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Picture Stories

Inside the Harrowing Journeys of Refugee Mothers

Tender portraits illustrate stories of heartbreak and courage from women caring for their children while in search of a new life.

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Fourat Aljarad, 24, mother of a baby boy and seven months pregnant, was photographed outside the Myrsini refugee camp in Greece.


When you hear “refugee crisis,” you might envision photos of small boats afloat on dark waters and packed with people wearing neon-orange life vests. You might think of hands reaching for loved ones across fences, of borders being guarded by men with machine guns, of makeshift tent settlements teeming with homeless families. The pictures we think of are high-energy, chaotic, and full of movement.

The photographs of Greek photojournalist Myrto Papadopoulos are different. They’re quiet, still, and intimate. Each of these women is a mother, sometimes pregnant, sometimes holding her child.

Papadopoulos has documented the refugee crisis since 2010. As she spent time in refugee camps in Greece, she noticed that women would often be left behind with the children while their husbands forged ahead to find new lives for them in Europe. “I felt the women were left out and were the ones who were really suffering,” Papadopoulos says. “And on the other hand, I felt that they would keep these people moving, and they were the reason to continue the journey. Their children were the reason to continue the journey.”

And for these women, the journey is incredibly difficult. Some give birth while traveling. Papadopoulos says she’s seen women walking while carrying newborns as young as ten days old. Some mothers miscarry due to the harsh physical conditions, others have abortions, and still others suffer the deaths of their small children. There are NGOs in some refugee camps that help with pre- and post-natal care and provide forms of birth control when available. But as a whole, being pregnant or being a mother to young children compounds the hardships that all refugees face.

She asked each of these women to share their experiences. Their stories (edited for length and clarity) accompany their portraits below.

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"I lived in Edleb, Syria. When I was in my seventh month of pregnancy, an airplane bombed the clinic [where I worked as a nurse]. I felt that my stomach got solid. When I went to the doctor, he gave me only one more week of work because I couldn’t feel my daughter. My husband wanted me to stop, but I didn’t want to stop. Nurses there were a minority. I felt that the people and the patients needed us. "—Rania El-Moussa, 24


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"I gave birth to my son in Syria, and after three months we left for Turkey. My husband [had left] sooner and didn't see his son. I felt very happy I had a baby. I was just a little bit concerned because the hospitals were usually threatened by air bombers.

"I left for the Turkish border and stayed for 15 days trying to cross. We were imprisoned twice, and the conditions were very bad. We finally passed safely to Turkey and stayed for ten days, then started our attempts to go to Greece. I was filled with hope that we would pass and arrive safely in Greece. I was just looking forward to [seeing] my husband."—Marwi Jabri Nayef, 22

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"I met my husband in the [refugee] camp in Turkey. We [knew each other for] two days before we got engaged. We were happy and relaxed together. After 15 days of engagement we got married in the camp. I couldn't stop living my life, so I chose to continue living as if nothing was happening. I got pregnant after five months of marriage.

"I wish I could give birth in Germany, but since we are in Greece and I am better I don't mind giving birth here. I am happy that I have a house here with everything I need."—Fidaa Rahil al Saleh, 26

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"Our journey from Turkey to Greece was very hard. Something happened to the boat. We were in the middle of the sea and water was coming into the boat. We took off our shoes and started filling them with water to empty the boat so we wouldn't sink. We also tried to fix the motor. Our driver didn't know how to drive the boat and we all panicked.

"I gave my daughter to my husband. I just laid my head down, and I couldn't understand what was happening. [Whether it was] because I slept or I fainted I don't know. When I opened my eyes I saw that the sun had risen. There was a girl who tried to commit suicide by tying a rope around her neck. My husband cut the rope and slapped her on the face so she could wake up.

"I saw myself sitting in front in the boat and [saw] that all the other people were in the middle. I cried for my daughter and for God to help us. I could also see that the shore was very close. Because the boat was full, we threw all our stuff into the sea."—Sahar Diab, 18

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"I left Syria [for Turkey] when I was six months pregnant. We took a boat and stayed on [the Greek island of Mytilini]. After that we traveled to Athens to give birth in a hospital to my baby girl. Finally they brought us to the Myrsini camp.

"When I left Syria while being pregnant, I was very tired. I had to hold my son in my arms all the time, and that was very difficult. I was only thinking that if we stayed in Syria my son and husband would probably die and always be in danger. I wouldn't be able to keep on living if I ever were to lose them. These thoughts gave me the strength to keep on running."—Fatma Hamido, 21, mother of two

 

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"When I was in Syria a rocket hit the house next to ours and I got injured. I was pregnant. My children were found under ruins and a friend of mine lost her child. This is why we left. Here [in Greece] it is very difficult for me because my children are growing and I have no privacy. I am staying in a room with one [other] family that has three kids. My husband [who went on to Germany] hasn't seen his children for six months now."—Kafya Al Ali, 41, mother of five


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"I escaped Syria three years and five months ago with my children. I decided to get pregnant [again] because I saw many of my friends losing their children. I saw many men die, and this also made me want to have more kids."—Rim al Saleh, 35, mother of five and four months pregnant


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"When I was in Syria I was seven months pregnant, and one day an air strike hit next to my house so I lost the baby. They took me to a place to take out the baby from my belly without any anesthetics. It took the doctors about six hours. We left when I was pregnant [again with] my son because of the many bombings.

"We went to Turkey and stayed in a camp. After one year I got pregnant again. My husband wanted another baby because of our culture and habits. We don’t calculate how many babies we have; it is whatever God gives us. My mother-in-law has 18 children."—Amani el Mekhlef, 29, mother of six

Papadopoulos says that, as trying as the circumstances are, many of the mothers see their children as their main motivation. She explains, “The idea of having a family while being in transit—it's the reason for them to exist. To keep on going. And to keep on believing in a better life.”

But Papadopoulos also notes that while these women are in transit—their former homes destroyed, their future homes undetermined—they are stuck. “The amount of patience that these women have is incredible,” she says. And she wanted to pay tribute to that patience in her photographs. Rather than take a portrait of a woman in a room or against a backdrop, Papadopoulos would have her stand in the refugee camp or in the environment right outside of it. “This has been their home for a year,” she says. “I really wanted the environment within the portrait to show that transit and also that pause.” The women are neither here nor there, neither home nor away. They’re moving but standing still.

“Their life is frozen, you know. They are the ones who continue life, but their actual life is frozen.”

You can see more of Myrto Papadopoulos's work on her website.

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