Humans of Syria: A New Introduction

by Sarah Grace

In the photo, a grandmother in white sits beside a small boy in a striped sweater that matches his socks and his father’s t-shirt. The man cradles his son’s head with his hand. All three sit a bit too close on a bed covered in bright but worn lavender velvet.

Their proximity might have been a choice by the photographer, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame. But below the beautiful photo, the old woman is given the opportunity to explain it herself:

“…No one wants to leave home at my age. But I left because I have six sons, and I knew one day the soldiers would come for them. My sons weren’t political. They wanted nothing to do with killing, but that didn’t matter. Good people and bad people were all being treated the same way. I watched soldiers take away the neighbors’ boys with my own eyes. They were good boys. I’d known them their whole lives. But they were led away like sheep. They didn’t even speak up because if they opened their mouths they’d be shot. I knew it was only a matter of time before they came to our house. We left everything behind, but now my family is safe. So I am happy.” (Humans of New York; Amman, Jordan; December 2nd, 2015)

Still, in the second part of her interview (this time accompanied by a shot of just her and her son) she continues:

“The word ‘family’ is a painful word for me now. The war scattered my children all over the world. They are in Syria, Lebanon, Germany, and Jordan. I love all my children, but this one here is my soul. He’s always taken care of me.­ – I don’t know what I will do without him.” (Humans of New York; Amman, Jordan; December 2nd, 2015)

All three of the people in the photographs (shown below) are Syrian refugees. The man and his son are headed for a new home in Memphis, Tennessee. The old woman’s fate has not been decided.

Humans and Brandon Stanton

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Stanton began ‘Humans of New York’ in 2010 as a one-man operation. He talked to strangers on the streets of New York and took their portrait, then posted the results on social media. He stayed local for several years, building a strong fan base, and spawning several copycats, such as ‘Humans of Boston’.

However, these photographs and the accompanying interview comprise a small part of the work that Stanton has done over the past several years to give a voice to the millions of displaced Syrians.

Stanton’s audience numbers in the millions on both the Facebook page (over 16.3 million likes) and the Tumblr-based site itself. He also has a growing presence on Twitter with approximately 373,000 followers.

This impressive online audience apparently includes President Barack Obama, who commented Thursday on another man’s story from this collection on Syrian refugees coming to America. He called the man’s story “an inspiration”:

“As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you’ve endured. You and your family are an inspiration. I know that the great people of Michigan will embrace you with the compassion and support you deserve. Yes, you can still make a difference in the world, and we’re proud that you’ll pursue your dreams here. Welcome to your new home. You’re part of what makes America great.”

Numbers and Narratives

Josef Stalin famously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

‘Humans of New York’ still covers the single tragedies of the situation, and there are other classic news sources which do the same.

However, the Syrian refugee crisis reached a scale digestible only through statistics several years ago. More recently, the situation has been crowned with superlatives like:

  • “Largest refugee displacement since WWII” (International Medical Corps)
  • “One of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st Century” (Economist).
  • “Biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” (U.N. via NPR)

The last title was actually part of a headline. These statistics, impressive as they are, have obscured coverage of the individual tragedies that comprise them in meaningful ways.

Many websites or news articles which offer figures as to the exact number of displaced Syrians have not been updated in several months. Numbers are important for informing policy and aid. However, when titles like the ones above get applied to a situation, solutions matter more than statistics.

Despite the first major waves of Syrian refugees being accepted to Canada and the U.S., according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, there is “no end in sight to the crisis.”

The immediate cause of the Syrian refugee crisis is somewhat easy to isolate, and fairly incontestable: the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. However, the war itself is not so simple for many reasons, including the involvement of I.S.I.S. According to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the war “continues to worsen and bleed beyond its borders.”

Even 2014 figures estimate that there are over 9 million displaced Syrian refugees, some still within the country itself. Solutions to the war may result in the restoration of a stable homeland to which these people could return. However, the refugees must survive in order for that to happen. The magnitude and inherent chaos of the problem of that survival beyond Syrian borders is part of what has generated all those superlatives.

Empathy and Economy

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Image via Google

One of the core components of the Syrian refugee crisis is the lack of resources for refugees. A huge portion of these resources come from donations.

A March article from The Guardian outlines scientific research into motivations behind philanthropy. The research they cite found that “facts and figures are less attractive than narratives.” Altruism therefore has stronger links to social instincts than to rational ones.

