Humanizing the refugee crisis | Brian Sokol | TEDxSanDiego

Translator: Zsófia Herczeg In August of 2012, I was in a tent very near the North-South
border between Sudans. It was the first time
that I’d been in a refugee camp. It was a bit past midnight, and sitting just to the left
of my computer screen was a half-consumed bottle
of very warm vodka, and on the screen in front of me
was this photograph. This was the photograph
that I had been sent here to take. I’d climbed up onto a pole
in order to get to a vantage point where you could see the queue of people
extending toward the horizon. Thousands of faces waiting
to take up mosquito nets, peanut butter supplements, dried lentils. And looking at that photograph, I began to feel nauseous. I thought I might throw up into my screen,
and maybe it was the vodka. But I think it was actually
this vast gulf, this huge disconnect between everything that I had seen
and experienced over that past week and that picture
that was staring back at me. There’s a very specific kind of photograph
that is a “refugee photo.” You’ll know it if you’ve seen one, and you’ll know as a photographer
that you’ve succeeded in taking one if it looks exactly like every iconic
refugee photograph that came before. These pictures are quite clear. You can usually tell one
by the presence of either dust or rain. There are usually tired people
carrying bundles. Sometimes there are leaky boats, and there’s usually fences
or coils of barbed wire. Now these photographs
aren’t necessarily bad, in fact, they can be quite powerful. Problem is that these
photographs are one sided. There is a reason that they exist. These photographs can and do posses
the power to shock us into attention, to illuminate crises that might otherwise
continue to be ignored. But what they did not do is challenge our beliefs
and our preconceptions. If I were to look at these photographs,
these photographs that I’ve taken, what I’d be able to tell you
about refugees is that they are generally
hungry and tired. And I don’t know if I can tell you
much more than that. I don’t know if I would have any idea
that refugees also get married, that refugees attend birthday parties and refugees, yes,
refugees have Facebook accounts. Now, the Western narrative of refugees, which has become the dominant,
the only narrative of refugees, has the effect of reducing
people into victims and reducing stories into mere tales
of one dimensional pity and sorrow. We’re spoon-fed repetitious images
that match the stereotypes, and as the Nigerian novelist
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “The problem with stereotypes
is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” The United Nations, various NGO’s,
and the media also love statistics. Statistics exist for a reason. They’re meant to give weight and gravity
to crisis, to help us to understand. But how often do we use statistics in order to describe the things
or the people that we love? Now let’s say we were in this horrible,
horrible parallel universe, a universe in which you
had no idea what a puppy is, and I were to explain to you
what a puppy is through statistics. So you should know that a puppy
has 17 vertebrae in its tail, its shoulder height is roughly 28 cm, and the circumference
of its paws is 34.32 mm. Do you now know what a puppy is? Now compare that to just playing
with a dog for 30 seconds, or reading the account of a little girl who took her puppy to the park
for the very first time, or to the snow. My point is this: that we learn not so much
from data or statistics as we do from stories and experiences. And yes, in case you’re wondering,
that’s my new puppy. (Laughter) Her name’s Cabbage. She’s great. The other thing that you
should know about statistics is that while they’re intended
to quantify humanity, they usually dehumanize the people that they are
entrusted with and accounting for. They already tell you that 2.1 million people
over the past year have fled from South Sudan
across the border into Uganda – 2.1 million. Now, maybe your brain is bigger than mine
and you can really conceive those numbers, but for me, that number gets lost. Unless I can attach it to an actual
flesh and blood human being, it really doesn’t have any meaning. That’s because there’s a big difference
between knowledge and information. And I think that what we need in order to understand
something of this scale, things like the refugee crisis, are not statistics; they’re not numbers, but they’re stories,
stories of individual people. So let’s go back to that tent. It’s two o’clock in the morning, the vodka bottle is down
to about a third now. I’m sitting there plugging in captions
to the really dramatic photograph that I’ve just captured. I’m saying there are 234,000 people
that have crossed that border. And while that number is completely
factual, it’s completely true, there’s something that rings
within me as dishonest about what it is that I am doing. I think it is because when I was there, the thing that was not so impressive
was the scale of the number of refugees. It wasn’t how many there were, it wasn’t how much they were suffering. It was the fact that as I walked around
photographing day in and day out, I was followed by laughter and smiles – in this place which I had no ability
to believe that would happen – that there were children playing
everywhere I went, just like anywhere else. The kids were finding little bits
of sandal and picking up sticks in order to make cars that they were driving
around in the camps, or collecting discarded bits of netting
in order to make soccer balls and play. And the emotion that welled up within me
as I interacted with these people, it wasn’t pity. It wasn’t even sympathy. It was respect. I was amazed to find that this was not just
a one-dimensional horror show and that these people
were not just mere victims, that they were actually
dignified individuals. I’d only been told one story
about refugee camps beforehand, and that was one of horror. And it wasn’t true, wasn’t entirely true. The greater thing is that in this place
where people had lost so much – people who had lost their children,
lost their homes, lost their flocks, lost their fields, and were now living
in tents in a foreign country surrounded by strangers – that not only did they
