new country where one cannot legally work and does not speak the language. A group of older men, clearly wise and respected and apparently once affluent landowners, vented their anger at the political situation towards me, as if I were some powerful advisor to the American president. One man, whose arms had to be amputated after grabbing a live wire while fleeing a government air raid with his daughter, said he could really use $150 to pay rent. I visited a rehabilitation clinic and met a young rebel fighter, bedridden from three pieces of shrapnel lodged in the back of his head. I asked if he regretted getting involved and he quickly responded that he did not, that he would fight and die for the cause of removing the despotic Al-Assad from power and creating a brighter future for the children of Syria. A sad-looking man from Aleppo lay immobile in one hospital bed, his hands folded over his chest. He politely said he’d rather not talk; the doctor later told me he was a civilian and had been shot in the spine by a sniper, and would be paralyzed for life as a result. The following day I hitched a ride in a van belonging to a Turkish NGO as they distributed bread to homes that dotted the countryside. At one house I met a woman who had been an English teacher in Syria but now did manual labor on a farm. Separated from her husband as he suffered an unknown fate across the border, and with two young children clutching at her dress, she locked eyes with me and said in perfect English, “We have no hope.”

© Andrew Reed WellerAnd then there was Mohammed, a well educated and cosmopolitan 24-year old from Damascus who was working for an NGO near the border. We met on several occasions and eventually he took me to a quiet place and flipped through some grainy photos on his ageing cellphone. They showed him and other young men dressed in fatigues, with black-and-white checked keffiyehs draped over their shoulders or wrapped around their heads. Many shots depicted these fighters showing off AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. Mohammed told me their names and which ones were now dead. At least one image was from an actual battlefield – a comrade, killed in action, bloodied and coated in fine white dust.

© Andrew Reed WellerMohammed explained that in Damascus he has been part of a special assassination unit that targeted high-ranking members of the Syrian Army as well as government officials. My new friend told me that sometimes he was an atheist; he was so fed up with how religion is distorted and manipulated that it would be easier to just forget about it. Then he relented and said that he was a believer, that Islam is a beautiful religion, that real jihad is an internal process about the betterment of self, and creating a just and peaceful society is in fact our duty to God.

Another day, Mohammed showed me some photos on his work computer. I saw his parents, a girl he used to have a crush on, his home in Damascus. There was a group shot of his large family. He pointed out his brother and sister-in-law and their children, then told me what had happened to them. A year or so into the revolution, the regime had suspected the brother of something, so arrested the entire immediate family and seized the money in their bank account, the house, and several cars. For months they were not heard from, and later Mohammed found out that his brother and two nieces, both under the age of 10, had died in government custody. At that point, he said, Mohammed decided to join the effort to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad.

© Andrew Reed WellerMohammed eventually put down his gun and fled to Turkey with his parents, and was now focused on helping refugee children, many of whom are orphans. He spoke of missing the excitement of battle, how he felt he had betrayed his brothers in arms by leaving. He said he was still a part of their support network, and that with a couple Whatsapp messages he could easily get intel on what was happening at any checkpoint in Damascus. On my last day at the border, I came to the NGO’s headquarters for an event that Mohammed had helped put together. Around a hundred kids showed up and there was a big inflatable slide, people dressed up as cartoon characters, face-painting, shawarmas and cotton candy. Arabic pop music blared out of a PA, accompanied by the occasional revolutionary anthem. The children ran amuck, laughed in delight, cried when their balloons broke, crashed from sugar highs, found comfort in their mothers and caregivers. At the end of the day, Mohammed asked what I thought of the party. I told him that it was fun, how it felt good to see these children smiling. I posed the same question and he looked away, clenched his jaw and said, “Yeah man, but they deserve so much more than this.”

In today’s shameful climate of suspicion, Islamophobia, and even outright racism, I often think of the people I met while taking these photographs. Honorable people who offered me protection, guidance, and hospitality. Their willingness to trust me and the kindness that followed. The beauty of our common humanity, the ease with which a smile can cross any barrier. I think of Mohammed, and how his life might have unfolded if born in the peaceful land that I call home, and often take for granted. How even now he would make a wonderful neighbor – a man who wishes to protect and provide for his family, to serve his community, to practice a faith that fills him with strength and goodness. For my friend Mohammed, and for an entire nation beset by death and chaos, I too might even have to look to some God for a bit of hope.

