Hidden Lives: The Untold Story of Urban Refugees

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

Photographer Andrew McConnell's latest work looks at the lives of urban refugees who have fled various conflicts from the past and present century.

Yet these are not the traditional pictures of refugees in transit camps. McConnell emphasises the urban setting, photographing his subjects at night, often picturing them against the vast ocean of artificial lights that illuminate the city streets.

"I photographed the refugees at night to use the darkness as a metaphor for their current situation," says McConnell. "I want to suggest that we live with refugees around us in our cities but we don't notice them, they seem hidden to us."

The work is global in its scope, taking many months to complete and shot in eight cities across four continents. Each of the refugees offer their story at the time they were photographed as to how they came to their new lives. For some it is a refuge, for others it is an enforced exile.

Here are a few of the frames that make up the work which can be seen at St Pancras International, London until the end of the month.

Fawaz Rarhail Turkey, 59, and his family fled the conflict in Syria and now live in al-Mafraq, Jordan

Image source, Andrew McConnell/panos

After the army forced their way into our homes we became afraid for our children and decided to flee the country. There were snipers everywhere; we saw them all the time. Syrian soldiers killed four of my neighbours and my brother was killed along with eight other people hiding in the bathroom of a nearby house.

The first thing we did was to move to another area within Homs. One day we were attacked and all the families went to hide in the mosque, we stayed there for two hours and then a pick-up truck came and asked if we wanted to leave to a safer place. We went with the driver and by the end of the week we were in Hama.

There I met a man who had a minibus and he agreed to take eight families to the border, 45 people in total. We travelled to Deraa and then the Free Syrian Army (FSA) helped us cross the border at night. We started walking at 8pm and arrived at 1am, at that time there were 150 people including elderly and children and we were afraid we would be targeted. The Jordanian army was waiting for us at the border. We were taken to a transit camp and treated well.

After three days we came here to an abandoned house. We feel secure and can sleep safely, not like in Syria. I was interviewed by an international NGO and they asked if I wanted to be resettled in another country. I said no, I will return to my country when the regime falls, we have no hope to return until then.

Lanier Lovely, 18, is a Haitian internally displaced by the earthquake that struck in January 2010

Image source, Andrew McConnell/panos

When the earthquake happened I was in the kitchen preparing a meal when the whole house started shaking. Suddenly the house collapsed and I was injured by rubble falling on my knee. At first I didn't realise I was bleeding. I kept on helping others who were trapped but then the pain set in and I collapsed. I was crying because I couldn't find my mother.

After the earthquake we slept in the streets. It was difficult because I was in agony, there were dead bodies there and people crying. Two days later we went back to the house to get some clothes and went straight to a camp.

Five days later I found my mother. I had gone back to the house to get laundry, that's when my mother found me. I was so happy I had thought she was dead.

After six months in the camp I was raped one night. It happened around 4am. I was by myself because people had gone to the countryside for a funeral and he came and threatened me with a knife. I tried to defend myself but he raped me all the same. A caseworker from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) took me to the hospital but it was too late - I was pregnant already.

My boy is called Lovinsky, he's 15 months old. I'm happy I have him and love him very much. Sometimes I think that if I had had a family, this wouldn't have happened. Sometimes I cry when I see other children who are living in a family with their fathers who support them.

I never saw the rapist again. I left the camp to stay with my aunt and once the baby was born I moved in with my mother who was staying in a tent in a camp. I didn't go to the police myself but the IRC staff went and explained what had happened. There's not enough security in the camp. I don't feel safe now, maybe the same thing could happen to me again. We need more security and lights at night and those rapists should go to prison.

I hope that God will protect me and give me the power to live and take care of my child. I hope I'll be able to leave the camp tomorrow. My mother is going to rent a house and we might move tomorrow.

Vietnamese refugee Nguyen, 21, from Con Dau now lives in Bangkok, Thailand

Image source, Andrew McConnell/panos

I was living in a Catholic parish in Con Dau, Da Nang, and the government wanted to close the parish and confiscate the land. On 4 May 2010 there was supposed to be a funeral for a local woman but the authorities wouldn't give permission so the police appeared and blocked the way into the cemetery. They started beating people, even pregnant women, with batons and electric rods. They arrested people including my mother, took the coffin and left the village in chaos.

According to the government, anyone who left the country was an enemy of the people. I went to Laos without notifying the police. The government didn't like Catholics since we have strong religious beliefs. So Catholics were banned from working for the government. We were discriminated against. You had to denounce your religion to work for the government.

My mother was in prison for six months and then sentenced to nine months house arrest. Other people in the prison were badly beaten and now suffer from the consequences. My mother would like to join me here but she is under police surveillance.

After the incident at the funeral I managed to make my way to Da Nang city. From there I took a bus to Laos and on to Thailand. I had a passport so was able to cross the border but other villagers without passports had to wander through the jungle. We were helped by a priest who brought all of us who had fled from Con Dau to the Department of Home Security. From there we were referred to the International Rescue Committee.

