Indonesia: changing the Narrative through Social Networks


At 18, Abdullah Sarwari, an Afghan refugee based in Indonesia, created the Humans of Refuge Facebook page. 


Humans of Refuge, inspired by Humans of New York, highlights photographs and stories of refugees living in Indonesia. My idea was to share real and authentic stories of refugees I know and understand.


As a refugee myself, arriving in Jakarta from Afghanistan, I felt the urge to speak up and to give voice to those I know for real and with whom I share an experience. Living among them makes me a witness to their daily struggles. Just like them, I know how tough it is to be far from a home to which you will not return, especially when you are not sure you can settle down in your new country for good. Indonesia only allows refugees to remain in the country until they can be resettled elsewhere. As a result, displaced people like me live in limbo for years. During this time we have no right to study or work, and consequently most of us face unsettling financial issues.


As a 18-year-old man, I believe social media and specifically Facebook is a very efficient way to elevate people’s voices and opinions. Social networks are accessible to more and more people and they do not require any sort of formality in order to share ideas.



This young generation matters very much to me as a subject too; children are the most vulnerable victims of this nightmare



One of my goals is to speak to a wide public and especially to millennials. I believe that if I can’t eradicate the refugee crisis now, the least I can do is to try to change the younger generation’s perspective about refugees. This young generation matters very much to me as subject, too; children are the most vulnerable victims of this nightmare.


However, my mission is never easy and I face obstacles. For example, there is hesitation within the community to share stories of the refugee experience. I also do not have the basic resources: I don’t have my own camera or voice recorder. And most challenging of all is that it’s barely possible for me to travel freely. In Indonesia, refugees are not allowed to travel to other neighboring cities or areas apart from the ones they live in. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) card I possess only allows me to stay in Jakarta and its surrounding areas.


For a long time, this tricky state-of-affair made me expect more fortunate people do something for us — even something as little as telling our stories to the world, because whenever the word “refugee” is spoken, negative words come to people’s mind, such as beggar, terrorist or burden. It is very painful to see how we are unknowingly affiliated with such words which may or may not be true.


Nevertheless, within the past few years, I have observed many journalists, photographers and storytellers coming to us, asking for our stories, taking a few pictures and then disappearing for good. In my opinion these people were not there to help, but only for their own benefit. Many of us got the impression we were “used” but not heard. It was very disappointing.


Photo Abdullah Sarwari


“Today in Refugee microfashion”


Photo Abdullah Sarwari


“I first started playing football 6 years ago in Jaghori, Afghanistan, when I was 13. After arriving in Indonesia, the first thing I did was to look for friends to play football with. It’s been two years now and I have not given up on my dream to become a professional player. Mr Sadegh is my coach and I play 2 or 3 games every week.”


“My family is OK with my career plans. They don’t know much about football but because it is my decision, they respect it. Football is more than just a game, it’s is a lifestyle.”


Photo Abdullah Sarwari


“In Iraq, I felt in love with a girl. I was lucky, she loved me back.  But there was one problem. She was a Shi’ia and I was a Sunni. Religion is a very sensitive topic and it is very uncommon for my people to marry someone who does not belong to the same tribe and religious sect. But what can I say, I was in love. I knew some conflict might come up, but I married her no matter what.”


“In order to avoid trouble from her extended family, we decided not to live together. I used to visit her twice a week. It was not exactly the perfect situation, but at least we were together. We spent a few months this way. Then, one of her uncles found out about our marriage.  One day he came by my shop with his son — who worked for a Shi’ia militia in Iraq — and another man. We had a heated argument.  All of a sudden, the uncle punched me in the face. I felt down and they began to kick me in my stomach. His son used a hammer to hit me in the back. Several times. It felt like a needle was being inserted into my spinal cord. I can still remember the pain like it is happening to me right now. That feeling of agony is the last thing I recall before losing consciousness…” 


Photo Abdullah Sarwari


“6 months ago, I didn’t even know how to properly kick a ball, but today I just won the Player of the Month Award!”


If you want to support Abdullah Sarwari’s work, get in touch with him.

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  • Abdullah Sarwari

    Abdullah Sarwari is an 18 year old Afghan refugee man. His family is originally from Afghanistan, although he was born in Pakistan and raised in Iran. Now based in Indonesia, Abdullah is a photographer at Human of Refuge as well as a social worker at the Refugee Learning Center -- a school established in Indonesia by the refugee community in September 2015. The school has 140 students (age 5-16) in the morning shift and over 80 adults in the afternoons English classes. Students come from 4 different countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

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