Children in Search of Refuge: a Photographic Essay

15 January, 2022
A young boy stands on rail­ings close to a UN food vouch­er dis­tri­b­u­tion point in the Dom­iz refugee camp in north­ern Iraq (all pho­tos cour­tesy Iason Athanasiadis).


Iason Athanasiadis


What must the world look like for children fleeing war, famine, political persecution, instability, only to live precariously?


A cou­ple of things hap­pen when chil­dren come into con­tact with trau­mat­ic events such as war and uproot­ing: unfor­get­table, life-defin­ing expe­ri­ences, and an accel­er­a­tion in matu­ri­ty which we some­times describe as “los­ing one’s innocence.”

Chil­dren inher­it the con­se­quences of their elders’ mis­takes. They are often unpre­pared recep­ta­cles for the same oppres­sive soci­etal trick­le-down that social­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly formed their parents.

From 2011 onwards, as I worked on jour­nal­is­tic, doc­u­men­tary and UN assign­ments in Afghanistan and coun­tries affect­ed by the Arab Spring, I encoun­tered crowds of chil­dren — accom­pa­nied and not — sub­ject­ed to ter­ri­ble pres­sures: labor­ing in infor­mal work­shops; beg­ging or sell­ing drugs in order to sup­port their fam­i­lies; and sleep­ing rough in the snowy streets of Istan­bul or in Athen­ian parks and squares fre­quent­ed by sex­u­al predators.

Every­where I went, old­er peo­ple said that the wars and refugee liv­ing had cre­at­ed a vast cul­tur­al gap that made their chil­dren uncon­trol­lable. This turned into a chasm when they set­tled down to new lives in coun­tries and cul­tures that were very dif­fer­ent to the Syr­ias and Afghanistans they left behind.

The banal thing about watch­ing chil­dren suf­fer dread­ful con­di­tions is that they show lit­tle out­rage. They appear accus­tomed to their new real­i­ty. Worse, in cas­es of extend­ed dis­place­ment, they may even have lost the abil­i­ty to com­pare with a once-upon-a-time nor­mal­i­ty, as their pre­vi­ous lives were inter­rupt­ed when they were still too young, or they were born dur­ing the dis­lo­cat­ed years.

Watch­ing kids emerge from leaky base­ments in provin­cial Turk­ish or Jor­dan­ian towns to grap­ple with a harsh and school-less real­i­ty, I often expe­ri­enced a sense of mute injus­tice. They had been deposit­ed there through no choice of their own. But I also admired their tough­ness and scrab­bly adapt­abil­i­ty: prag­mat­ic, primed for sur­vival, and extreme­ly mul­ti­lin­gual. I’ll nev­er for­get the Soma­li 12-year-old in a Greek refugee camp who scrolled through near-flu­ent Eng­lish, Greek, Turk­ish, Ara­bic and Far­si dur­ing a five-minute dis­cus­sion. For all the present hard­ship, it was also clear that the expe­ri­ences would craft impres­sive adults.


AfghanistanGreeceimmigrantsIraqrefugee childrenSyriaTurkey

TMR contributing editor Iason Athanasiadis is a Mediterranean-focused multimedia journalist based between Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. He uses all media to recount the story of how we can adapt to the era of climate change, mass migration, and the misapplication of distorted modernities. He studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, Persian and Contemporary Iranian Studies in Tehran, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, before working for the United Nations between 2011 and 2018. He received the Anna Lindh Foundation’s Mediterranean Journalism Award for his coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, and its 10th-anniversary alumni award for his commitment to using all media to tell stories of intercultural dialogue in 2017.


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