The human stories behind the refugee crisis

There are over 68 million people across the world who have been forced to flee their homes. Too often we lose sight of the people affected by this global crisis, whose personal stories are otherwise shrouded by statistics.

A commentary for the Global People Movements programme by Hannah Rose Thomas

Published 1 Apr 2019

There are over 68 million people across the world who have been forced to flee their homes. Too often we lose sight of the people affected by this global crisis, whose personal stories are otherwise shrouded by statistics. We must never forget that behind each statistic lies a personal journey and that these people need our compassion and our humanity.

For each and every individual forced to flee their homes, these journeys are motivated by a simple desire that we can all identify with: to build a life free from conflict, oppression, poverty and hunger.

It is easy to perceive these people solely as refugees, an economic burden or terrorist threat. Yet these men, women and children have lives like yours and mine, defined by the same basic human needs, hopes and aspirations.

Over the last few years I’ve had the honour of meeting refugees living in camps in Calais, Jordan, Iraq and Bangladesh. I began to paint their portraits as a way to share some of the human stories behind this global crisis.

In 2014 while organising art projects for Syrian refugees in Jordan through UNHCR, I met a brother and sister from Deraa in Syria. During one of the art projects, they painted their experience of war – the images of tanks, soldiers, dead bodies, and destroyed homes but a glimpse of the trauma they had faced. When asked to paint their hopes for the future, the children drew images of their homes in Syria, indicative of their longing to return back to life as they knew it before the war.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees forcibly displaced by the Civil War have sought refuge in neighboring states, but a small number have made the dangerous journey to Europe. I met Abdul Rahman in what was known as the Calais ‘Jungle’ in December 2015. Abdul had lost his whole family in an airstrike in Homs. He journeyed across Europe alone, hoping to be reunited with his only living relative in the UK. No fifteen year old should have to endure this. Unaccompanied minors are incredibly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

Mohammad, a refugee from Darfur, stands for his portrait outside his shelter and home for four months in the Calais ‘Jungle’. In his hands is a colouring book containing his Arabic poetry. In one of his poems he describes his flight from Sudan – after the Janjaweed burned his village – his journey through the Sahara and across the Mediterranean in a small boat. Eventually he made it to Calais, so close and yet so far from England which he described as ‘balad al-ahlam’ – the land of dreams.

Mohammad’s dream to reach a place of safety and security is one which resonates with us all.

Basse is a Yezidi IDP in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, during an art project for Yezidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity. Basse painted a haunting image of ISIS separating her from her six-year-old daughter. She said: They took her hands out of my hands, and put her into the hands of the enemy…. every day and night I imagine what Daesh are doing to her. One day she may come back, but I know that she won’t recognize me as her mother. Basse has not seen her daughter for three years, her parents or 7 brothers. We can all imagine the anguish of a mother separated from her child.


Samkina is a Rohingya refugee I met in Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh last March. Samkina fled her village in Myanmar after it was surrounded by the military and set ablaze. The military opened fire on the village and her father was killed. In the chaos Samkina managed to escape with her mother, brother and sister. The journey through the jungle took them 14 days, until exhausted they reached the border. They had to travel under the cover of night, terrified of the Myanmar military. She said that even if they found food to eat, the stench of corpses made them vomit.

These paintings are a reflection of the stories of trauma and grief that I have heard and also of the extraordinary strength, resilience and dignity of the human spirit. A Rohingya woman I met expressed her thankfulness to be in Bangladesh, even though conditions in the refugee camps are hard; with overcrowding, insufficient rations or water, stifling heat, monsoon rains and no electricity. She said that here she can sleep in peace, without fear. Here her children have the right to an education. Here they can attend prayers freely, without fear of attack. Here they can live a life of dignity, a life that many of us take for granted.

Dehumanisation has been a primary instrument used to legitimise genocidal violence throughout history, as has been witnessed in Syria and Darfur and endured by the Yezidi and Rohingya communities. These portraits are a small way to re-humanise some of the individuals who are at the heart of these crises. I hope that these paintings remind us of our shared humanity and that we have more in common than what divides us.