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The Messages That Hold Refugee Families Together

Mar 28, 2016

They send back messages of love, hope and sorrow. Hundreds of thousands Syrian refugees have fled their homeland for Jordan, Turkey and, in increasing numbers, Europe. But families separated by thousands of miles still stay connected, thanks to smartphones and applications like the cross-platform mobile messaging program WhatsApp.

For the past three years, Jordanian-American photographer Tanya Habjouqa has been documenting the aftermath of the Arab Spring and Syria's descent into civil war through the eyes of the millions of refugees that have flocked to Jordan and across the Mediterranean. At the end of a two-month stretch in the Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps, as well as in Amman, Ramtha and Irbid, she came to a crossroads. "Since Alan Kurdi, the imagery around Syrian refugees is ubiquitous," she says. "We've seen everything." Looking at her own work, Habjouqa thought her images failed to convey the urgency of this story as millions of Syrians continue to live in squalid conditions in Jordanian, Turkish and Greek refugee camps. Her role, she says, was to make people care for these refugees at a time when public opinion is shifting toward isolationism.

"I was racking my brain," she says, "trying to find the imagery that said something I hadn't been said again and again."

Then, toward the end of her assignment, she saw a mother playing an audio message of her husband singing a lullaby to their child. The woman's husband had sent his messages from Germany, where he was residing apart from his family. Listening to his messages, she felt that the story gained new life.

Habjouqa gathered dozens of audio messages that her editor and colleague Rabab Haj Yahya edited into this video, to accompany her photographs. "It felt dignified and humanizing," says Habjouqa. "Sometimes, the simplicity can be what brings us back to the power of a story. And, in this case, it's their stories and their words."

Tanya Habjouqa is a photographer with Panos, based in East Jerusalem.

Rabab Haj Yahya is a documentary and narrative film editor based in New York.

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