A year ago the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting partnered with veteran journalist Scott Anderson to bring his seminal piece "Fractured Lands: How The Arab World Came Apart" into classrooms across the country. Although I've been lucky enough to host Pulitzer Center journalists in my classroom over the past five years, having Anderson come to talk about this critical and unique piece was an honor and a privilege.
I needed to prepare.
For decades novelist Anderson and Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin had partnered on projects reporting from the field in the Middle East, covering wars and interviewing major players, but this was different.
For the better part of two years Anderson and Pellegrin would travel tens of thousands of miles from Libya to Kurdistan to tell a story of regional collapse. From the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the Arab Spring, to the rise of ISIS and the consequent global refugee crisis, Anderson crafted "Fractured Lands" as a comprehensive tale told through the lives of six specific individuals. For the first time in its history the New York Times Magazine reserved every page of their August 15th edition for Anderson's 40,000+word piece and Pellegrin's gripping images.
A year earlier the world started to pay more direct attention when three-year-old Alan Al-Kurdi's body washed up on the Turkish shoreline. His family had hoped to eventually reach Canada, and his death ignited a national discussion on what role that nation would play in supporting refugees seeking asylum.
I had been in Bosnia on a film project when news broke that an abandoned truck was found just inside Austria along the Budapest-Vienna highway. The bodies of 71 suffocated refugees were found inside. Another 67 refugees narrowly escaped the same fate by desperately breaking out of a similar truck, and Hungary recently indicted 11 people as part of the smuggling ring responsible for the deaths.
Less than a week after al-Kurdi's body washed ashore Hungarian camerawoman Petra László was filmed kicking and tripping refugees as they fled police breaking up an informal camp along the border with Serbia. Her employer- N1TV- immediately terminated László, who claimed self-defense and was recently sentenced to three-years probation for disorderly conduct. While she was aptly vilified in between, for me the incident communicated a major shift in sentiment towards the refugee crisis.
In my photography and film classes I encourage my students to consider and produce images that make us think, make us feel and ultimately move us to action. So what was László paying attention to that would lead her to be active in this way?
Nationalist parties openly campaigning on anti-refugee sentiment, proponents of universal protectionist policies, reports equating refugees to terrorists, mainstream media stoking the flames of fear and hate?
Reports of smugglers charging hundreds for each leg of a journey, overcrowded rubber boats, dead children washing ashore and rogue camerawomen were certainly pushing me closer to actions of my own, just on the opposite side of the spectrum. Talking about it in class was simply not enough.
Then things turned for the worse.
On March 18, 2016 the EU signed a controversial deal with Turkey. In exchange for €3 billion to support the 3 million refugees on their soil, Turkey would stop more refugees from crossing onto Greek islands. The Balkan Route was closed with Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary locking down their borders, essentially trapping tens of thousands of refugees inside Greece and Serbia. Massive informal camps at Piraeus Port in Athens, and Idomeni at the border with Macedonia, were systematically deconstructed. Refugees were relocated to formal government-run camps far outside of city centers where conditions were deplorable from the start.
By the beginning of summer 2016 over 70,000 refugees were stranded in Greece alone. Scores of boats were still arriving daily even though Turkey was more fervently patrolling the coastline and camps constructed for temporary supports were now informally becoming permanent settlements bursting at the seams.
In late June I was afforded early access to "Fractured Lands" in preparation for Anderson's visit to my classroom and an event at Columbia University. This captivating, comprehensive and heart-breaking piece shook me to my core.
Within the week I was in Turkey.
After a failed coup saw Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan closing ranks and purging political opponents, over 100,000 refugees were in hiding in Izmir. Keeping their heads low, refugees would bide their time each day until a smuggler would call for an expensive late-night attempt at crossing onto Greek islands in overcrowded rubber dinghy boats.
Over the next eight weeks I would follow the path most refugees had taken up through The Balkan Route seeking safety and asylum in mainland Europe. What they found and what they've endured is a far cry from their expectations. At minimum it is far from the most essential aspects of the European identity and international law.
Scott's visit with my students and his work continue to be a catalyst for a deeper understanding of what has led to this massive regional exodus. Yet, another entire year has passed and the crisis is so far from over. Back on Lesvos thousands of refugees are being forced to live in horrific conditions while being held indefinitely in "open" government-run camps. The scene is similar on other islands, in camps ringing Athens and Thessaloniki as well as in Belgrade and other parts of Serbia. It's as if those who arrived after March 18, 2016 are frozen in time
With the EU-Turkey deal still in effect, tens of thousands have shifted toward Libya to reach Italy, but thousands die each year trying to cross the Mediterranean.
We've created 1976km, perhaps the shortest distance refugees have traveled to reach mainland Europe to claim asylum, as a platform for refugees and those living the crisis on the daily to share their perspectives, experiences and have their stories told.
All our posts aim to move this conversation back to the internationally recognized human, civil and political rights we are all entitled to.
Like, Follow, Share, Subscribe but most importantly take some time to connect to the people living this reality. They're just like us and deserve everything you do. Check back for regular blog posts photo series, videos, podcasts and general updates from the front lines. We must ensure this crisis does not recede from the forefront of our collective mind.