For Syrian Refugees In These Portraits, An Empty Space For Every Loved One Lost

For seven years, the Syrian people have suffered under the weight of a civil war that evolved into a complex, vicious conflict. The war led to a widespread refugee crisis, and while the rest of the world seems to have fallen numb to the refugees' plight, the Syrian people still remember the loved ones they lost. And sometimes a way to do so is through a portrait's empty spaces.

Lost Family Portraits, by photojournalist Dario Mitidieri, shows Syrian refugee families alongside empty spaces representing the loved ones who have disappeared or died throughout the course of the war. CAFOD, the Catholic Church of England and Wales' aid agency, commissioned the project, and Mitidieri collaborated with the London-based creative agency M&C Saatchi to create the photo essay's concept.

Mitidieri traveled to refugee camps based in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, where he interviewed several families. Some of them had just arrived to the camp, while others had been there for a while. But the common thread was that every single family had lost multiple people throughout the war, either because their loved ones disappeared, died, or the families were forced to leave them behind when they fled the country.

"In Lebanon alone, there's 1.3 million refugees. One-third of the population is refugees from Syria," Mitidieri says. "But no one is talking about it. It's not news anymore. They were left behind."

He adds, "They have been forgotten. And so the intent of this project is to give them a voice."

There are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. About 22.5 million are classified as refugees, 5.5 million of which come from Syria. As of now, it doesn't look like the conflict in Syria will end anytime soon, meaning thousands more will likely be displaced.

"This massive number of displaced people – the worst since the UN started keeping its numbers – is made up of individual people who are caught in unthinkable circumstances and who have been forced to make the impossible decision to leave their homes behind to seek safety for themselves and their loved ones," Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy advisor, said in a statement provided to Refinery29.

He added, "These new numbers underscore that the global community must immediately offer stronger lifelines to these vulnerable people as they flee for their lives, and also work together to tackle the root causes of the problem. While the number of refugees who desperately need our help remains unacceptably high, President Trump’s administration, and many in Congress, seek to slam the door shut on refugees."

For Mitidieri, Lost Family Portraits is a way to make people remember there are currently millions of Syrian refugees spread throughout the world. They are unable to go back to the place they call home, and at the same time, it's impossible for many of their loved ones to flee the horror.

He said the subjects he photographed and interviewed "came forward, willingly, despite the fact that they're still afraid." Among the things they fear is the safety of the family they left behind, who might be harmed by the militant groups in the country or the Syrian regime.

"But despite all these fears, they decided to come forward to tell the stories because they want their stories to be heard," he says. "They don't want to be forgotten."

Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Khawle’s family arrived in the camp five months ago, leaving their grandmother, three brothers, and two sisters in Syria.

While escaping from the country, their bus was stopped and they were told to get out. They continued the rest of the journey on foot, but ran into some ISIS fighters. One of Khawle’s daughters has a learning disability and ISIS targeted her. They beat her so badly that she couldn’t move for days.

"Perhaps we might stay like this for the rest of our lives", says 44-year-old Khawle. "I don’t have anything to be happy for, just to live like this. I feel sad living here without all of my children."
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Just over a year ago, 55-year-old Mohammed was sitting in his living room with his family when a missile hit their home.

The missile’s shrapnel severely injured their eldest son. The family ran, but in the chaos, their son disappeared.

Mohammed hears from reports back home that his son’s injuries force him to behave extremely irrationally, including destroying his ID papers, essential for getting to safety.

The family lives on tenterhooks wondering whether the next communication about their son will be notification of his death.

Mohammed says, "I live with hope that one day soon the war will stop, and our family will be whole again."
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

The family had to flee Syria after Razir’s husband was kidnapped and executed.

Razir, 40, didn’t have enough money to bring all of her children to safety, so she had to make the decision: Which two do I leave behind? With no other option, she left her two oldest girls.

The family hasn’t heard from the girls in seven months.

