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Humans of New York gives U.S.-bound refugees a voice

Brandon Stanton stops random people on the street, takes their photo and learns what about their personal stories makes them unique. He's the photographer behind Humans of New York, a blog and social media feeds seen by millions. Lately Stanton has traveled to Turkey and Jordan to visit refugees and share their accounts with his international audience. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    As you have been hearing, there has been plenty of political debate about immigration policy, about refugees and security fears.

    Now we’re going to hear the case for helping refugees. Their plight is the center of a big push on social media and the Web this week. It comes from a popular blog and Web site whose creator and founder says he’s been more affected by these stories than thousands of others he’s told.

    Hari Sreenivasan has our story from New York.

  • BRANDON STANTON, Humans of New York:

    My name is Brandon Stanton. I run the Web site Humans of New York. And I stop random people on the streets of New York City, and I learn their stories.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In five years, Brandon Stanton has learned and shared the stories of thousands of people.

    So, how often do you shoot? Every day?

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    Every day, yes. I got to keep the blog going. If I ever — if I stop shooting, the blog stops.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The blog doesn’t stop.

    Sixteen million people see his portraits and the captions that go with them on Facebook. Another 4.4 million follow along on Instagram.

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    I’m never really looking for the thing that makes somebody the same as everybody else, because I have interviewed 10,000 people.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right.

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    So, in order to keep my blog interesting, I need to find something different about that person than about the other 10,000 people I have interviewed.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are you ever amazed by how much a stranger is willing to share with you?

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    Oh, always.

    When I first started, I didn’t even think a stranger would let me take their photo.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right.

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    Now, I have done it so much, I almost walk up to people with the expectation that, after a few minutes, we’re going to be talking about something deeply personal that they might not have told anyone else in years.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Every so often, the story of one of Stanton’s subjects will resonate with thousands, and lead to something bigger.

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    There was a story of young man that I met in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that he ended up telling me about his principal, and we ended up raising $1.5 million for his school.

    There was a story in Pakistan about a woman who was battling slave labor that we ended up raising $2.5 million for. So there are some stories that have been so powerful that they have spilled over, and had some sort of larger impact.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    His work has resulted in two bestselling books, which have helped him tell people’s stories from 20 different countries.

    Recently, Stanton traveled to Turkey and Jordan to visit refugees.

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    Being a refugee is awful. And that’s one of the — my eyes have been opened so much to what these people go through.

    These people are stuck in Turkey, stuck in Jordan, millions of them. They’re not allowed to work. They don’t have benefits. They have no money. They’re getting, I don’t know, dollars a month.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Stanton met with 12 families, part of the 10,000 refugees bound for America, who had passed the lengthy screening process through the UNHCR and multiple U.S. intelligence agencies.

    What are their perceptions of and what are their hopes for their lives when they get here?

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    Existing, being on the radar, having an I.D., having a passport, being a citizen, being in a place where your labor and your effort will actually lead to results. They are not allowed to do anything as a refugee. You have no options to move your life forward. All you do is suffer and wait.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Just this past week, one of those stories reached the White House. President Obama commented on a photo of a scientist profiled by Stanton, saying, “You’re part of what makes America great.”

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    And I’m meeting these families, and all of them are extremely exceptional in some way. Either they have very bad health conditions that need immediate attention, they have handicapped children, or they have Ph.D.s. They’re extremely highly educated.

    And I came to realize how selective America was being about who they let in.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    On Sunday, Stanton began sharing a story he didn’t expect. While helping translate the stories of the dozen families he was speaking with, he found out the deep suffering his own interpreter has already endured. Her name is Aya Abdullah.

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    She is a victim of both the Iraq and Syrian wars. She grew up in Iraq. She was about 7 when the war came. Her entire neighborhood was destroyed. Her best friend was cut in half by a bomb and died in front of Aya’s eyes. She had to watch that.

    A car bomb exploded in front of her when she was about 10 or 11, and she had to help her father pick out survivors on the side of the road.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    To escape, Aya’s family fled to Syria, but, within a year, war found them again, and they fled to Turkey. Her father has now disappeared, leaving Aya to take care of her three siblings and her shell-shocked mother.

    Aya applied for refugee status four years ago, went through all the interviews, in hopes that she could start over in the United States. In September, Aya was told she and her family would be accepted into the United States.

    We spoke to her via Skype.

  • AYA ABDULLAH, Refugee:

    We were dancing, all the family, and doing some music, because we just tell ourselves that we are going to go to a new life, a new country. We start to just — to be ready to go. And we just, like, buy new things to have it with us and everything.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But that joy was short-lived.

    So, you had your bags packed. And then what happened?

  • AYA ABDULLAH:

    Yes.

    And what happened, that, in December, we just get the message that we just have — rejected from America. That’s it. That’s feel that you just build dreams, and there’s someone come and destroy that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Her rejection letter offers no specific reason why. Aya is appealing. She understands that there is currently a fear in the United States of refugees from Syria.

  • AYA ABDULLAH:

    We’re not dangerous. We just escaped from wars to go to a safer place. We’re not going to do something bad in your country.

    But I hope that — as a refugee, I told the people that Muslim people and Arabic people and refugees are not bad people. This is the message that I want to give.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, Brandon is using the reach of his stories to put a face on those refugees left behind.

  • BRANDON STANTON:

    Yes, she’s just one person. But she’s also representative of so many people that are in a similar situation that don’t have the benefit of speaking English, that don’t have the benefit of speaking for themselves and telling their own stories.

    These are smart, educated people who through no fault of their own are just languishing in near homelessness in countries that, honestly, a lot of people don’t want them there. They’re facing discrimination. Aya has been hit by a car. Her sister’s teeth have been knocked out. They get shouted out on the street and they have nowhere to go.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    He’s concerned that, if Aya’s appeal is not approved, she will be left to move to Iraq and marry a cousin.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan, New York.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Stanton has started an online petition to support Aya’s appeal. The petition has more than 800,000 signatures. Stanton’s goal is one million. You can see more of her story on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour.

Listen to this Segment

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