Despite awareness that high impact causes should receive their donations, people are “much more responsive to charitable pleas that feature a single, identifiable beneficiary, than they are to statistical information about the scale of the problem being faced.”

Stalin’s quote aligns itself well with these findings.

If the Syrian refugee crisis is “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” it is also the highest possible impact cause. It should be receiving corresponding donations from around the world.

However, many charities cite, and have for several years, that the aid received does not come close to meeting the need.

Representation of Syrian refugees will continue to inform and shape the public’s perception of them. This in turn, determines the course of action taken by individuals and the elected officials they choose in European and North American countries. Changing the response means changing the representation.

A Story Worth 1,000 Statistics

For ‘Humans of New York,’ Stanton never inserts himself into into the frame, and rarely into the interviews. Each post is a portrait of a person, composed of a picture and the subject’s story in their own words.

This streamlined format demonstrates Stanton’s faith in his subject. It allows exceptional stories to stand on their own feet, like that of the Syrian man who inspired the President.

Stanton’s masthead has the word ‘humans’ in it for good reason. No matter whom he talks to, that person comes across as a dimensional human being. Where in a conventional news source readers would meet refugees, in the ‘Humans of New York’ coverage, they find people. They find people and their families… all of whom happen to be in unimaginable situations, and all of whom happen to be Syrian. All of these people can also be helped.

Hopefully the science is right that listening to individuals will mean caring for the cause. Stanton has already demonstrated that the format he uses can powerfully and meaningfully transmit stories. These narratives have had the power to inspire the most powerful man in the Western world.

Still, ‘Humans of New York’ is not journalism. Stanton does not tell a story, or frame an issue through extensive thought and research.

He finds sources, and lets them speak.

All images are the property of their listed sources.

Google Lays Groundwork for Ugandan Wi-fi

Google’s Project Link brings quality internet infrastructure to Ugandan capital, Kampala.


IICD from The Hague, The Netherlands [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

December 8, 2015

Google launched their internet initiative Project Link in Uganda on Friday, bringing increased internet capacity to the capital city, Kampala. The internet access takes the form of a broadband, wireless network, according to the BBC.

This new network is now functioning in 12o strategic locations throughout Kampala.

What it does (and does not) do

Google has not brought free wireless (or even cable) internet to Uganda. It has not even brought free wi-fi to Kampala.

What Google has done is improve internet capacity in the city. They have done this through Project Link by building a “metro fiber network” in Kampala. This network includes over 800 kilometers of fiber optic cables laid in the city and its suburbs.

According to the BBC, these cables will help introduce 3G and 4G technology in the city.

They will offer the network to local ISP’s (Internet service providers), who will determine the prices they charge for access.

Google estimates place these rates at around 0.30 USD for a day’s unlimited browsing access; this rate is significantly less than current prices. However, Google is ultimately leaving service charge decisions up to the local providers it is giving the new network to.

Existing Internet in Uganda

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By United States Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kampala is the urban heart of the Uganda, and the largest city in the country. The capital is not only Uganda’s administrative center, but also houses the bulk of its communications, economic, and transportation networks as well.

Internet already exists in the developed city.

According to the BBC, African media giant MTN currently provides internet access to most of the city. Google’s initiative will allow users in the city the opportunity to choose an alternate provider.

Currently, Uganda has approximately 8.5 million internet users, which represents 23% of its total population. In 2010, it had only 3.2 million internet users, which represented 9.6% of that year’s population. In 2007, only 1 million Ugandans had internet access.

Its internet use has been growing steadily, but also but slowly because of:

  • High access costs
  • Poor infrastructure, especially in rural areas
  • High cost of internet-enabled devices
  • Poor internet quality and consistency

Cybercafes provide internet access to many Ugandans, as do schools, work, and many libraries.

Smart phone usage is also on the rise in the country. Uganda ranks in the top ten African countries for its smart phone usage. In 2011, it had more than 14 million mobile phone subscribers.

Internet initiatives in Africa

Internet initiatives in developing countries (especially African ones) seem to be trending. Google’s project closely follows other net giants like Facebook, which announced in early October that it plans to use a satellite to provide internet to remote areas in Africa.

Plans like Google’s Project Link and Facebook’s satellite are necessary because internet usually requires complex networks of underground cables. These cables provide broadband internet, and the basis for wireless internet as well.

Most of Uganda, like much of Africa, does not have this underground technological infrastructure. Therefore, accessing the internet at all in rural areas is usually extremely difficult, and often impossible. According to Freedom House, in 2008, only 3% of rural areas in Uganda had internet access.