maintain their dignity, the human heart is so big that these people have maintained
the ability to love. And at this point, I was
quite ashamed with myself. I was ashamed of the photographs
that I was taking, that were reducing
these people to stereotypes, that were turning them
into the exact same things that had only evoked fear and pity in me. So what did I do? I changed. I decided that rather than telling the story
of 234,000 nameless, faceless refugees, I would simply tell
the story of one person. I’d tell it in a way
that audiences around the world, regardless of what culture
they might be from, what the color of their skin was, would be able to empathize
with that person, would hopefully be able to put themselves into the shoes of a refugee
for just one moment. And the idea was very, very simple: I just asked refugees
to tell me their story and tell me what was the single,
most important object that they brought with them
when they fled from their home and their country. The project that evolved out of this
is called “The most important thing,” and I’d like to share some of the stories of the people
that I met with you through it. This is Dowla. I met Dowla in South Sudan. She’d fled several weeks before this
from her home in the village of Gabanit after her home was bombed. Dowla was the mother of six children, and the most important thing
that she brought with her is the pole you can see draped
across her shoulders with those two baskets. Sometimes she had to carry
two children in each basket as she was walking with another one
dangling from her back and then another walking beside her, as she made the 10-day journey
by mountain trails. This is Leila. I met Leila in northern Iraq
just as winter was beginning to come. She, her family and three other families were living in a roofless
concrete structure. And Leila told me that the scariest thing in Syria
was the voice of the tanks. “It was even more scary
than the sound of the planes because I felt like the tanks
were coming specifically for me.” The most important thing
that Leila brought with her are the jeans that she is carrying here. She says, “I went shopping
with my parents and look for hours without finding
anything that I liked, but when I saw these jeans,
I instantly knew they were perfect because they have flowers,
and I love flowers.” She’d only worn them
three times in her life, all in Syria: twice at weddings and one time
when her grandfather came to visit. She told me that she didn’t want
to wear them again until she attended another wedding, and she hoped that that one too
would be in Syria. This is Sebastian. Sebastian was seven when his family fled
Angola’s War of Independence, and they crossed into
the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was more than 60 years ago. Sebastian told me,
“I remember that it was cold and that my father gave me
his jacket to keep me warm. I was wearing it as we crossed the border, and every time that I see it,
even now as I’m telling you this story, I’m reminded of him and Angola. The day that we cross back into Angola,
I will have it with me, and I will remember my father. I will wear it because I’m now
a father myself. Two weeks later,
Sebastian went home to Angola. But not everyone is so lucky. Today there are 65 plus million people who have been forced
from their homes by war. 65 million people. That’s more than during World War II. It’s the greatest number
at any point in recorded history. Put that in other terms, that’s nearly one
out of 100 people on earth. And I’d like to share
one more story with you, one more story of 65 million people. This is the story of my friend Fayiz. Fayiz is a person who’s not very different
from any of the people in this room today, and I think that rather than me
telling you about Fayiz, he should do so in his own words
and his own voice. [The situation in Syria
was very complicated.] [They had killed kids.] [So just imagine yourself coming
to your house, finding your kids …] [I couldn’t sleep.] [I left everything.] [My name is Fayiz.
I’m from a small village in Syria.] [I’m an English teacher.] [KAWERGOSK REFUGEE CAMP, NORTHERN IRAQ] [I didn’t choose to be a refugee.] [Here in this camp
I feel safe for my children] [because I know that no one
will come and kill them.] [Before the conflict started in Syria,] [we were watching refugees
all around the world -] [especially in Africa.] [But I never thought
that I will be a refugee.] [A refugee is a person.] [He’s not from here.] [His tradition is different from ours.] [A refugee, also he is a human being.] [He has friends, he has emotions,] [has everything that God gives
a human being.] [A refugee is just a political name.] [We are dreaming every day of our houses
or the friends that we left.] [The future is completely destroyed
for me and my wife.] [But my kids,] [in five years maybe,
we can build a future for them.] [And they have time to forget,
to prepare themselves,] [to rebuild, to, you know, repair.] [So their dreams,] [better to take care of their dreams.] The stories that you’ve heard tonight,
this afternoon, have all been ones of war, but war isn’t the only thing
that drives people out of their homes. Many of the refugees around the world
have fled because of who they love, have had to leave their homes
and their countries because of the color of their skin or the ethnic group
into which they were born. So now, in this age where fear and xenophobia
can very quickly morph into policy, it’s more important than ever
that we remember that it’s not only tanks and bombs
that can force us from our homes. So the next time
that you see a photograph, a dramatic one
of large numbers people that are sad and carrying bundles, or the next time you hear a story, a very simple one
full of shocking statistics about a group who you
may not understand very well, ask for more. Think of Leila and think of Fayiz. And remember, this isn’t numbers, it’s people. I’d like to leave you with a question: If you had 30 seconds
before you had to run, carrying whatever you could climb out the window
at the back of your house and go out into the night,
perhaps never to return, what would you bring with you? What’s your most important thing? Thank you. (Applause)

