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Lynsey Addario at The 2016 Women In The World Summit. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Lynsey Addario at The 2016 Women In The World Summit. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)


Four crusading women open up about their fight to save refugees

By Brigit Katz on April 7, 2016

In a striking photograph by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lynsey Addario, a 12-year-old girl named Hanaa poses for the camera, one hand on her hip. Golden light, fading into dusk, caresses her face. Her fuschia shirt is stark against rows of beige tents, which stretch throughout a Lebanese camp for Syrian refugees. Hanaa escaped to Lebanon with her parents in 2011. She is one of 60 million refugees who have been displaced by persecution and war.

This photo flashed across a large screen during the inaugural night of the Women in the World New York Summit, piercing the darkened theater. During a panel titled “Refugees: They Are Us,” Addario appeared onstage alongside three other women who have immersed themselves in migrant settlements: humanitarian worker Liz Clegg, women’s rights activist Zainab Salbi, and Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center.

Through their respective work, these three women have become intimately familiar with the human face of the refugee crisis. In conversation with moderator Tina Brown, they spoke about the hopes and desperations of the refugees they have met —people who have been forced from their homes and now exist in a no-man’s land between nations.

Lynsey Addario, Zainab Salbi, Becca Heller, and Tina Brown. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Lynsey Addario, Zainab Salbi, Becca Heller, and Tina Brown. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Addario, a photographer known for documenting conflicts in perilous regions across the Middle East and Africa, recently took her camera to the Bekka Valley in Lebanon, where she met Hanaa. Like other migrant children in the camp, Hanaa works for up to ten hours a day on land owned by Lebanese farmers, earning a daily wage of about five dollars. Addario stayed by her side constantly, hoping to capture images that would reach the world.

“I’m trying to personalize these stories,” Addario explained. “With Hanaa, for example, I basically slept with her. I was with her from four in the morning until she went to bed at 11 o’clock at night … One day I was with [the children], and they were picking plums from 6 o’clock in the morning. Suddenly all of the children around me got so tired that they literally started falling out of the trees. So I think the thing that people don’t realize is that behind the photograph, there’s so much that they don’t know.”

Having spent many years photographing displaced persons, Addario was familiar with the struggles of refugees. Clegg, on the other hand, had little such experience. A former firefighter from the UK, Clegg heard that migrants had flooded into the French port of Calais and simply decided to pack up a truck with supplies and drive it over.

When she arrived at the makeshift shantytown in Calais — also known as “The Jungle”— Clegg was horrified to find little in the way of governmental and NGO support. “I was shocked at what was going on so close to my home in the UK. I did not think for one minute I would witness people being left in those conditions in the North of France.” Clegg has been living in the camp, looking after the unattended needs of refugees, for the past seven months.

Salbi, who was born in Iraq, travels across the Middle East to document the plight of asylum seekers. During the Summit, she told the story of one Yazidi man who piled 28 members of his family into a truck and tried to flee, ISIS soldiers hot on his trail.

In the process of the chase, he goes into a dirt road, and lots of bumps and all of that, and he sees his own four year old daughter falling off the truck,” Salbi said. “ And he has to choose in that moment: does he stop the truck and pick up the daughter — but actually ISIS will catch him and kill all the family — or does he keep on driving and let the daughter [die]?”

Ultimately, Salbi continued, the man decided to keep driving without his daughter. Her voice broke.  “No one, no parent, no mother, no father, should be [forced] to make that choice,” she said. “We talk about refugees as if they like being refugees. It’s the most humiliating, undignified process.”

To Heller, this story of the Yazidi man perfectly illustrates the fallacy that refugee groups are comprised of terrorists hoping to wreak havoc upon the West — a notion that has gained considerable traction of late.

“There’s been a really, frankly, false conflation of refugees and terrorists, [but] the perpetrators of the tragic attacks in Belgium and in France were not refugees,” she said. “They pretended to be refugees. They left the false passport of a refugee. Instead we as a world have used our fear of the terrorists to continue to persecute the very people who are fleeing the terrorists … By failing to take in refugees, I think we’re assisting with the mission of terror.”

