For all the global attention on Syria, all the newspaper headlines, leaders’ speeches and millions of YouTube views, it seems the voices of those carrying the heaviest cost of the conflict are absent from discussions as to what should be done.

The refugees — caught in the middle — are who my fellow photographer Benjamin Reece and I recently traveled to meet in Jordan through a partnership with CARE. The refugees seemed so different from me — their dress, their language and their customs.

Familiar in the unfamiliar

But I felt like I knew them, especially when they laughed and cried. And how they described their homes, even down to how the water tasted or how the sands of Syria felt beneath their feet. I felt like I knew them because I’ve heard stories like these before. Longing, that pit of your stomach feeling, is the same in any language.

I live in New Orleans and my work is about empowering people and giving them a platform for their voice. New Orleanians described how they missed their city so badly it hurt. Syrians said nearly the same things. We are truly living in the age of the refugee. Over 2 million Syrians have left the country to date, thousands fleeing every day. In July, the UN's refugee agency said that 45.2 million people remain displaced from their homes due to worldwide conflicts — a 19-year high. What does it mean to be a refugee?

"Refugees scribbled across their arms, hands and faces. Often, they wrote things similar to what we all might write no matter our circumstances. They wrote about hope, fear and love."

What it means to be a refugee

You dream about home, your life is on hold and there are clear limits to how you can shape your future for you and the ones you love. Huda, who now lives in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, is 11. She was with her family outside their house in Syria when it was hit by a bomb. She was the only one who was hurt. The family had to hide for hours and could not get to a hospital for nearly two days. Bureaucracy and fighting has made humanitarian access for UN agencies and INGOs, like CARE, incredibly limited. 

Huda’s message to the world? “I want the life I had to come back.” Despite her burns, she is one of the most beautiful people I’ve had the honor of photographing. The most powerful photographs during conflict tend to focus on images on people in distress. The more vulnerable a person is in a moment, the more powerful.

Dusty faces, screaming children, and blood are the hallmarks of showing the opportunity costs of dark and dreadful thing we call war. But in my process, we ask subjects to be partners while making the image. Outside of tents and community centers, we distributed markers and asked people to share a message to someone or something they cared about. Refugees scribbled across their arms, hands and faces. Often, they wrote things similar to what we all might write no matter our circumstances. They wrote about hope, fear and love.

Hope, fear and love

Photographs have a unique emotional potential to connect. In 1995, the Senate voted to stop the U.S. enforcement of an arms embargo on Bosnia, setting the scene for further intervention. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, previously a staunch opponent of any form of intervention, explained her change of position as being inspired by seeing a photograph of a Bosnian rape victim who’d killed herself. Feinstein said “one image punched through to me.  That young woman hanging from a tree, that to me said it all."

What our portraits show is our common humanity, a crucial bridge into a better understanding of the conflict. Their messages should be heard by those in positions of power. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned this month that Syria’s neighbors are "stretched to their limits" with global appeals for funding far from being met. I want my pictures and these messages to remind the world’s leaders of their responsibilities to refugees.