People Not Numbers

By Jamie Bartlett

In articles, news reports and photographs refugees and immigrants somehow lose their humanity. They are just numbers. They are faceless people that queue, walk, wait, sail, drown, arrive.

That’s the politics of the crisis. It orbits numbers. Numbers in and numbers stopped.

But each number has his or her own story, just like we all do. An intricate lace of hopes, tragedies, relationships and history.

Last week we hosted a screening of the Oscar nominated documentary Watani, directed by Marcel Mettelsiefen. Watani – which means homeland in Arabic – is the story of one family’s escape from Syrian Civil War, and their attempt to start a new life in Germany. It starts in mid-2013 with Abu Ali – husband of Hala, father of Hammoudi, Helen, Farah and Sara – gun in hand, firing shots in eastern Aleppo. He’s a commander in the Free Syrian Army, dressed in fatigues, firing, ducking, firing, ducking. Behind him, in his very ordinary looking front room Farah is running around aimlessly like most seven year olds, dressed in pink Disney gear and a Mickey Mouse backpack. Outside the city around their apartment is in ruins: abandoned, shelled, bombed out, decimated to breeze blocks and piles of rubble. A little later Farah hears a bomb going off. ‘That was close by’ she says. ‘It didn’t explode. That was a missile, not a projectile from a tank’. Even seven year olds are knowledgeable about munitions in Eastern Aleppo.

Abu Ali is captured by ISIS some time in mid-2014. They dragged him away, head covered, kicking him as Hala watched helplessly. Some people in Europe fear – understandably – that the flow of Syrians into Europe might carry Islamist terrorists with it. But they tend to forget that many of those coming have had their own lives destroyed by ISIS.

Following Anglela Merkel’s decision to allow Syrian refugees asylum, the family decides to travel, fatherless, to Germany. Leaving the house on a miserable rainy day, they bid a sad farewell to close family members, including a teary eyed grandmother. ‘Goodbye Aleppo. Goodbye to my school, my friends, my cousins, my grandma. I will miss you so very much’ says Hammoudi.

The border crossing into Turkey is a mess. People troop around like caged animals, marching in long queues, quietly waiting. Then to a waterlogged camp. Then to a tiny bedsit where the five of them share a room and watch videos about Germany, imagining what it might be like. Germany needs refugees, they’ve been told. The German people love Syrians, they’ve heard, and the government is generous. Then to Turkish airlines and its logo: ‘Widen Your World’.

It is all this – Abu Ali, revolution, ISIS, munitions, grandmothers, queues in cages, dreams about Germany, soggy camps – that they carry into the cobbled streets of Goslar, a small historic town in Lower Saxony. It’s not just faces, bodies in a line, or numbers. It’s a story. A long, complicated story.

‘Is this the whole thing or just one room?’ Says Farah in the large front room, as they arrive at their new black wood panelled home. With her children in school and making friends, Hala lives in two worlds. Incredibly grateful to be in Germany yet missing Syria; desperate to go home but also trying to integrate; making new friends but always thinking about old ones; trying to create a new future, but with the recent past etched indelibly in her mind.

Watani is just one family’s moving story. It’s not even their whole story. After the screening there was a Q&A with some of those involved in making the film: Hala joined via Skype from Goslar, and along with Mahmoud Alhaji Othman (cameraman), Stephen Ellis (editor) and Sarah Hajjar (translation producer) answered questions from the audience.  Mahmoud told the BBC’s James Longman, who was chairing the event, that even this documentary, with all its remarkably personal access, was just a tiny glimpse of their lives. And there are hundreds of thousands of families with stories, just like theirs.

For most of us refugees are numbers to be counted. People in, people out, newly arrived and unfamiliar faces. For the people themselves, it’s not a number, but a story – often a very human story. To humanise a little is always to understand a lot more.

If you want to involved in Unicef’s NEXTGen London – please email

Thanks to Twitter London for hosting the screening; you can find out more about Watani here.

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