Last year I rebooted the #ServiceSunday initiative on The Smile Project blog. I had a great time interviewing world shakers from all walks of life. From the cartoonist making children smile in hospitals to the college students determined to get soap in every school to the woman rebuilding a village in Nepal, I have been very fortunate to connect with some absolutely amazing people.
It’s been a while since I was aggressively following anyone who had even the aura of “social good” around them, but sometimes, you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
I have, for a long time, been a big fan of Humans of New York and when I say “fan,” I should mention, I’m borderline obsessed. One night, I was scrolling through the Facebook feed when I read that Brandon Stanton, the man behind the camera, would be giving a talk at the Union Square Barnes and Noble with Melissa Fleming. They would be discussing her new book A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea about a Syrian refugee named Doaa Al Zamel.
The event was amazing. I bought the book and read the first chapter while I was waiting for the talk to begin. I was having an amazing, cultural, and educational night. At the end of the night, while groups congregated to discuss and lines formed for the book signing, I found myself talking with Shayanne. Shayanne had been the girl to ask the first question at the Q&A session – always an admirable trait. Even more admirable, she had just returned from volunteering with refugees overseas. And one more brag on her behalf? She and a friend started an organization while they were there called Voices of Refugee.
This is their story:
Interview with Shayanne Gal and Clara Veale
*Note – clicking on any of the photos below will take you to the Voices of Refugees website and specifically the subject of the photograph’s story. All media content is property of Voices of Refugees.
1. Let’s start in traditional Smile Project fashion: give me a “Happiness is!”
Happiness is safety, shelter, and being surrounded by loved ones and family.
2. Tell me a little bit about your organization. How did you get started? What do you do?Voices of Refugees is a collection of stories from refugees around the world revealing the human perspective behind the global refugee crisis. Men, women, and children, each with their own unique stories, are risking their lives seeking refuge from conflict and violence. Along their journeys to safety, many have found themselves stranded in camps for months on end, or struggling for years to maintain a steady life due to endless bureaucratic limbo. Our project aims at shedding a light on individual stories, through the various mediums of photography, texts, audio and video, in an effort to expose the realities of human displacement. The project began during our time volunteering on the ground in refugee camps in Greece. We both met in Greece with a preliminary interest in learning more about the refugee crisis first-hand - more specifically, we wanted to learn more about people’s personal accounts of their experiences, from fleeing conflict with all the distresses of the journey, and the long periods of waiting for administrative documents, as well as attempting to build a new life in their host countries. This interest went hand in hand with our passions for using photography and stories to advocate for social justice and share collective experiences.
Upon our first encounter, we instantly clicked on the idea of documenting the crisis in a different light. We both felt that the way the refugee crisis was portrayed in the general media lacked the human perspective, a crucial factor that motivates awareness among our global community. After spending some time working on the ground at the camp, we felt compelled to share the simultaneously raw, beautiful, distressing, and profoundly human stories of the people we had shared our hours with each day. This led to the creation of the Voices of Refugees platform in November 2016. Since then, Voices of Refugees has expanded far beyond the refugee camp we volunteered at, acting as a collaborative global series that motivates action and solidarity around the world.
Currently, we both conduct interviews with refugees who want to share their stories on our platform, as well as edit and help publish stories that are submitted to the platform from individual refugees or other contributors. We both run the platform on Facebook, Instagram, and most recently, we launched our new platform on the web. Click here!
3. What is the driving force behind what you do?
We share individual refugee stories on Voices of Refugees in an effort to expose the realities of human displacement and allow people from around the world to engage and become aware of some of the hardships people face when forced to flee their homes. In sharing these stories, we hope to give refugees a voice, and at minimum, a sense of dignity and respect from the global community that engages with the project and each individual story.
In the long term, we anticipate Voices of Refugees ideally continuing to gather more followers and engagement as a platform, as well as becoming a larger medium for refugees and contributors to share their stories. Our vision is to create a communal space for all different types of narratives on human displacement in our current global society. We hope to build and maintain a community where the contributors and the readers can collectively engage in bringing real change to the lives of refugees impacted by crisis.
4. What does “service” mean to you?
To us, “service” is having the opportunity to use our passions and skills, here photography and writing, towards impacting and creating a medium for those people who feel underrepresented, and sometimes forgotten, and those whose perspectives are not often reflected within the general media. Service is also about building a community that fights for human rights and justice for all human beings.
5. So many people get so paralyzed by this feeling of helplessness when they look at such a big Humanitarian crisis such as this. What can people do to help?
In order to help, we believe the first step is to better understand the individual perspectives of refugees affected by the crisis, through engaging with and spreading the word about the Voices of Refugees platform.
We encourage learning more about the situation in Syria and in the Middle East, as well as the refugee crisis from trustworthy news outlets, rather than tabloid, for-profit media. We recommend resources like Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart, The Syrian Civil War breakdown, Amnesty International’s or Medecins sans Frontieres’ special reports on the situation on the ground, and short films about the refugee crisis.
If you are willing and able to take your support one step further, there are many organizations on the ground that run crucial programs in camps that support refugees in various ways. Here are a few we believe are contributing positively to the camps we are familiar with who could benefit from financial donations:
ECHO100Plus is an NGO working in Ritsona Refugee camp and on Leros Island with the distribution of food, clothes, shoes, hygiene products and other items such as blankets, headlights, and tarps. ECHO100Plus is entirely dependent on the support of donations, and you can donate easily by visiting their webpage.
LightHouse Relief is also a small scale organization, focusing on services for women and children. They are present in several camps across Greece and set up safe spaces for women and children, as well as provide educational and recreational activities. You can learn more about their programs and donate to them on their website.
If you are interested in donating to larger organizations that have operations in the whole of Greece, we recommend you donate to either Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders or Médecins du Monde/Doctors of the World. Both organizations work on medical services, providing crucial resources in the camps, and are well known for their independence vis-a-vis larger funded bodies and political conditions.
6. Do you have a favorite quote from the camps?
One of our favorite quotes that we feel accurately represents the paradoxes and the struggles of the refugees throughout crisis is from Farhad, a 20 year old from Aleppo, Syria. When we asked him what he felt was the hardest part of being a refugee, he told us, “For me the worst thing is not the food, the cold, the tents, or even the bad medical services. The worst thing is the uncertainty. Every day we wonder where we will be sent to. Our relocation interview is in 3 months, but then we will probably have to wait longer to know where we will go. If I knew how long we had to wait, it would make life easier because we would know when we are leaving. If I knew which country we will be sent to, I would start now to learn the language of the country, so I can start studying and working as soon as I get there. But now we’re just waiting and waiting and waiting.”
This sentiment really depicts the continuous plight of refugees, who even once they’ve fled their countries and everything they have ever known, end up tied to extensive bureaucratic processes that effectively keep families separated for unnecessarily long periods of time and inhibit proper integration for refugees who want to serve their future communities as contributing members of society.
7. How can people get involved with Voices of Refugees?/Are there any links to your social media, etc. that I can use to promote you?
Additionally, at Voices of Refugees, we are always welcome to submissions of stories from refugees themselves, but also storytellers, journalists, or photographers. We encourage anyone with a unique voice to add to this narrative, to submit photos, stories, or videos to email@example.com.
8. Anything else you’d like to add?
Voices of Refugees aims at sharing refugee stories from all around the globe, and as such, strives to shed a light on stories and crisis that are less well-known or acknowledged in the general media. It is important for our readers and the international community to recognize the plight of refugees from Syria and Iraq, just as it is important not to forget the struggles of refugees fleeing places like Burma, Balochistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, and other locations where the conflicts and violence may have spread out over decades and remain less visible.