Previous initiatives have targeted rural areas in Uganda. One such project took place a decade ago. It built telecenters with computer and internet access to provide agricultural information to farmers. However, this project failed because of language barriers, and the competing speed and reliability of radio.

Global internet jargon

According to 2015  Internet World Stats, 851.6 million users of the internet speak English. For at least the last five years, English has dominated the internet.

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By Eshleyy (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikipedia Commons

According to Freedom House Neither English nor Chinese are commonly spoken in Uganda, which means that a huge portion of internet content is unavailable to most users, especially in rural areas. This is also the case throughout much of Africa.

Low literacy rates in rural areas represent a further complication for internet usage.

Linking to the future

Kampala is the first city in which Project Link has gone live.

However, Google has recently expanded Project Link to Ghana, where they will “build over 1,000 kilometers of fiber in Accra, Tema, and Kumasi.”

Facebook’s satellite is due to start beaming internet to rural parts of Africa in 2016.

While critics fear potential commercial implications of letting a single massive corporation like Google or Facebook essentially control internet access for an entire country, long-term, widespread positive effects of internet access on education and economic development may ultimately outweigh the risks.

Japan Approves Third Nuclear Reactor Restart Amidst Long-term Fukushima Concerns

Image via Wikipedia Commons

Oct. 26, 2015

A week after the first confirmed case of cancer linked to Fukushima radiation exposure, Japan announced today that it plans to restart another of the nuclear reactors shut down following 2011’s unprecedented nuclear disaster. The Ikata prefecture power plant will conform to rigorous new safety rules inspired by Fukushima when it restarts next year. It joins two other Japanese reactors in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima which have already been restarted amidst intense ongoing protests against atomic power. According to Bloomberg Business, all three of these reactors and their corresponding plants passed Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority’s inspections and new safety standards. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today today that these standards are “at the highest level in the world.” The first plant to reopen spent over 100 million dollars on new safety systems. Two more reactors in a station north of Kyoto also received approval to restart but legal issues have impeded their reactivation.

While the Fukushima disaster did not contribute to the death toll of over 19,000 people killed by the earthquake and tsunami which caused it, long term effects and implications are still hotly debated. The Fukushima worker recently diagnosed with Leukemia did not get cancer during the disaster itself, but while he was part of the effort to clean up the plant and heavily contaminated surrounding areas. Nuclear material of varying degrees of radioactivity has been leaking into the Pacific Ocean continuously since 2011 and estimates say the cleanup will take decades. The country of Japan sits on a major fault line and is highly prone to earthquakes. While an earthquake of the same extreme severity that caused Fukushima is rare, it is not impossible that it could happen again, especially since another Japanese nuclear plant sits directly on a known, active fault line. Fukushima displaced tens of thousands of people, and the unprecedented challenges of the cleanup effort have contributed to the public’s concerns about a return to nuclear power.

Polls show that most Japanese people do not approve of the restarts and there have been widespread protests each time a new reactor gets permission to be restarted. In spite the damage to his popularity, Prime Minister Abe’s administration strongly advocates the use of nuclear power, which has been a confirmed national strategic priority since 1973. Need, far more than concern for clean energy, drives this position in Japan, as Japan has few natural resources and imports more than four-fifths of its considerable energy needs. Nuclear power has the potential to massively cut Japan’s energy costs and dependence on foreign resources, as it had before Fukushima. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, prior to the disaster Japan depended on nuclear power for 30% of its energy.

According to the World Nuclear Association, Japan currently has 43 operable nuclear reactors, all of which had been shut down by September 2013 because of Fukushima. Aside from the three already approved, permission to restart proceedings has begun for 24 more reactors. According to the BBC, such a mass restart of dormant reactors is unprecedented. However, the legal issues which delayed the restart of two approved reactors present a common problem. Because of this, according to Parisian independent energy consulting firm Mycle Schneider, “The outlook for restarts is as cloudy as ever.” Reuters estimates that only seven reactors are likely to be turned back on in the next few years.

Japan’s traumatic history with nuclear power started with the atomic bombs detonated in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and later in the Bikini atoll, but its first nuclear disaster of the 21st Century came on different terms and with different implications for its future. Four and a half years later, Japan can only now begin to get an idea of Fukushima’s long-term repercussions for both its policies and its people.

-Sarah Grace