Visiting the refugee camps of Europe is a sobering experience. And a few weeks ago, that is exactly what I did when I travelled to Europe to meet some of the migrants making their way slowly across the continent. As a documentary photographer, I have always been driven by a desire to tell the stories behind the headlines.
And when it comes to the current crisis, there have been plenty of headlines. Refugees, economic migrants, terrorists, victims. These are all terms which have been used to describe, and categorise, the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. But people are more than a category, and I was interested in digging deeper into the experiences of those individuals, to hear their stories for myself.
My journey began where those of many refugees comes to an abrupt end, at the vast refugee camp of Calais of Western France. Known as the «Jungle», it is home to thousands, mostly young men, trying to make their way to the United Kingdom.
It isn’t just the squalor which makes the jungle such a desperate place to exist. After all, squalor exists all around the world and yet people are still able to build lives for themselves. Instead, it was the lack of hope in the eyes of people I met which
made it such a difficult sight to witness; people for whom an existence of dirt, mud and raw sewage is still preferable to the conditions they have escaped.
Used as political pawns in a game of Chess being played between governments of the world, these refugees have been rejected, ostracised and moved along by each of the countries they have passed through in their search for safety and a better life. They have seen their hopes and dreams slowly fade as the miles have passed behind them.
The thing which struck me most though, as I talked to some of the people living in the jungle, is how ordinary those hopes were. These were not people searching for streets paved with gold. They were simply hoping to walk streets free from explosive devices. People like Hawa. At just 16 years old, he was like any teenager I might meet anywhere in the world.
Originally from Iran, Hawa had watched two of his friends publicly executed in the streets. He wasn’t sure what his friends had been convicted of, but when he heard the authorities were looking for him, he didn’t wait around to find out, he simply
fled. Now he was hoping to travel to England because he studied English at school and it was the only foreign language he felt comfortable with. That word, «hope», was a recurring theme of my journey.
The further east I travelled, the more hope I found. Leaving the desperation of the jungle behind, I followed the same route many refugees have taken, but in reverse, all the way to the camps of Greece. Having crossed by Aegean Sea from Turkey in tiny rubber boats, the shores of Greece marks one of the most popular entry point into Europe.
Unlike those I met in the camps of France, the people arriving in Greece were still full of hope and expectation. People like Amena. I met her at a make shift camp near the border of Greece and Macedonia. «I never wantedto leave», she told me, «you wouldn’t believe how beautiful my country was before the war came.» Not that she was able to see what was happening to her country, she hadn’t been outside the family home for longer than she could remember.
Because Ameena lived in the heart of an ISIS controlled territory in Syria. «It was too dangerous», she explained. It wasn't the danger from the war ravishing her beloved country she was talking about though. It was the risk of being kidnapped, and forcibly married to an ISIS fighter.
«They were coming in to the homes of all the unmarried girls, and taking them away. But my family hid me.» And while she hid, her family quietly sold everything they owned to pay the smugglers to help them escape, to Europe. «AllI want is to finish my studies, bewith my family, and be safe», she told me. «Finally we are safe.» I didn’t have the heart to tell her, in many ways the hardest part of her journey was just beginning.
When I first set out for the refugee camps of Europe, I couldn’t help but hold preconceived ideas about the people I was likely to encounter. But what I discovered was that behind the headlines, behind the categories, refugees are first, and foremost, people. Often very ordinary people, with the same hopes and dreams as you and I; to live free from the threat of tyranny and war, to build better lives for their families.
I left the camps with a question which continues to dominate my thoughts on the refugees; what would I do if I had been born in Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan? Would I stay? Or would I, too, leave in search of a better life. What would any of us do?
Related article on this subject Diaporama: A visit of the refugee camp of Calais
Paul Choy is a documentary photographer. Born in the United Kingdom from parents of Mauritian and British origin, the author left his birth country to settle in Mauritius with his family.