About Andrew Reed Weller:

I am a self-taught photographer originally from Cleveland Heights, Ohio and currently living in New York City. The roots of my interest in photography can be traced back to an experience I had as a teenager, when I looked though a book called Magnum 1968. This book features work created by some of the grand masters of photojournalism in what was a particularly eventful and restive year in many parts of the world. As I looked through these photos, I realized that, as a photographer, one gets to witness and experience, first hand, the history that is unfolding in the day to day. And during my development as a man wandering the globe with a camera, a personal and professional growth process which is certainly ongoing, I came to understand that good photographers don’t merely document the history that he or she may come across; rather, it is up to them to interpret it for those who cannot be there, as well as for the generations to come. This, I suppose, is my aspiration. With dedication and a healthy dose of luck, perhaps one day I will take one photograph that might meet this criteria. 

To connect with Andrew, please follow him on Instagram and visit his website.

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27 comments

  • This is a sad but beautifully written story about the reality of the situation in Syria; thank you for sharing it. My heart goes out to all of those suffering and who have lost so much.

  • Moved me to tears. I wish that there was something I could do for these people other than just commenting on a website. But I have to believe that there is some benefit in reading about these horrors and caring. What affected me the most was the spirit of these people. The unwillingness to give up their country to a group of people that they don’t believe represent them or their interests. As a Muslim, Mohammed’s sentiments are something I’ve faced a lot recently. Not so much not believing in God but questioning why he causes so much suffering and pain. It’s obviously not a question that will be answered any time soon or ever but I just wanted to thank you for these stories and photographs. Revolutions occur because we believe as a society that it is an unavoidable situation, that life cannot continue the way it currently is. That today’s struggle is bad but through this movement and revolution, maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be just a little bit less painful and for many, this sliver of hope is worth it. Thank you again for going where no one wants to go and listening to the voices that so many others want to drown out.

    Doha

    • Hi Doha, thanks for your response. I’m glad the work touched you in some way. There is indeed a feeling of hopelessness when one comes across these situations in far-off places. I agree with you about that sliver of hope in revolution – and I think the fighters I met would also agree. However the realities of a protracted war, and the necessary involvement of innocent people who have no allegiance to either side, make it hard to keep focused on that final idealistic goal. Regarding the spirit of the people you mentioned, I felt that much of their character came from faith. So I hope that you as a Muslim can share in that reserve of strength. I think the first revolution one can work on is in oneself, and the result is the same as any manifestation of true faith: to be good to yourself, good to your family, and good to those around you. Thanks for looking and all the best.

      -ARW

  • Thank you. More people need to “humanize”, the events. We only think of the refugee crisis in broad terms or in sound bites like the media. We don’t take time to remind ourselves these are people. People. If we can humanize make it seem personal to us, to emotional invest in what is happening, maybe we can also use our voices as well.

    • I agree with you. Too often the refugee crisis has been narrowed down to mere numbers, for example (here in Canada) “the government will accept 25 000 refugees by so-and-so date” and “x-amount of refugees have landed in Europe this year”. While these numbers allow us to imagine the magnitude of the problem, it does not evoke our compassion like pictures and stories of individuals who are directly experiencing these hardships

    • You are exactly right Steve, and that was my objective in making these photos and also the writing. Such personal stories are the threads with which some larger history is woven. I’ve actually found books, and not photos, to do this most effectively – one called No Good Men Among The Living comes to mind. Thank you for your comment.

  • Andrew, this is a great piece, showing both humanity and the horror of war. What’s happening in Syria is a tragedy that scarecly anybody could have imagined a few years ago… Thanks for writing this and taking the time to visit them.

  • I am content to see a smile on faces of children in your post. I want to read about the life of children in these refugee homes, their education, their playgrounds, their toys, their future plans.

  • this really touched my heart….these days people are getting fulfilled with all there necessities but still they complain….those people should learn from these kids

  • Beautiful, sad pictures and great article. I recently saw the Vice episode about the refugees on HBO and it really shows you just how hard life is for these people. They get shunned and turned away everywhere they go and after the Paris attacks the anti-refugee rhetoric exploded even more…

  • In today’s world it is so easy to dismiss what other people are going through until you assign a face with the devastation. My heart goes out to these poor souls who just want to live an ordinary life. Beautiful pictures and stories.

  • A great post that brought me such sadness when I see what these good people have endured. But your photos have brought colour and hope too that things can get better

  • Thank you for the nice piece of writing and the photos! People need to read more of these kind of piece and see these shots to see Syrian war is a real sad tragedy which impact people’s life for many many years!

  • You really are a brave person by doing that kind of thing and sharing to the public your private experience should be given an utmost praise because, it’s not just anybody who can do that. Your heart goes with your work— Thanks for this priceless piece.

  • All my prayers in that innocent people who have being in this situations because they. Red to be happy again and no being worried is a strange with gums will get in there house I will pray for all those who are suffering in that bad thing I think we all need to be together and help that people by posting things like that God bless you for being a brave person and help that people

  • This is the view that more people in America and any other country need to hear. Hope there are more amazing posts like this, cause this is something that needs to be heard.

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