Exodus: A Long Way Home

Sergey Ponomarev

2015 - Ongoing

Netherlands; Germany; Serbia; Sweden; Slovenia; Croatia; Central Serbia, Serbia; Greece; Macedonia

At the core of the project is the notion that migration is about much more than the physical movement of people. It is about shifting identities, as nations and peoples shape one other. It is about rebuilding lives and homes from zero. It is motivated by a desire to keep telling this story, even after the cameras and journalists have moved on to the next headline.

“We must go.” I heard that phrase repeated hundreds of times, on the pebbled beaches of the Greek islands, at the closed borders in Serbia and Hungary, and in the desperate camps of Idomeni and Athens.

During the year that I followed the migrant crisis I saw thousands of traumatised people arrive on the shores of Europe—exhausted, wet and cold. They came from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; from Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan; and from dozens of other poor and war-torn countries. It was the mantra of the desperate.

I walked with them through fields, rivers and borders. They took only the possessions they could carry on their backs. They walked until their feet were so blistered they could not take another step. Often they didn’t know where they were going, or even what country they were in.

The migrant crisis is one of the defining stories of our time. But while the physical exodus of more than one million people from Middle Eastern and African countries to Western and Northern Europe has attracted a huge amount of media attention, much less consideration has been given to what happens next.

While covering the ‘Balkan route’ for The New York Times, what struck me was how the physical journey was just the first chapter in this story. From the moment these people set foot ashore in Greece their past lives were no more than a memory, their futures were uncertain, and their journey into the unknown had truly begun. Houses, possessions, and loved ones were all left behind. Lives had to be rebuilt from zero.

Exodus: A Long Way Home is a personal photobook project inspired by the refugees I was privileged to follow and meet during their journeys to and through Europe. It is motivated by a desire to keep telling their stories, even after the cameras and journalists have moved on to the next headline.

At the heart of the book is the idea that, while migration is about the physical movement of people and the hardship of their journeys, it is also about much more. It is about shifting identities, as nations and peoples shape one other. It is, to borrow the words of the Russian-Ukrainian writer and poet Nicolay Gogol in his novel The Overcoat, inspired by the “the little but great man,” and how in telling the stories of individuals and their suffering, we can expose the great injustices of the system.

The photobook will be divided into two parts. The first half, Exodus, will feature photos I took working in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia during 2015 and 2016. As part of this application I have submitted 20 photos from this time period, including images from a series that won a Pulitzer Prize and a photo that won first place in the World Press Photo General News section last year.

The second part of the book, A Long Way Home, will focus on refugees as they navigate new cultures, languages and lives far from their homelands. For this section I will work with Harriet Salem, a British text journalist who has also covered the migrant crisis extensively. For the second part of the book we plan to pair personal narratives, ranging from longer texts to short quotes, with images in a notebook-style formula. This interwoven approach, blending images and texts, aims to give refugees a voice in the telling of their stories.

Over the last two months we have begun working on this second chapter, travelling to Serbia, the Netherlands and Germany. I have also included 20 images from this work as part of the application.

In Amsterdam we have followed the story of Zina, a Syrian woman who I first met on the Slovenia-Croatia border. She's now setting up her own catering business and has cooked for events attended by the royal family. In Friesland, a region in the north of the Netherlands, we visited a family hosting a refugee who works on their dairy farm, milking cows and caring for newborn calves. In Easterlittens we met with villagers who bought a house for a family of Syrian refugees—they are now the only non-Dutch people living in the remote rural area.

In Berlin we visited a church with a congregation that includes more than 1,600 Afghan and Iranian refugees who converted to Christianity since arriving in Germany; some are also living on the premises to avoid deportation under 'Dublin rules'.

In Belgrade we worked in derelict warehouses, where thousands of migrants lived throughout winter in horrific conditions due to the closure of borders.

At a time when the United Nations has warned that there are more forcibly displaced people in the world than any time since World War II, it is my hope that this photobook will shine a spotlight not just on the harshness faced by refugees in leaving their homelands, but also the challenges they face in creating new identities, lives and homes.

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  • Migrants arrive by Turkish cruise boat near village of Skala, Lesbos island Greece, Monday November, 16, 2015.
    The Turkish boat owner delivered some 150 persons to the Greek coast and tried to escape back to Turkey, he was arrested later in Turkish waters.

