Dutch photographer Marieke van der Velden stood with Abou Badwi outside his makeshift tent in a refugee camp south of Beirut, Lebanon. There, as ominous clouds rolled overhead and a dance of dust darted past, Badwi explained the daily surrealism that is his life in a refugee camp.
Before his Syrian neighborhood collapsed, before he found himself crossing the border out of his homeland and fleeing for whatever semblance of safety he could find, Badwi was a well-respected member of his community. He was middle-class, owned two garages, and ran another business on the side. The story struck a chord with van der Velden — behind Badwi's silver beard and deep-set eyes, she saw her own father. The two men had once led parallel lives, from their similar professions, to their roles as community leaders.
But the civil war in Syria splintered the connection. It was these earlier lives, and what the refugees miss most about them, that van der Velden set out to capture in her photo series Outside Syria.
"I think it is too bad that our camp does not have a school and the school in the next camp is full. Because I was really good at math." Seif el Dine (left), 10, from Mu'addamiyah | (Marieke van der Velden)
In March and April 2015, van der Velden and her partner Philip Brink traveled to Lebanon, to the makeshift refugee camps that house nearly 1.5 million of the estimated 9.5 million Syrians who have fled their homes since the conflict began. The pair sought to humanize the victims of Syria's ongoing violence, and offer a more nuanced (and apolitical) perspective.
"I'm not focused on politics, but instead focused on stories behind the news," van der Velden says. "If you hear the heavy news all the time without the human stories, we start to get less sensitive and think, 'It's just news, it's just a bombing, it's just Syria, which almost doesn't exist anymore.'"
The connection van der Velden made with Badwi inspired her and Brink to find a way to offer that experience to even more people around the world. During their time in Lebanon, they took the refugees' portraits and made videos in which the displaced Syrians spoke of their experiences. But they also asked each of their interview subjects a question culled from an interesting source: Facebook.
Both van der Velden and Brink asked their Facebook friends whether they had questions for the refugees, and a surprising number of people responded with queries, ranging from the light ("Who is your favorite Dutch football player?") to the deeply existential ("Do you still believe in God?").
After van der Velden and Brink returned to the Netherlands, they posted the videos so that their Facebook friends could discover the answers to their questions.
"Our friends didn't expect to see their questions answered, and it's always nice to hear your own name in the video when each person addressed whomever had asked the question," van der Velden says. "We tried to connect two people one by one to get the feeling there's a Syrian person, and this is his name, and he's answering my question."
Through hours of interviews, van der Velden and Brink found a world of stories — from 10-year-old Baraa Aantar, who took it upon herself to instruct the younger displaced children in her camp based on what she could recall from her schooling, to Faisal, 23, who is stuck in Beirut while waiting for the paperwork that will allow him to join his wife in the Netherlands.
The common thread? A desire to get their stories out into a world that has put yet another crisis on mute.
"We easily think it's a country full of ISIS and gangs so this country is destroyed and that's it," van der Velden says. "But we forget a lot of people are still there."
"In Syria I was surrounded by my family and by my cousins. But here in the neighborhood I don't know anyone. I just feel very alone here." Raghida (not pictured) and her children Fady (left) and Ali, from Hashemija | (Marieke van der Velden)
"I know now for sure that we will never be able to go back since there is nothing left. The feeling of homesickness is now very painful." Wassim Mamo (left), 18, from Tell Nasri | (Marieke van der Velden)