Not Human by Default: Humans of New York Takes on the Middle East

Mother and daughters in Amman, Jordan. From the Humans of New York web site.

Mother and daughters in Amman, Jordan. From the Humans of New York web site.

Humans of New York (HONY) is easily my favorite page on Facebook. It is a storyteller’s dream, offering personal insights into the seemingly detached residents of one of the largest cities in the world. Every day I trek to the page and go through all of the new photos, taking in the colorful images and vibrant words, wondering what I would say if Brandon Stanton, the man behind HONY, ever took my photo.

The page and the original blog have been around since 2010, and have been rapidly growing an audience, with more than 9 million likes on Facebook and 139,000 followers on Twitter. My Syrian friends and I would think, imagine if Stanton runs into a Syrian in NYC! Considering the hundreds of thousands of “likes” each of his posts receives, a Syrian story with a personal face might do the impersonal news narrative of our country some real good.

Last week the fantastical came true. Stanton did not just take a photo of a Syrian: he embarked on a 50-day trip with the United Nations spanning ten countries, to raise awareness of eight international development goals through portraits and stories.

Pictures of Iraqi refugees who have fled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), of Syrian refugees who had fled the violence of Assad regime, and Jordanian families and tourists took over the Humans of New York page. A shepherd in Petra. A single mother in Amman. A shoe shiner in Shaqlawa. Children playing in Dohuk. A struggling student in Erbil. A shopkeeper in Zaatari Refugee Camp. All offer glimpses into the starkly diverse lives of Middle Easterners who are being pushed closer together as escalating turmoil whirlwinds people into new directions and locations. 

As always, Stanton’s portraits are insightful, personal and thought-provoking. Even more thought-provoking than the photos, however, were the comments left by Facebook users. It’s hardly news that the narrative of the Syrian conflict is complicated, violent, impersonal and misunderstood. What surprised me were the daily comments thanking HONY for “humanizing the Middle East”.

It’s not that the comments were malicious—if anything most were genuinely kind and well-meaning. And I understand that the mainstream media in the West is often racist and Islamophobic, and simplifies the complex societal fabric of the Middle East into misleading clichés and canned rhetoric. What I do not understand, however, is how, in this age of digital media, in countries where freedom of speech is the norm, some people still need a population that is almost the same size as America’s to be “humanized” for them.

I don’t understand how, in countries as diverse and pluralistic as the United States, some need a social media trend to help them view other citizens of the world as “human”. And while I admire the openness of the HONY community, I don’t understand why it is so accepted to casually admit that previous to Stanton’s photos, Middle Easterners were not seen as human.

The unfortunate truth, perhaps, is that all “others” need to be humanized, practically by default. As a member of a community who has been trying to bring the struggles of Syrians to light in America for the past three years, we are constantly told our stories will only become relevant when they are made more relatable to Americans. Stanton’s signature style has given Syrians—and all those struggling in the Middle East—the much needed “relevance” they need in America’s ever narrowing attention span.

HONY is not just a page where Stanton shares portraits, but a space where a community shares support. Vignettes of love, pain, struggles, success and humor in New York—and now in the Middle East—are engaging people from around the world. My hope is that dialogue can move forward and reach a point where no one, no matter their nationality, location, race, gender or ability needs a portrait to prove they are “human”.

Hiba Dlewati is translator and researcher and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan whose work has been published in Today's Zaman, The Michigan Times, Qua Literary Magazine and United for a Free Syria. Follow her on Twitter at @Hiba_Dlewati. 


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