They now live in a tent no bigger than a single bedroom. Their only possessions are a blanket the size of a bath towel and the clothes on their backs.
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Two years ago, Souraya’s husband told her to take their children and flee to Lebanon for safety. He knew that where they lived was too dangerous for the family. In the meantime, he stayed to look after their home and find work.

Five months ago, he had the money to join his 34-year-old wife and young children living in the camp, but was seriously injured when the bus he was traveling on was hit by a missile. He is still recovering in a hospital in Beirut.
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Kalila’s husband, Ahmed, told her to leave Syria, as it was too dangerous for them to live there. He was forced to stay because of "security matters."

She took her children and fled for Lebanon.

“I want my voice heard," Kalila says. "We need basics here: food, winter supplies, and especially medicines for the children."

After the picture was taken, Ahmed reunited with the family and is now living with them in the Bekaa Valley.
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Two years ago, the home that 42-year-old Ali spent 10 years building, was hit by a missile.

Ali fled the country with his wife and children, but his mother, father, brother, and two sisters were left behind. He speaks with his family in Syria over WhatsApp, using a secret code, too frightened that their messages will be intercepted.
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

When the bombardment intensified in her home town, Ammouna told the family it was time to leave. They took only what they were wearing.

The journey was a dangerous one – like so many others, they took a bus and the bus had to stop in the mountains bordering Syria and Lebanon. There, the family had to get out and walk, braving the dangerous territory where armed groups were fighting each other.

Ammouna worries about her father, who she left behind.

“I try to speak to him as often as I can, but it is difficult," she says. "Sometimes I can’t get a signal on my phone and other times we worry about what we say to each other in case someone is listening."
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Mahmoud’s young family had arrived in the camp just twenty days before this picture was taken.

Forty days before, they lost their beloved mother. The family had gone to the market to buy food, leaving the mother at home. When they came back, their home and everything in it had been reduced to dust, laid waste by a missile from a bombing raid.

The family misses her, and each of the children is suffering trauma after witnessing atrocities in their home country.

When asked about the future, the father says, "We have no future. We have nothing".
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Owayed’s family arrived in the camp six months ago, after traveling through snow-covered mountains for five days with very little food and water.

On the journey, they met a group of armed men. Owayed, 62, was forced to leave his four sons behind — one of whom is blind. The youngest has disappeared.

Owayed received WhatsApp messages from his sons regularly. Then one day, the messages went dead. He hasn’t heard from them since.

"It is not a life here. We do not live," he says of life in the camp. "We have safety, but this is no life."
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Sahar, 50, says before the war she lived "a good life, a simple life." Her husband had died and her children looked after her.

A year-and-a-half ago, Sahar was woken from her bed in the middle of the night by the sound of airstrikes. She woke her three children staying with her and managed to escape.

Her other six children were unable to leave. She hasn’t heard any news from them since.

"It breaks my heart not having all my children here," she says. "I cry all day thinking of them."
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Ghazieh’s husband was killed by missiles while she was shopping for food.

She knew it was unsafe to stay, so she ran with her children. But on the journey into the Bekaa Valley, they were trapped in the middle of several armed groups that were fighting.

After two days, there was a ceasefire and she took her children to safety in the camp.

"My home has been destroyed and I have lost my husband. It is so sad what is happening to Syria, but I ask that you think of us, you think of my children," she says. "We have come from danger, from bombs, from death, and we are safe. We are safe, but there is nothing for us here."
Photographed by Dario Mitidieri.

Two years ago, 45-year-old Mohammed was celebrating the wedding of his daughter, when a missile hit the building they were in.

The family ran wherever they could, leaving everything behind, including their newlywed daughter. The family has heard no news of her, but they hope she's in Turkey.

"We have heard nothing since her wedding night," Mohammed says. "If I saw her today, I would ask her how she has been, what she has been doing, and what is going on in her life."
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