In Flight

Documenting the refugees fleeing war to seek safety in Europe


SKALA SIKAMINEAS, LESBOS, GREECERefugees from Syria rest on the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos. Thousands of refugees cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey in rubber boats every day, fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.A Syrian refugee who came to Lesbos that week by one of many boats told me his new life had just started. “New life as a human being,” he added.      I hope he will not question this emotional sentence on the long way to a new home even though there are signs from the first seconds of their arrival that the refugees didn’t land in a paradise.      Every boat that comes to the island is greeted by two groups. There are dedicated volunteers who work in shifts during day and night to help refugees in their first hours in Europe—and then there are also groups of   “engine hunters,” as they are called here. Very often they come first. They only care for the boat. The engines are removed before the last person is taken care of. Business is business.      It was a long week full of almost surreal scenes…Photograph by Maciek Nabrdalik

Maciek Nabrdalik is on Instagram and Twitter.


In the fall of 2015, Maciek Nabrdalik, a Warsaw-based documentary photographer, turned to a contemporary humanitarian crisis: the plight of refugees fleeing ceaseless wars. Nabrdalik, a Nieman Foundation fellow at Harvard this year, is studying migration.

Describing this project, he has written, “They first appear as small, undefinable spots on the horizon. Nobody knows exactly when and where they will appear—but what is certain is that they keep coming. Several dozen times a day. Within an hour, usually, those spots begin to come into focus. Those spots are humans. Fifty heads—side by side. Fifty stories, tragedies and dreams clustered in small black rubber dinghies, which set sail from the Turkish coast toward Europe. They escape from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, fleeing war, fear, and poverty. For some, these couple of kilometers of the Aegean Sea will be the most expensive journey of their lives. Many people see this first contact with Europe as a rebirth. They rejoice in the help that they receive in the beginning of a new, better life. But maybe they don’t think about the real journey, which is just beginning. A journey in which their identities, their reasons for escaping, once again become a blur. For at least several weeks, these people will become a shapeless migration mass, associated by European Union countries with ‘imposed quota policies,’ a dangerous, foreign wave of immigrants flooding Europe. They will face weeks of waiting, arduous journeys on foot, by train, bus. They will experience bleak conditions, uncertainty, humiliation and pain. But their persistence will endure.”

His work was first exhibited locally at the Harvard Ed Portal last fall.

~ The Editors


Two overcrowded dinghies are about to land on the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey.
We were told this day would be quiet. The day before we heard a few reasons why: the weather was supposed to be bad, the prices for the life-changing boat trip were going to be higher than the day before, and, finally, the celebrations of Eid al-Adha were going to stop the traffic for some time. None of these changed the situation. By 9 a.m., we saw at least 15 boats like these. Each person had to pay around $1,000 for this chance.

Photograph by Maciek Nabrdalik

A group of refugees walk toward Eftalou, a small village on the north coast of Lesbos, where the volunteers provide necessary aid and direct them toward Mytilene, the island’s capital. 
They will soon realize that these few kilometers are just the begining of their long journey. For the next two weeks they will mainly walk, wait, commute between borders, and sleep in temporary camps before they will reach their destinations.
Photograph by Maciek Nabrdalik

Thousands of refugees board two overnight ferries to Athens to continue their exhausting journey through the Balkans to northern Europe.

Photograph by Maciek Nabrdalik

Online Extras


(1 of 5) Family and volunteers surround a refugee who collapsed on a beach after arriving in an overcrowded dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey on September 24, 2015.
Photograph by Maciek Nabrdalik

Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia

(1 of 7) Refugees wait under a plastic cover in a heavy rain to register in Presevo, Serbia, on October 7, 2015. All refugees crossing the Serbia-Macedonia border must register in the camp in Presevo.
Photograph by Maciek Nabrdalik

Read more articles by: Maciek Nabrdalik

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