Until Western countries begin to absorb greater numbers of refugees, the four women on the panel are forging ahead on their own, hoping to make a difference. Clegg, for example, realized upon her arrival in Calais that there was no designated space for women and children in the camp, where some 80 percent of the inhabitants are male. And so she founded a women and children’s center to serve as a sanctuary.

But, Clegg said, she is limited in what she can do to help meet the dire needs of refugees, particularly when it comes to the children who live in the camp. There are hundreds of unaccompanied children residing in Calais who sleep during the day and try to escape into the UK by night.

“We’re in the terrible situation where we have absolutely no control over these children’s movements,” she explained. “They have been told and they’re conditioned to try to get to the UK. In the last couple of weeks, tragically we’ve lost two children as a result of their attempts to get to the UK.” One, she said, was suffocated to death while trying to escape into the UK in a refrigerated lorry. The other was clinging to the bottom of a truck when it crashed.

“I myself try to educate [the children] about the refrigerated lorries and make them understand that you can suffocate,” Clegg added. “ We’ve tried to educate them about electrified railways and how to look after themselves. It’s deeply wrong that we are informing children [about such things, but] we have no control measures … There is no agency, no NGO that is assisting us to keep these children safe.”

For her part, Addario hopes to harness the power of images to spread awareness about the plight of refugees around the world. During the discussion, Brown referred to the much-publicized photograph of a drowned Syrian boy named Aylan, which captured international attention when it was published in 2015.

“When it came out it went completely viral and there was a huge outpouring of sympathy,” Brown said. “How do we keep that kind of focus on this problem, so that it stays human?”

“Well first of all, when that image first came out, many newspapers made the decision not to publish the image because they felt it was too powerful, to graphic,” Addario replied. “For me, that’s a complete crime. Because how dare you not publish that image, which is finally the image to get people talking?”

“It’s my job to get under people’s skin, to get people talking” Addario added, and referenced one of her recent photo series for Time magazine, which focused on South Sudanese women who had been raped inside a U.N. camp and impregnated by their attackers. On its cover, Time ran an image showing one of the women naked, her pregnant belly swelling. “The reaction was incredible,” Addario said. “So many people started talking about rape. Finally it was on the table, because the image was shocking, the image was powerful.”

In her capacity as director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, Heller has helped many refugees make their way into the United States. During the panel discussion, she told the story of one woman, an Iraqi women’s rights activist who had received commendations from the U.S. When she tried to apply for refugee status, however, she was rejected on the grounds that she had “committed a crime of moral turpitude.”

The crime in question? “During the reign of Saddam Hussein, she had been kidnapped, raped repeatedly, drugged, forced to marry a man,” Heller explained. “He had sued her in criminal court for alimony and she was found guilty. … We actually won her appeal … and she arrived in this country two months ago, and is safe. But she shouldn’t have had to go through that.”

Despite all the horror and pain that the panelists have witnessed, they asserted that there is reason to be optimistic. “I’ve been photographing war and conflict for 16 years, and every time I go back, I’m shocked by how much hope the people themselves have,” Addario said, adding that one of the subjects of her Time photo series hopes to become a social worker.

Salbi echoed this sentiment. “What keeps me optimistic is that you see the best side of humanity as well,” she said. To illustrate her point, she related a conversation that she had with an Iraqi refugee who had been raped by ISIS soldiers. When Salbi asked the woman why she agreed to tell her story, she replied: “My conscience does not allow me to be silenced. They killed my mother, they killed my father, they raped me—not one of them, but thirteen of them. I cannot be silenced.”

“I see her courage and it keeps me optimistic,” Salbi said. “Who am I to give up? I have to continue, we all have to continue, advocating for them.”

The panelists also pointed to the discussion itself—to the fact that so many people had assembled to hear about the plight of refugees—as another cause for optimism. “The refugee crisis isn’t new,” Heller said. “What’s new is that the world is paying attention. And that’s an opportunity for us to do something.”

Additional research by Lisa Desai and Betsy Rate.


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