On 14 June 2012 I'll fly to Tennessee in the USA to be resettled. I'm very much looking forward to it - I've been waiting for this for two years. I'll be able to raise my voice and speak about what is happening in Vietnam and to try and solve the conflict between Catholics and the government. If I could, I would go back to see my parent but I think this will only be possible once the Vietnamese government changes.

Sri Lankan refugee Paramanantham Dhushyanthan, 31, from Mannar District now lives in Thailand

Image source, Andrew McConnell/panos

In Sri Lanka I was a member of the Eeelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). During the election, we were intimidated by the ruling government parties who didn't want us to run. We were beaten and threatened. Every night when you went to sleep you didn't know if you were going to wake up the next morning because there were many people from our area who were taken in the middle of the night and were never seen again.

I was afraid to stay in my own house so I stayed with friends or my sister. But one day I was kidnapped. It was on 10 July 2009 at 7pm. Six people turned up, pointed a gun at my chest and told me to get in their vehicle. I was taken to a clearing somewhere and they started beating me with their guns. One of them pointed his gun at my head and was ready to kill me but another one said, "Don't do it now, let's do it later. When we took him there was a doctor watching us." So I was allowed to return to my house where I told my mother what had happened. The next day she took me to Colombo.

I gathered some money, my sister sold some things and I made my way to Bangkok. After I left, people came to my home in Sri Lanka and threatened my family but my mother told them I had gone to India.

When I came to Bangkok I thought everything was going to be okay and after nine months I got refugee status.

I don't know what to do now. If I go home the police might catch me. If I am resettled I can start thinking about my future because I would know I could stay there permanently, but here, if I have dreams I can't do anything about them. Sri Lanka still isn't safe. The media is reporting that things are getting better in Sri Lanka but from my family all I hear is that people are still living in fear, there are still abductions.

Somali refugee Amina Abdi Hassan, 50, from Mogadishu now lives in Nairobi, Kenya

Image source, Andrew McConnell/panos

I left Mogadishu because life became impossible when al-Shabab came into power. I couldn't even go our to the market, I had no freedom. It was like I was a prisoner in my own city. It had been bad before, tribalism had started under the warlords; we were regularly robbed and it was difficult to run a business.

When al-Shabab came things got even worse. Women were forced to wear the jalabib, we weren't allowed to go out and if we were seen talking to a man they would accuse us of being prostitutes. They attacked and sometimes even killed women for such trivial things. There is no security there now, no government or authority to report to if anything happens. I saw people shot on the street and houses shelled. They forced their way into my neighbour's house and killed their whole family.

I fled Mogadishu in a cattle truck and then took a bus to Nairobi. There were eight of us, myself and my mother, two sons, two daughters and two grandchildren. We travelled in groups of two because we had no documents. If we had all travelled together it would have been too dangerous.

We had some relatives from the same clan and they contributed money which helped us to rent a place. In the beginning a lady helped me to buy some flasks and I started selling tea. Now I sell vegetables to help to provide for my family. I have been here for four years.

Life as a refugee is full of problems; at present my biggest problem is paying the rent. I would love to go back to Somalia but there is nothing left to go back to. It will take a very long time to improve. My hopes and expectations for the future however are not bad; I always think God will do something. I believe there will be changes, my children can maybe travel abroad and help me.

Iraqi refugee Ali Ahmed from Baghdad now lives in the USA

Image source, Andrew McConnell/panos

Life in Iraq was quiet before the war in 2003, never violent. My family lived with neighbours who were Sunni and Shia but we didn't know what religion they were until after the war. We lived a very normal life, my mother was a teacher for 25 years, my father was an engineer. I went to high school and was getting a good education.

At the beginning of the war people were not afraid to go out but after two or three years the violence really started to increase. My brother was shot, my other brother almost got killed, and I almost got killed a couple of times. My mum felt that if she stayed any longer in Iraq she was going to lose one of her sons so we fled to Damascus in Syria.

When they told us we would go to the USA we were so happy. We had many interviews and then in the last one they gave us the visas and the plane tickets and we left for America, I was so excited.

We came to New York because we had a sponsor here, we had family here. For the first four months the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are responsible for you but after that you have to work. We didn't find a job so we went to Idaho because we had friends there but it wasn't any easier and eventually after two years we said that's it, we're going to go back to New York.

We talked to the IRC and they helped us again to find an apartment and this time my mother and father found jobs. I got a job as a salesman. I'm responsible for the shoe department in a small store and now I'm an expert on shoes: heels, flats, sandals, boots, rain boots, everything! We've been back now for two years and we're very settled. We're thankful to the IRC because without them we wouldn't have had the opportunity to come back.

Next January I get my American citizenship, it feels great, believe me. It's important because you've been living here for four years, you accomplish something good, you've become part of this society. I love New York city for one thing: it's so diverse. People from all over the world live here. I'm really so thankful to God that he brought me here, I mean I've been through enough so I just kind of want to forget. I want to be more a part of this society, be more open minded.

Hidden Lives: the Untold Story of Urban Refugees is a project funded by the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department in partnership with the International Rescue Committee UK. You can see a video of the making of the project here (External site).

The work can be seen at St Pancras International, London until 31 January 2013.