(All photographs by Christoph von Toggenburg)

By Christoph von Toggenburg

I took these photographs on Easter Sunday in late March when I visited various refugee camps right on Lebanon’s border with Syria.

The welcome was warm and open. Suddenly, the numbers I had read about — about the millions of refugees — had names, faces and stories. Once again I understood that no one runs voluntarily away from home.

These were war stories of despair and uncertainty, but also hope.

The two things that shocked me were that people have no employment opportunities and that children cannot go to school. For some children, that means that five years of education have been lost. An entire generation has been touched.

As refugees continue to flee war — not just in Syria — I feel we need to assume our responsibilities and find solutions. Building stronger and taller fences never solved any issue.

Here is what the refugees said:

Our children can go to a kindergarten nearby, but there is no education after that.

I found some work on a farm. Once a week I go as a daily worker. It’s better than nothing but the job brings too little money.

As the fighting in Homs increased, my husband and I had to flee. Our house was hit by a number of bombs and it became impossible to find food. Seventeen people were killed in the house next to us, and then suddenly my husband was killed too. Now, I am staying with my son and my daughter-in-law.

My husband and I ran a sweets shop in Raqqa, but then suddenly the war began and we had to flee. Our shop and home were destroyed.

Survival here in the camps is not easy. We pay $50 a month for electricity, and in the winter it is very cold and boiling hot in the summer.

Don’t give me fish! Please give me a fishing rod.

Most of the simple shelters have been built by the refugees themselves. Many have to pay rent to the landowners of up to $300 a year.

I used to have more than 50 sheep and was considered a wealthy man in my village.

We live in this tent with nine children.

There are many children here, and that is fun. I can only remember our garden before we came. I would like to go home.

When the war started, I had not completed my high school. I am working here in the camp as a hairdresser. It earns me a small amount of money.

Two years ago, I opened a shop here with second hand clothes. I used to have a lovely shop for women’s clothes in Aleppo.

We lived in Damascus, and I worked as a carpenter. Our house was hit by several bombs. We had to run away with only one suitcase.

When we arrived, we rented an apartment for two years. But then, we had hardly any money left and moved to this camp. We had always hoped we could return home quickly.

Our little girl seems to be always sad. We don’t know what to do to change this.

Back home, I used to be a daily worker and porter. We always had a quite modest lifestyle.

The children are afraid of rats and mice that are often running through our tent.


Syria's refugeesChristoph von Toggenburg works at the World Economic Forum (WEF) as manager of its Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Response. He has considerable experience in humanitarian aid, sustainable economic development and emergency response. He is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. You can see his work at www.vontoggenburg.com and at this WEF blog.

Share This
World Middle East Faces of Syria’s refugees