October 8, 2015 6:06 AM EDT

On the Turkish coast, near one of the main launching points for boats heading to Greece and beyond, is the ancient town of Assos, where the pillars of a temple to Athena and the ruins of a 5,000-seat theater overlook the beach. Aristotle founded his own academy to teach philosophy here; St. Paul passed through several centuries later. Look across the water, past the piles of life jackets and the shrapnel of lives shattered by conflict, and you are reminded of an ancient phenomenon re-created in a most modern form, voyagers steering by stars and by cell phones. The mass exodus chronicled in this special report is as old as war and older than civilization–but somehow an integral part of both.

We sent our reporters and photographers across Europe and the Middle East to capture the scale of the greatest migration since World War II. Correspondent Simon Shuster and photographer Yuri Kozyrev spent weeks traveling from Hungary and Serbia to Greece and Turkey. Veteran TIME photographer James Nachtwey landed in Belgrade less than 48 hours after the Hungarian border was shut down. On his way from the airport, he noticed people walking through a cornfield on the Serbia-Croatia border and recognized that these were the first refugees taking an alternate route; they are among the people on our cover. Naina Bajekal traveled to Berlin and Munich to report on the German reception of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have already arrived this year; multimedia journalist Patrick Witty sent video dispatches on Periscope from across the Balkans and the Greek isles, reporting on the role social media play in shaping escape routes and arrivals. Megan Gibson traveled to Austria to interview refugees about the most valuable possessions they took with them on their long journeys. Vivienne Walt reported from across Sicily on the fate of minors, some as young as 13, who decided life at home was so grim that they set off alone to a new world.

Simon was struck by both the resilience of the travelers he encountered and the scarcity of ways to help. On the island of Lesbos, it is illegal to offer rides to the thousands of people, including young families and the elderly, as they walk the 40 miles (64 km) from the coast to the registration centers. “Often they’ll stop to rest or sleep on the side of the road, and I nearly had a heart attack a few times as we came around a bend in the middle of the night on Lesbos to find a group of refugees lying on the asphalt in front of our headlights,” he says. “A few times we stopped to give them the bottles of water and some snacks that we kept in the car for them. But it was never enough.”

Asked what they had brought with them to remind them of home, people shared every measure of sorrow and determination. On a ship transporting migrants to Athens, one man in the cafeteria stared blankly into his plate and then answered, “Sadness.” A woman on the deck with several of her children and grandchildren smiled sweetly when asked whether the young ones had brought any special toys: “It’s not playtime. We left everything behind.”

At the other end of the journey, in German cities that are among the most powerful migrant magnets, Naina observed the generosity of both travelers and hosts, and a sense of shared experience. “Many Germans voiced that feeling to me–that someone in their family had been a refugee. They felt very connected to the whole European idea of unity and helping others in times of war,” she says. All the refugees she met could pinpoint the moment they decided to leave. “Sometimes it was being conscripted into Assad’s army or having a rocket blow up next to their house, seeing bits of bodies in the street, or managing to escape from prison only to realize that you’ll never feel safe again in your home country.”

This special report was conceived and directed by Bryan Walsh, our new international editor overseeing global news gathering, including our overseas editions. A former Hong Kong correspondent and Tokyo bureau chief, Bryan is familiar to TIME readers for his years of reporting on the environment, health and science. In his new role, he will be working with our foreign editors and correspondents to expand TIME’s coverage around the world, both online and in these pages.

Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR

This appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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