  • A refugee boy searches for his parents amid chaos at the border between Greece and Macedonia outside small Greek town of Idomeni, Greece. The border police let them go through a few at a time. Women and children are allowed to go ahead, which leads to unfortunate misunderstandings, as the women become separated from their men and start wailing, afraid they will not see them again.

  • Refugees board the train towards Zagreb at Tovarnik station on the border with Serbia, Croatia. As key nations tighten their borders, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers hoping to enter Western Europe are now bottled up in the Balkans, placing precarious new burdens on a region of lingering sectarian divisions that is exceptionally ill prepared to handle the crisis that has been shunted to it.

  • Refugees ride the train that takes them from southern border with Greece to Northern border with Serbia, in Idomeni, Macedonia. A member of Majid family

  • Refugees walk past the temple as they are escorted by Slovenian riot police to the registration camp outside Dobova, Slovenia.

  • Refugees wait in line for documents at the refugee processing centre in Presevo, Serbia.
    Long lines of refugees stand in the blistering sun outside a rusting fence, begging guards to let them into the Serbian reception center, on the outskirts of Presevo. Refugees have no choice but to register if they want to travel farther through Serbia. Countries like Greece, Macedonia and Serbia recognize that few if any of the migrants want to stay in those countries because of the poor economic prospects. So they have come up with a system that gives the refugees the legal right to pass through, without necessarily applying for asylum. In Serbia, they register to stay in the country for 72 hours, gaining the right to travel, and even to stay in a hotel.

  • Mounted police escort hundreds of migrants after they crossed from Croatia in Dobova, Slovenia.

  • Migrants wait to be escorted by Slovenian riot police to the registration camp outside Dobova, Slovenia.

  • A man tries to save his kid from the police beatings and tear gas at the border crossing in Horgos, Serbia.
    Baton-wielding Hungarian riot police unleashed tear gas and water cannons against hundreds of migrants Wednesday after they broke through a razor-wire fence and tried to surge into the country from Serbia.

  • At the derelict warehouse behind Belgrade train station where more than a thousand Afghan and Pakistani men live, sleep and eat. Inside it is dark. From the gloom come the sounds of human misery and sickness; hacking coughs, splutters, the rasp of a throat being cleared, the thwack as a hock of phlegm hits the floor.

  • A thick cloud of toxic smoke hangs heavy in the air. It stings your eyes and burns your throat until you choke. Many migrants have been here for months. Eking out a half-existence, hoping and waiting for the connection with the right smuggler — one who can take them across the border.

  • Inside, a man hunches over a makeshift stove to heat water in a rusted metal cooking pot. He pushes his face forward into the warmth of the steam, breathes in deeply and begins to shave. A small symbol of humanity, in a place where the most forgotten live. Behind him, scrawled on the wall, a defiant message: “I am a person too.”

  • A view af the hangar at the Tempelhof airport in Berlin that was converted to asylum center. At the beginning of the day the lights go on, at the end they go off. At 7am the large florescent ceiling strip lights are turned on. The day has begun. At 10pm they are turned off, plunging the hangars into darkness. The day has ended. Meals are served three times for a period of two hours each.

  • A view of the prison corridor at the former prison Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Netherlands is a country with both a willingness to accept migrants and a declining level of crime. Too many empty cells left the Dutch government looking for other uses for its prisons. So they began to fill them with migrants.

  • Iranian Ali Hashemi, 22, studies Dutch language at his cell in former prison Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Netherlands is a country with both a willingness to accept migrants and a declining level of crime. Too many empty cells left the Dutch government looking for other uses for its prisons. So they began to fill them with migrants.

  • Former Syrian opposition fighter Joumaa pulls the carriage with milk at the farm in Friesland, Netherlands, as he heads out to milk 250 of the cows. “I don’t know whether to wish them good morning in Arabic or Dutch,” he jokes. “What language do cows speak?”

  • Kids of Ahmad and Farid Majid, background, swing at the park in Sweden.

  • At new home of Ahmad and Farid Majid from Syria

  • When the Yasin family arrived in Easterlittens in December 2016 it was freezing cold and the days were short, but the welcome they received was warm. The villagers greeted them with pizza, Syrian soup and a ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner. “It was a big celebration that they made for us that day,” Wafaa remembers with a smile.