After a Long Haul, Refugees Settle Into New Lives Far from Home

American photographer Amanda Rivkin has been photographing refugees as they transit from Syria to Europe. Recently, she posted several of these photos to the Open Society Instagram feed. Here, she talks about her experience documenting the refugees’ stories, and what she’s observed of their attempts to settle into new lives far from their original homes.

Why did you pursue this story?

I pursued the story of the recent exodus to Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere for no reason other than it was there. I lived in Turkey for two years and never covered refugees as an issue per se, although refugees were everywhere in Istanbul at the time. Some were also my friends.

If there was a crack between two buildings, it was as if you could find three Syrian families living there. But I think there is so much of this biblical, dramatic imagery that we forget that Syria—emptying out before our eyes—used to be a middle-income nation with many middle-class people.

You have followed the wave of refugees from Syria starting with the first Syrians entering Turkey back in 2012 to the influx of refugees now crossing into Serbia, Hungary, and elsewhere in Europe. Looking back, what stood out to you on this journey?

What the media shows tends to be very dramatic: the death of Aylan Kurdi, the arrivals on the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos, the Macedonians and Hungarians firing teargas and rubber bullets, people trying to jump onto trains in Tovarnik, Croatia.

The fact is, being a refugee is a lot like being in a war. You spend so much time stuck in “hurry up and wait.” There’s the ceaseless boredom, the detachment, the being treated like a pariah because you happened to be from a war-torn country. For children especially, you can sense a lot of fear.

The media tends to focus on the journey and rarely looks at what happens to refugees once they reach countries like Germany where they can secure asylum. For refugees who are starting a new life in Europe, what do their days look like? What is life like at a refugee house in Germany?

Every family and circumstance is different. It depends very much on when people arrived, at what point they are in the process of registration, securing housing, employment, and then eventually an independent life again.

I spoke with several people who worked in the Zirndorf refugee camp near Nuremberg, and many who I met were grateful to be in a more comfortable hotel or “pension style” hotel converted to refugee housing. Some were in two- or three-star hotels, others country inns. In a facility in central Nuremberg, there was one family per room, which can be quite cramped. In another center in the suburbs, there were no families that I met, just single men and women sharing rooms, cooking facilities, and toilets in what was more akin to a comfortable dormitory. For those at the earliest stages, some are sleeping in the park or gymnasiums, others in makeshift housing or in private homes. 

In Germany, there is a lot of bureaucracy as far as how registration and state assistance accounting are handled. But luckily there is assistance. The state also offers German-language and -citizenship classes at various levels. There is the job center that helps people—both Germans and refugees—secure employment. Because of the vast number of people that have arrived in Germany, you could say there is a refugee economy that has sprung up in terms of supply, services, aid, and assistance, all of which requires staff, some of whom are refugees.  

Can you describe some of the reactions you’ve encountered from Europeans you’ve met along the way?

Reactions are really mixed, to be honest. I think a lot of people in Germany have no experience with the sort of social issues many of the refugees carry with them as a result of their experiences. German society as a whole is not completely comfortable discussing the uncomfortable. I think society is divided. Some are afraid, others are weary. Many want to be helpful but do not really know how, and only a few will take the time to learn.

Generally, younger people seem more indifferent to the fears many older people have. Many have met Muslims at school or while traveling and know they have nothing to do with the past year’s headlines about the Islamic State. They were born towards the end of the Cold War and are not as haunted by the memories and headlines of those who tried to escape the Eastern bloc. 

I do think these events will change Europe, but I also think Europe needs to change to allow people to fulfill their ambitions and potential. There should be more opportunities for migrants and refugees to seek fulfilling forms of employment, not just the worst jobs no one else wants.

The foundation of integration cannot be in exclusion. It will be interesting to watch how European societies evolve as a result of these experiences.

Learn More:



"I am not a refugee" it's not only some words......if someone wants to feel what it does mean, he/she should give up their own memories, good lives,.....because of the destructive war.....It's all about feelings and some respects....

