“My Camera Is the Only Thing Between Him & My Tears”: A Photographer’s Honest Look at the Life of a Syrian Refugee

*This is post four of a five-part series on Syrian refugees. Read the others here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

“Look look!” insists our new Syrian friend, of whom I can only describe with the adjective “burly.”

Burly then proceeds to show us his phone. Proudly.  

A video is playing.

As I comprehend what exactly I’m looking at, I realize this video is of a very important section of Burly’s life. It’s of a 6-mile boat ride, crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece. A boat ride that nearly every single one of the 20,000 refugees we’ve seen this trip have traveled. A boat ride that has taken the lives of thousands, yet a boat ride that necessitates hopeful freedom.

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I see 30+ people in orange life vests, packed on a small rubber boat, luggage crammed in the middle, a scene almost too important for a cell phone camera to be given the responsibility of capturing. Yet a scene I feel lucky to have experienced, whatever the medium.  

“I was Captain,” Burly said as he smiled and held the phone near his face.


As is the practice, the smugglers hired by refugees to get into Greece, don’t go on the boat ride. They collect their money (on average over a thousand dollars per person), cram double the amount of men, women, and children that are safe to be on the boat, and then refuse to navigate it to the requested destination. They simply select the biggest guy on the boat, point the needed direction, push off, and tell them to go.  

Luckily our man Burly knew what he was doing.

Many do not.

1,500 people have died this year alone, attempting to cross this 6-mile stretch.  

These are children, mothers, fathers, grandmas…


Think about this for a minute.

I found myself standing in front of a man whose entire life has come to point to this one specific journey–proudly sharing with me the most important event of his life–yet an event that is only one of many to come. Each event’s importance, trumping the previous.  

My camera is the only thing between him and my tears.

The only thing telling his story.

This question rattles through my brain–“What exactly is fair? And why do I even get the privilege to define that?” I’ve found this can depend on a variety of issues. Many of which have nothing to do with our own power or actions.


I have a friend who just discovered she has cancer…

Stage 4.

Two to three years to live.

She has a husband, a 2-year-old son, and an 8-month-old infant still in her womb.

What exactly is fair?

I remember driving in Addis, Ethiopia, and discovering a street corner of 10-year-old girls being prostituted.

What exactly is fair?

We live in a world that bombards us with advertisements and convictions and purposes, and tells us exactly what we’re supposed to believe, and why that matters. But as soon as your friend tells you he’s suicidal, or your house burns down, or your wife tells you she’s leaving you for the mailman, or your friend just found out she has cancer, or you just realized all these stories about an entire nation of Syrian people are ACTUALLY true… everything, all of the sudden, comes into perspective.

You no longer care about anything, really.

I’m just being honest here.



I have a kid at home who has no understanding whatsoever of what money is, or how to post a photo to Instagram, or when Star Wars 8 is coming out, or why Donald Trump should or should not be president.

The kid just does life, from the only perspective he knows of.

His own.

And I have another kid at home who spends 60% of her day making cards for people, simply because it makes them feel good… she intuitively hugs me when I need it, she tears up when I show her pictures from my Africa trips, and she will put other people’s needs before her own every single time.

The kid just does life, from the only perspective she knows of.

Her own.

I have a new friend whom I call Burly, who has lived his entire life building a comfort and security on the shoulders of a country that quite honestly just let him down. He literally has no idea what tomorrow is going to look like, yet he has unknowingly filled my soul with his smile!

Burley just does life, from the only perspective he knows of.

His own.


I guess what I’m trying to wrap my mind around is the idea that I don’t get to decide what “fair” is.  I don’t get to confine this word in the definitions of my own personal worldview. All I get to do is observe this life. And document this life. And tell the stories of this life that impact me. Because if I stood around quietly trying to rank every situation, or every hardship I come across, I’m going to be spending a lot of time standing around.

Sometimes life sucks.

Sometimes you don’t get what you think you deserve.

Sometimes you just want to feel sorry for yourself.

But, sometimes you just need to keep moving.  

Even if in a boat.

Jon is a professional photographer from Dayton, Ohio.








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