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Reader Comments

  1. Zeleros71324

    Thanks, but no thanks

    Too many eastern ideologies are incompatible with Western civilization, and too many of them want to keep those ideologies

  2. Steph

    I think people should really take into consideration that at one possible moment their great grandparents could have been a refugee. Their husband/ wife could have possibly been a refugee. Respect these people understand them. Always put yourself into someone else's shoes before you say something mean.

  3. Charles Dickens

    How Rome Fell in 3 Steps:
    1) Germanic tribes mass migrated into Rome due to attacks from Huns, et al.
    2) Rome opened its borders
    3) Migrants didn't stop pouring in. Rome became less Roman over time. It weakened. And then it fell. Forever.

  4. Feta Cheezz

    i think you mean the illegal immigration crisis where third world illegals fail to integrate and live off welfare from tax paying white men.

  5. Deflandre

    No, thanks for refugees. I've seen hundreds of them in Budapeszt back in Sept 2015, saw them in Brussels and last thing i want is welcome them. Greetings from Poland.

  6. Nawras Ali

    Thank you
    As a refugee I can relate to everything Brian said, and I hope that this massage spread and people could consider those unfortunate people as human beings and not just statistics and definitely not a stereotype.
    Waiting for the translation in the video.

  7. Paula Reed


  8. Paula Reed


  9. Tivhal

    Great speech! Just like the FBI director James Comey said: "It's hard to hate up close". I don't think there would be something as a refugee crisis if everyone, the locals and the refugees themselves would just respect each other. Integration could be so easy, but people prefer to hate others because of prejudices, simply because that's easier.

  10. Poker Snob

    Heart breaking…. Everyone deserves the opportunity to provide for their family, but what can average joes do to help country’s in disarray?


    Brian ,Sokol, Thankyou With All My Heart for Bringng This Magnificent Country to the for ,I Hope That Society Will Contribute to Solving its Problems ,Iam, Hissen, Daoud ,Sudanese

  12. Dimmed Diamond

    This is not a solution. The same people that cry about refugees are themselves creating them. As if they're purposefully destroying entire countries just so they can get mass migrations into NATO states.
    Instead of humanizing refugees, lets demonize the EU and NATO for creating them.

  13. Leonard Wong

    Elections are a 1 man 1 vote system. Let in too many refugees/illegals and you risk being outvoted. Remember… they will reproduce too. Also… if terrorists and criminals are hidden among refugees, they could gradually increase in numbers and vote their agents into your government. This causes social problems which in turn ruins your economy too. Every country's government must be responsible for their own people. There are other ways to help.

  14. Sakina Shaikh

    Writing a Cheque takes away guilt, but paying attention to them looking at their faces for a second longer is priceless, makes you think and feel their pain, thank you Brian!

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