We Need To Talk About HONY.

Many of us have been following, with increasing sadness, the news stories about the current ‘refugee crisis’ that have been flooding the Internet for the past few months. While we might have a basic understanding of what the term ‘refugee crisis’ means, no one can comprehend or picture the approximately 59.5 million displaced people around the world who leave their homes (42,500 a day) with the desperate hope of escaping civil war, religious persecution or economic devastation. We came close when the harrowing picture of Aylan Kurdi went viral; his tiny body washed up on a European beach seemed to awaken something in us all. Suddenly we decided to take notice. It wasn’t just ‘migrants’ who were risking their lives to cross the sea, they were people; they were children.

One man who is attempting to help us see the faces behind the headlines is Brandon Stanton, the creator of the website Humans of New York. His page on Facebook of the same name currently has 15,472,724 million ‘likes’ and his posts are generally shared upwards of 10,000 times. If you’re not familiar with HONY then you can check out his Facebook page here. Brandon takes pictures of people he finds out and about in NYC, and posts them to Facebook with either a quote from their conversation or brief interview with them. The page has posted stories of drug abuse, depression and loss as well as quotes about love, determination and hope. He has published pictures of first dates and first steps alongside profiles of men losing their livelihoods to soaring property prices in Williamsburg and women speaking frankly about their fears.

While Stanton built his HONY empire by exclusively photographing people on the streets of New York, he is presently travelling through Europe with a translator (a man he previously interviewed for HONY – read his original story here and a further story here) in an effort to raise awareness that the ‘refugee crisis’ is not just a front page feature, but is in fact one of the most momentous humanitarian disasters of our time.

Brandon Stanton and HONY are telling stories that are unimaginable and haunting. There is a story of a boy who watched four of his friends die after being hit by a rocket, and of a woman who lost her husband during the horrific crossing from Turkey to Greece.

There are a few stories of hope sprinkled among the tragic; like the interview with a baker in Kos who brings loaves of bread to refugees at the dock because he knows what they’re going through. He says “I still go everyday because I know what it feels like to have nothing”. He himself spent forty days on a boat trying to get to Australia “because my family didn’t have enough to eat”. A young UNHCR (United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees) worker tells Stanton that even though she usually works in a desk postion: "yesterday I was helping an Afgan woman carry her child across the Serbian border". The UNHCR takes anyone with a useful skill to the field during an emergency mission, this woman speaks some Farsi and so is able to communicate with some of the refugees.  

The thing that binds the stories together on the HONY page is the repeated reference to the plastic boat which brought these people to Greece, or which is responsible for their loss of life on the way. Smugglers sell a seat on these boats, filled many times over their capacity, for around $1500 per person. Men, women and children are loaded into them without a guarantee of safe crossing, in fact they are loaded into these boats knowing that they may not meet the shore. Brandon Stanton writes on the HONY page that “often the refugees arrive with nothing but horror stories”, the boats usually leave at night in order to avoid detection. It is terrifying and incomprehensible.

Brandon has embarked on an incredible journey, and I am personally so grateful that he has allowed his followers to join him on it. Without the pictures and interviews he posts I would be able to shake my head at the television when I hear about yet another drowning off the coast of Greece and – as callous as it sounds – move on. I can’t do that anymore, now that I’ve seen the face of a little girl who was chased through the woods by the Turkish police, and read the story of a man who drove for ten hours to get his brother to a hospital after he was shot by a sniper. I can’t shake my head and forget about them. 

You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.



To donate to the UNHCR, please click on this link

All images courtesy of Brandon Stanton and Humans of New York (Facebook).