February 3, 2017

The Photos that finally made me see the Difference between Refugees & Us.

I cry easily, and often—these days.

My tears flow more freely than the words that have long been lodged in my chest. I have been avoiding them because they just don’t feel like enough.

But one woman has made it hard for me to use that as an excuse anymore.

She is Jaz O’Hara, founder and CEO of The Worldwide Tribe. At only 26 years old, she has gathered together a team of volunteers, a social media community and public support for the work she, her team and others like them do in the shadow of the refugee crisis. 

When I discovered her on Instagram a few months ago, the pictures and stories she shares there hit me deep and square in the chest. I couldn’t stop crying as I read and scrolled, and yet I couldn’t tear myself away. And that’s the unique power of what she and her team do: they share people’s stories.

A photo posted by Sequoia Ziff (@oneseq) on

In their own words:

The time we have spent in Calais and Lesvos has allowed us to build relationships, form friendships and gain a level of trust that enables us to give an unprecedented, intimate perspective of this crisis. 

We use creative storytelling to highlight the humanity of this crisis, with a focus on the hope, love, compassion and unity that we have been lucky enough to experience. Through words, photography, film and art, we are inspiring people to take action and to use their own skills and experience to be the change they wish to see in the world.”

The thing is these are people. We, the lucky, privileged few in our safe, warm houses may see them as statistics, or even threats at worst, and strangers at best, but that is only because we have not bothered to see them. Or we have forgotten how to see ourselves in them.

A photo posted by Sequoia Ziff (@oneseq) on

I am at a slight advantage as a mother, because it is impossible for me to look at pictures of children crying as they are carried off dinghies, or staring in numb shock after a bombing, or living in tents in sub-freezing temperatures without picturing my own children in those situations. It’s almost automatic, especially when I see little boys of a similar age to mine.

That is why the picture and story of Aylan Kurdi hit me so hard, as it did many of us…before we forgot about him, and the thousands upon thousands of other children like him.

It’s a chilling side-effect of our constant exposure to media. We can witness something as unspeakably heartbreaking as a toddler’s body, with both his tiny shoes still in place, washed up on shore because his family did not have a better means of getting him to safety than using human traffickers and flimsy rafts. Then we can forget about it days, or even hours later, in favour of our office politics, or our Friday night plans, or that asshole who cut us off in traffic on the way home.



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A post shared by @oneseq

We can just carry on like everything is okay in the world, besides that asshole of course. Because, on the surface at least, everything is okay in our neat suburban worlds. It’s easy to forget what’s out there when we’re snuggled on our couches binge-watching the next Netflix series. It’s so easy to switch off the reality others can’t escape by turning off a screen.

One series of photos in particular drew my eyes and my heart in. Sequoia Ziff, a London photographer, travelled to the Oinoftya camp in Greece in collaboration with The Worldwide Tribe and took these tender and intimate portraits that remind me of the Great Depression photographs of Dorothea Lange.

Of her work, Jaz says, “Looking through her pictures made me cry because they have this sense of history, as if they’re old, as if I’m looking at a crisis of the past, like the concentration camps of World War Two. But I’m not, this is happening now, in this very moment, right under our noses.”

The faces of these children and their parents and relatives have been haunting me since I first saw them, calling me not to forget.

Not to forget that these parents, like me, would move mountains—or cross oceans—to protect their babies from harm.

Not to forget that these children, like mine, get scared at night—except the monsters that their little brains might conjure up are probably real, probably from memory.

Not to forget that these children, like mine, love to play and laugh and tell stories—except the stories they might have to tell aren’t the kind my children could even dream of.

Not to forget that the only reason I or my children are not living in their reality is luck—the accident of where and when we were all born.

This is not good karma, or a case of being #soblessed. And if it is, I say thanks but no thanks to whichever God decided that my family deserves to live in peace and safety while another, no different to us, does not. Because there is no difference between them and us.

“Sometimes, some of us might slip into the mindset that we deserve the privilege we have. It’s easy to feel that we have a right, an ownership

When all we did was be born.

Really we did nothing for this ultimate blessing. We did nothing to avoid the bombs and wars, genocide and persecution. It was not clever of us. We are no better. No different. We are all the same. All human. We all share this world together. Some of us are struggling right now though. Some of our children are being born in refugee camps. Growing up in tents in the mud. Falling asleep at night shivering as the snow falls on the tent walls.

So it’s time for the rest of us to step up and take action. Those of us lucky enough to not have to think about survival…It is our responsibility.” ~ Jaz O’Hara

A photo posted by Sequoia Ziff (@oneseq) on

We may be here, safe (or so we believe) behind our walls and locked doors and immigration bans and border controls, but when I look into their eyes, I see myself, I see my children. When I hear their stories, I see the flimsy thread of fate and happenstance that separates us.

So I cannot—I will not—look away, and complain that the news upsets my inner peace, and shrug my shoulders and carry on watching Netflix.

And neither should you.

Look, and listen. Stay with the uncomfortable feeling in your gut as you do, and then ask yourself what this picture would look like, what this story would sound like if you and your children, your family were the protagonists. And how would you wish others to respond?

Then be brave enough to answer in the same way.

A photo posted by Sequoia Ziff (@oneseq) on

“Those of us who are warm and safe and well-fed must show up for those who are cold and wet and hungry. That’s a rule of life. Every ethical and religious and spiritual tradition agrees on that rule.” ~ Jaz O’Hara


Bonus: This story chilled me to the core, but also reminded me of our basic goodness:

Extra bonus: I just watched this. He could have been the Prime Minister of the UK, (so sad—doubt he would’ve held Trump’s hand) but now he works with refugees, and what he says echoes the message of The Worldwide Tribe: these are real people, with real stories, not faceless threats to the Western world.

To find out more about how you can help refugees:

The Worldwide Tribe
International Rescue Committee


Author: Khara-Jade Warren

Images:  All courtesy of Sequoia Ziff, via @theworldwidetribe and @oneseq on Instagram




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