1 . ان واقع الشباب والعوائل المهاجرة الى اوربا في بلدانهم مؤلم جدا
2.سفر المهاجرين الغير شرعين بطرق ذات مهالك وتعرظ حياتهم للخطر 70% هذا ايضا عبئ على المهاجر الذي يبحث عن حياة افضل
3.ولتعلم جميع الدول الاوربية التي يقصدها اللاجئن من العرب وخصوصا العراقين والسورين هم من اصحاب الكفائات والشهادات حيث خسرتهم بلدانهم بسب تسلط الحكام الدكتاتورين والحكام المتسيسين بالدين باسم الديمقراطية وتسلطوا على الشعب العراقي والسوري وان على الاوربين الاستفادة من هذه الطاقات والموارد اليشرية بعكس بلدانهم التي خسرتهم وعرضت حياتهم للمخاطر وظلمت عوائلهم .............تحياتي لكل من يقراء هذا

No more running. I don't have to run anymore. But how do I stop running? PTSD. Flashbacks. Suicide. My cousin in Sweden tells about the generosity of Swedes welcoming the migrants. But then Trollhättan happens. My Swedish will be pretty good by next summer. I will be there doing what I can with my MA in Psychology to help the running stop and say "Valkomna Hem."

It was a great article, it was good to read an objective report in the midst of hysteria. It's too bad that moderate voices can't have a place in mainstream media. I'm afraid refugees will have a much harder time than most would think. I'm myself an Eastern-European immigrant in the UK, but even we are treated as worthless parasites in many cases who deserve only "the worst jobs no one else wants", and it really doesn't count how hard we work, or that European migration was originally found out by Western countries where most people refuse to do productive work. Coming from a poor(er) country is a depressing experience, and one has to be very strong mentally. Imo it will be about 1000 times harder for these refugees than for us, I have seriously no idea how they'll get over the humiliation that they perpetually get.

The world needs to rediscover meaning of words love (charity) and humanity, if it does not want to murder itself.

Reflections on ‘The Jungle’

As I reflect on my recent visit to the refugee ‘camp’ in Calais, I do so with a lingering sense of anger at the terrible injustice that is being afforded these people, our fellow humans, these ‘children of Adam and Eve’. I don't think that this anger will abate and, to be honest, I don’t want it to because I have spent too many years of my life, happily blinkered like so many other people, against the realities of those who have been forced to the margins of society…getting on with my life. In essence, we are saying ‘Fuck them all!’

I recall standing in a lodge by Lake Malawi; beautiful scenery in front of us and desolate poverty outside the lodge gates. When asked for their opinion on that poverty, two young white South African backpackers replied ‘Fuck them all! We don't care about them!’ I understand now that we are, in reality, no different to those young men.

The margins that exist on the edge of our blinkered consciousness are vast spaces, populated by those whose diversity is considered by the rest of us to be so deviant as to be unacceptable. These spaces are realities that we often do not enter…places where qualitatively different things happen and where the shared values of our society are not applied. They are parallel realities. As I entered Calais, I saw young men moving in groups to form a larger force so as to try and break through the barriers and escape to the United Kingdom. They moved silently past the French houses, stopping to rest under the motorway bridges. It reminded me of the old Celtic stories in which there existed two parallel worlds: our world and that of the suppressed fairy folk. In this situation, though, these suppressed folk were the young men moving in a world parallel to that of the native French existing, not as part of their reality, but rather as another which was in constant movement, seeking inclusion and respite.
Visiting the refugee ‘camp’ was not my first entry into such a reality; I have engaged in the realities of people with disabilities, with people in rural parts of Africa and with those in the city slums. It was, however, my first entry into this reality, and one which gave me some small understanding of the situation of the people living there. The great Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire wrote of the need to come to knowledge of the other through dialogue and engagement. He argued that this was the way to becoming solidary with the other and, thus, to achieving true solidarity. I feel that I have come to know something of the reality of these other people and it is in this knowledge that my anger is grounded; an anger which drives me to want to fight alongside my fellow humans.

I use the word ‘camp’ guardedly, for this is no camp! My idea of a camp is of a space, bounded by a fence, with structure, order and services. This is not like that! There is no such boundary, save that created by the ever-attendant riot police. There is no real order or structure outside of that which has been developed by the people themselves. And, shamefully, there are no services, no sanitary facilities, no clean water, no safety and no public health. Indeed, the only thing that the French government has placed in this ‘camp’ is the police! The utter disgrace is that this exists in a rich 21st Century European country which supposedly prides itself on the values of its republic: liberty, equality and fraternity. It is also a desperate indictment on us all, in the wider European region, that we have stood by and accepted this, making excuses which have dehumanise these people in our eyes and justified our exclusion of them. That this camp has existed for 8 years is evidence of our inaction and culpability.

