The bomb changed everything. Swathed in darkness and uncertainty, they dream of home and yearn for yesterday. Their nightmares are their reality with exploded homes, families displaced and broken, futures shrouded in fear. Now they sleep in any shelter they can find: tents, washbasins, field hospitals, and even the frozen forest floors of bordering nation states. Fleeing conflict in the Middle East, many Syrian children have had to abandon the majority of their belongings, all sense of safety, and in most cases, their loved ones.
On assignment for the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet earlier this year, award-winning photojournalist Magnus Wennman was compelled to document the shocking realities of Syrian refugee children and where they sleep. For the series Where The Children Sleep, Wennman traveled through refugee camps and borders to document their stories. Each story of fallen night is part of a shared narrative between over two million children—each with an outcome as uncertain and fearsome as where they came from.
Wennman traveled to Homs, Aleppo, Daraa, Damascus and other Syrian cities to capture the heartbreaking accounts of child suffering, a suffering that does not stop even if they are miles away from war stricken homes. The following examples are derived from his photo exhibition at Fotografiska.
Exposed to deplorable conditions, not to mention scarring trauma, some of the children suffer from severe illnesses. Abdullah, 5 years old, sleeps outside of the central station in Belgrade with his mother. He witnessed the killing of his sister in their home in Daraa. On top of everything, he has a blood disease. “He is still in shock and has nightmares every night,” according to his mother, who does not have any money to buy medicine for him.
Others have suffered injuries from the war. Eight-year-old Maram from Amman was crushed by her roof when her house was hit by a rocket. The impact caused her a brain hemmorage and she was in a coma for 11 days. Although she is now conscious, she has a broken jaw, is unable to speak, and has a long recovery ahead.
Then there is Moyad, aged 5 from Amman, who lost his mother when walking hand-in-hand to buy flour and a car bomb went off. He has shrapnel wedged in his head, back and pelvis.
The nightmares continue to haunt those in shelter. Walaa, aged 5 from Dar-El-Ias, wants to go home where she never cried at bedtime. Lodged in a refugee camp, she cries herself to sleep. Her pillow is horrible because nighttime is horrible, she says. Her mother builds a house out of pillows to play in so she can have a better outlook on bedtime.
Sleep is not a safe zone for any of the refugees; it is then that flashbacks roam most freely.
Some find solace in surprising activities. For Shehd, aged 7, she takes to drawing. But as of late her hand continuously yields the same iconography: weapons. She has lost the desire to play and her imagination has become a place of fear, like all escaped children who are forced to become adults overnight. Her family says if they had known how difficult the journey would have been, they would have chosen to stay in Syria. After all, nowhere is truly safe.
Others still possess the spirit of sport. Fara, 2, and Tisam, 9, from Azraq, love soccer. Their father crumples up anything he can find to make a ball for his daughters to play with. He hopes to find them a real soccer ball along their journey. All other dreams seem beyond his reach.
According to UNICEF, there is no safe place left for children in Syria.
To say the crisis has harrowed more than a few million lives is to belittle the score of tragedies thus far. According to recent statistics, over 10.6 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes since the conflict with ISIS began in 2011. The situation in Syria has become the worst refugee crisis since World War II, forcing over four million people to leave the country. As seen by Wennman’s new work, some seek asylum in Europe, while the rest seek refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Alas, for those who can find safety, their relief may be fleeting as international tensions worsen. In light of recent events in Europe, such as the Paris attacks and New Year’s Eve fiasco in Cologne, European nations and some states in the U.S. have begun to reconsider their stance on the refugee crisis. What is more, the arrival of winter could prove disastrous for people now forced to take shelter and, as we’ve seen, sometimes on any patch of ground they can find. Aid groups have desperately informed the public that there is real concern people could freeze to death if nothing is done.
Sharing his own personal motivations for the project, Wennman says: “I felt this project was more personal for me than others, perhaps because I have a 5-year-old son and I know how important it is for him to feel safe every night when I put him to bed. The children are the most innocent victims of this conflict. They did not choose to leave their homes. Many of the children have told me that they especially remember the sounds of the bombings.”
Most of all, they awake to uncertainty. “No one knows if or when the conflict will end and what country Syria will be. Some of these children will start their lives in new countries and can, and will, probably have a great future. Others will be stuck in refugee camps in the neighboring countries,” says Wennman. “Many will probably never return back to Syria.”
Art Report aims to recognize the vulnerable situation of these children who have been displaced by war in order to support the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Click here to make a difference with your donation and help UNHCR help fleeing children and support refugees around the world.
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