The state of being a refugee is temporary, in theory, but without a place to go back to — a nation, a city, a home — limbo begins to look permanent, a designated space carved out of someone else’s country, where the basic needs of physical survival might be provided, but the rights of citizenship are forfeit, and human aspirations lose both their means and their direction.
Refugees are not only sequestered in space, they are incarcerated in time, walled-in between a past that’s been obliterated and a future that no longer exists. But things can get worse. Intense suffering from disease and starvation can render strictures of time and space merely negligible, and what might have been purgatory becomes a living hell. With the refugees from Syria, thankfully, that is not the case.
The international community has responded. Neighboring countries, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, have extended hospitality and NGO’s have organized food, shelter, water and medical assistance. And people have each other. Whole communities have been uprooted and have managed to stay together. But will they ever be able to safely return to Syria? If they cannot return, then how will the rest of the world accommodate not only their basic survival, but meet the challenge of establishing new citizenship, and the opportunities for self-determination inherent in that responsibility, rather than accepting the creation of another stateless people?
James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.