One Iraqi man told me of the torture he had endured when held for a month by ISIS. As he showed me the marks that the hot poker made on his ankles, and described the daily threat of having his throat slit, he explained: ‘They tortured me and treated me as an animal’. He continued, though, and describing his current predicament noted that ‘In Europe, they do not torture me, but they still treat me like an animal’. Indeed, others noted that animals had more rights in Europe than they do! Despite the situation of these people, however, and the inhumanity afforded them by Europeans, it was humbling to experience the warmth and humanity that these people afforded us; the welcome, the etiquette, the generosity, the tolerance and the manners. The question as to who is really dehumanised in situations such as this is a pertinent one! Freire suggests that the oppressors themselves become dehumanised a fact vividly demonstrated by the indiscriminate targeting of these people by police which was captured on video. Humanisation can only come from those who have been oppressed, and it was in our engagements with them that we felt our own humanity welling up and challenging us to respond. Their humanity is, however, often not recognised as they are stereotyped through the use of words such as ‘migrant’ drawing all of the negative concepts that have become associated with such terms. This was exposed to me during my visit when, on one night, a group of about 200 people attempted to gain access to the Euro Tunnel. They were repelled by police and many were injured (we treated their wounds the next day). The BBC News website reported this event, focusing, however, on the delays caused to commuters due to a 'migrant break-out' rather than on the injuries to those people or the reasons underlying their situation. Such issues are of no concern. Why would they be? These are not people like us! They are not valued human beings, only ‘migrants’.

I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to visit the famous Ethiopian Orthodox Church which has been constructed from tarpaulin and wooden laths. I was moved to tears at the creation of such a beautiful and prayerful space in the midst of suffering. Other faiths have done likewise. I spoke with one elder who welcomed me as a brother Christian but also remarked that all were welcome irrespective of faith, ethnicity or gender. ‘We are all humans’ he said. Some days later, I was travelling in Rome with my daughter, and while we entered many churches, none equated with that which I had encountered in ‘The Jungle’.

Before I travelled to Calais, I heard people saying that 3 out of 4 people in these camps are from ISIS-related groups; that they were fundamentalists and that, as a lady in a local pharmacy had told me, they wanted ‘to come over here and kill us all’! I saw no such evidence of this. I met people just like me: engineers; academics; carpenters; nurses; doctors; a father with his son who has intellectual disability and epilepsy; a couple who had lost half of their 13 children to the Mediterranean. Men, women and children seeking refuge from the terror of war and fundamentalism.

Fifty-three people came together for the Irish Convoy to Calais, of which I was part. These too were ordinary people, eager to help others and to enter into dialogue and engagement. Some of us were health workers; others were builders; yet others were litter collectors and warehouse sorters. We were all, however, humans and it was this which allowed us to start to feel the awfulness of our brothers’ and sisters’ pain. It was also this which allowed them to see that not all Europeans are the same. It is no wonder, therefore, that these courageous people told us that when we were there they no longer felt like refugees but rather like humans.

Many Europeans may argue about issues of immigration, asylum seeking, economics, national homelessness, ISIS etc. If we park these for a moment and just consider the situation of the thousands of people living in Calais and in similar camps around Europe. What must it be like? What would it be like for me, if war raged in my country and I had to seek refuge elsewhere? What would it be like if I was consigned to ‘The Jungle’…to a former landfill site? When we do consider this reality, there is no way that anyone can suggest that it isn't wrong. It is wrong, it is dehumanising, it is inhumane, it is disgusting and it is unacceptable! No one should live like this. These, our fellow human beings, who sought solidarity in a union of countries based on human rights, are stuck in a cesspit of human waste and in the wastage of human life.

It must stop now!

I am so sad to follow up about these news. These people have to become the victims of the war because of bad power people, bad politics, bad power of decision makers. I hate somewhere no human right and injustice/unfair, I hate somewhere having corruption and bad governance and administration. I hate somewhere having unfair senior government's political decision maker and marginalized people they are less/limited their voice/vote and assistance from what they should receive or deserve.

By taking in this current diaspora from the Middle East Europe and especially Germany can at last fully atone for the cruelties wrought upon Jews and other minorities in the World War II era. Likewise US should open it's arms to these peoples for not more fully opening it's doors more fully to Jews attempting to escape Nazism in that time.

Add your voice