Campaign: CHIME FOR CHANGE

The Biggest Refugee Crisis of All Times

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

In 2015, I travelled as a photographer to the island of Lesbos in Greece, with my company Vignette Interactive for the International Rescue Committee. We were possibly documenting the biggest refugee crisis of our time and it was unlike any assignment I have ever had. Hundreds of thousands of individuals mostly fleeing Syria, had crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. On average, 3,300 people were arriving everyday with next to nothing, tumbling off inflatable boats, hugging their families upon arrival, crying with joy and fear and sadness. Then they would pick up what little possessions they managed to hold onto, something to remind them they are a person not only a refugee.

When I first arrived in Lesbos, there was a lull in the number of refugees coming in on the boats as the Turkish navy had put up a blockade to try and stop people coming into Greece. Instead, refugees arrived late at night and early in the morning -- no one was going to stop them.

Now, two years later, the Syrian refugee crisis has 11 million displaced people during six years of war. In the meantime, residents of Lesbos Island have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as recognition of their humanism. An 85-year- old grandmother who fed children on the beach and a local fisherman who rescued scores of refugees from the water were nominated on behalf of the island’s collective response to help men, women and children who arrive daily on the island shores as if emerging from the sea itself. The residents helped them keep moving forward, do their laundry, charge their phones, buy ferry tickets and get somewhat ready for the next stop on their journey.

Refugees on arrival express their joy at having survived the harrowing journey at sea. As so many men jump off the raft it is impossible to believe that it has held them all.

Photo Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee



The baby on this photograph was one-year-old when he arrived from Turkey with his mother Jihan

Photo Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee


When they arrive, people go through an identification process and are given documents they can also exchange money and buy ferry tickets to get to Athens.

Photo Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee


Fayrouz had six children under 18, it was sunrise when we talked. “They suffered a lot on our journey here, and we want to continue to Germany.”
She said, “ I want my children to have a better life.”

Photo Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee


Khadija, a Syrian refugee from Homs, spends her first night in Europe wrapped in an emergency blanket at a beach makeshift camp in northern Lesbos.
Many who arrive during the night from Turkey stay at beach camps like this one and are then moved to a processing center.

Photo Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee


Jenna, 4, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria, sits in a tent at the Skala beach camp with her family after arriving at night by boat.

Photo Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee


Refugee life is about waiting, fighting boredom, uncertainty, and the chilling winds.

Photo Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee


Phones are the life-line of these men whose families have been scattered by the war, it holds their past as well as their hopes for the future.

Photo Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee


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