BETH MCLAUGHLIN WRITES – Most people are by now familiar with “Humans of New York” —photojournalist Brandon Stanton’s project of interviewing ordinary, anonymous New Yorkers about whatever is on their minds. Stanton has a wide audience that goes beyond his Facebook page. With two best-selling books, 20 million followers across multiple social media pages, and dozens of copycat accounts, Stanton’s simple formula––a portrait accompanied by a quote or short story from their lives––has resonated widely. In recent years, Stanton has taken his show on the road, changing his cover stories to the name of the country he is currently visiting. 2017 saw “Humans of Russia,” “Humans of Peru,” and “Humans of Colombia.” Now, Mr. Stanton has traveled to Bangladesh for a series on the Rohingya refugees.
Lulled by Stanton’s simple format, which represents people all around the world in similar poses and renders their comments in American English, the shift to Rohingya quotes was shocking. “I forgot my baby boy,” says one wide-eyed young mother in a colorful hijab. “I left him in the house because I thought we were coming right back. I wanted to save him but my husband held me down. So my baby burned in the house. I’d have brought him with me, but I thought we were coming right back.”
Others talk about fleeing on foot, helping starving relatives continue the long journey. A man in his twenties talks about how this camp is all he’s ever known, with its miles of plastic tents and lack of education or job opportunities.
The response in the comments box was mixed. While the vast majority of commenters expressed sadness and empathy for the refugees, some said they were upset to see these stories on the page. “I loved reading humans of new york [sic] but am less impressed with this now,” said one British woman, “It seems to have turned into a funding page.” She also criticized the parents of some of the youngest refugees for daring to bring children into the world in their miserable conditions.
On the other hand, some international commentators saw parallels with their own lives. “When I was a child, this same thing happened in my country (Bosnia),” one woman wrote. “They came to our village and started killing everyone, young and old. We had to run to the forest too and we walked for days looking for safety. To see this happening again, in this day and age is just heart wrenching….I wish I could magically make it better for them.”
700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar to camps in Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. One man talked about initiatives to help house them: “We’ve designed sturdy bamboo houses and we’re building them as fast as we can. We want to finish as many as possible before the monsoon season arrives.”
Bamboo houses are a tough, low-cost option that would provide better shelter than the plastic tents refugees are currently living in; $600 can buy a bamboo house. Stanton pitched the idea on his Facebook page, and within a week had passed the original goal of $500,000. 21 days later and the current total is at $2,049,510, or 3,415 houses for 20,500 people (each house can hold a family of six). One commenter calculated that $5 from each subscriber on the Humans of New York facebook page would cover the cost of housing for all 700,000 Rohingya refugees. This started a rapid movement down the page of people donating $10––$5 from themselves and another $5 to cover any subscriber who could not afford to donate.
40,000 people from around the world have donated so far. Jerome Jarre, a former French vine star known for his prank videos, will remain in the camp to organize the donations and make sure construction occurs with minimal overhead costs. Jarre previously raised $5,000,000 with other YouTubers (known as the Army of Love) and used it to help refugees in Somalia and Bangladesh. On both occasions he moved to the country in question for several months to make sure the funds went to their intended recipients. Jarre will work with the American Refugee Committee to construct the bamboo houses with the help of hundreds of Rohingya volunteers, who will be paid for their time.
Western media has paid little attention to the Rohingya crisis. Various academics and journalists have offered reasons for this lack of coverage, but it offers a testament as well to Stanton’s ability to raise $2 million with a social media photojournalism project. Perhaps there is something about his format that makes the crisis seem less distant. As one American man commented, “You can read articles about the crisis and try to digest the numbers of refugees, deaths and casualties but these stories have an amazing ability to bring home the crisis one survivor at a time.”
If you would like to donate, you can find the fundraiser here.