How we reported the ‘Fleeing Syria’ series and reader reactions

Since 2012, a civil war and a brutal Islamist insurgency have driven 11 million Syrians from their homes — half the nation’s population. More than 4 million have fled the country entirely, many of them arriving now in Europe.

The Los Angeles Times has long been documenting the crisis. Our “Fleeing Syria” series attempts to go beyond the stunning numbers and look at the human dramas that are, even now, playing out in thousands of heartbreaking journeys across the globe.

Huda Malak, with her hand on her face, waits on shore for word on fate of her husband who jumped into the water to help save others in a capsizing raft. (Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

In the first part, A Desperate Migration, Middle East correspondent Patrick J. McDonnell introduced readers to Huda Malak and her family as they swept into shore on the Greek island of Lesbos in an inflatable rubber raft. Malak’s husband had jumped overboard en route from Turkey — where the family had initially sought refuge — to keep the boat from sinking. Malak, as we met her, was weeping on the beach.

From writer Patrick J. McDonnell:

This was the fallout from the Syrian war arriving at Europe’s borders. I’d covered the Syrian conflict almost since its outset. I had traveled through much of Syria reporting on the war.

So the story of Syrians fleeing to Europe was a natural extension of my beat.

The island of Lesbos, just a few miles from the Turkish coast, had become the hot spot for Syrians fleeing on rafts from the Turkish coast. The sleepy vacation isle abruptly acquired global renown as a migrant way station.

At sunrise, the incoming boats appeared as black specks on the horizon. It was always a bit of a logistical challenge to predict where the boats would land. A smart bet was to watch the savvy Greek scavengers outfitted with binoculars and motorbikes who grabbed the rafts’ discarded outboard engines once the craft landed. They were usually first on the scene.

Edward Mardini celebrates on the beach with his family and another group of Syrians on the island of Lesbos, Greece. (Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

“Here comes the money,” one said memorably as a packed raft lurched toward the coast.

The arriving migrants were generally thrilled to have survived. The rafts were inevitably overcrowded. Everyone was stunned that they faced a day’s walk in the unforgiving sun to a camp at the other end of the island. Most had only vague notions of the countries — Germany, Sweden, Denmark — where they planned to start new lives. But all were determined to make it. There was no going back.

Next, Los Angeles Times staff writer Christopher Goffard told the story of Sawsan Ghazal, a former dressmaker from the Syrian town of Aleppo who had hitched passage with a smuggler to start a new life for her family in Sweden — except her husband and children were still stuck, after more than a year and a half, back in Turkey.

Ghazal faced A Mother’s Wrenching Choice, and we chronicled the family’s long months in limbo, spread between two continents.

From writer Christopher Goffard:

I spent three weeks in Sweden this summer interviewing Syrian refugees and immigration officials at asylum centers, cities and towns across the country. Along with photographer Rick Loomis, I met Sawsan Ghazal at the language center where she takes Swedish classes in downtown Ljusdal, a few hours north of the capital, Stockholm.

We accompanied her on her daily routines, from her job at a perfume shop to a Syrian market where she shops, and we were present during several of her Skype exchanges with her family in Turkey.

Days after meeting her, I flew to Turkey to interview the rest of her family at their apartment in Istanbul. After returning to the United States, I conducted follow-up interviews with Sawsan and her family by phone.

In the next story of the series, Los Angeles Times' Cairo bureau chief Laura King explored the lives of Syrian women in Egypt who find comfort in starting a catering business as their families struggle to make a new life.

From writer Laura King:

The story of Syrian refugees fleeing from war is such a dramatic, dynamic one. In months past, my colleagues and I have seen remarkable and wrenching scenes: Desperate people breaking through border fences, sleeping on bare ground, jamming their way onto trains and staggering out of the surf. But once these people find tentative safety somewhere, life in exile is a much quieter kind of struggle. People are mourning enormous losses, but also asking themselves fundamental questions about what matters most to them, and wondering how they can order their new lives accordingly. They know they have to move forward, but they also need to salvage something from the shipwreck of their old lives, if nothing more than custom and memory.

In a city that has seen such reversals and upheavals, I felt lucky for the days I spent with the women of this cooking circle — watching them at work, absorbing the sounds and smells in their makeshift kitchen (and being pressed to taste almost everything they produced). Their labors at times seemed like a metaphor for displacement and sorrow, but also an emblem of their tentative hopes. Listening to these women talk among themselves, learning indirectly of their fears and frustrations, seeing the small ways in which they helped each other through each day — it felt at once deeply personal and ringingly universal.

Readers, in emails and comments, expressed deep sympathy for these families torn from their homes and divided from their loved ones; but many also worried about the impacts in Europe as hundreds of thousands of refugees stream in for what could be long-term resettlement.

Here’s a bit of what they had to say:

Your piece on Sawsan Ghazal and her family was powerful and moving. Your words created a clear portrait of who these people are, their struggles, their hopes, and despair and gave anyone who read your article, a much deeper knowledge of the victims of this tragedy in Syria that goes far beyond the label "Syrian refugee". You gave them a clear voice and us a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the devastating human toll of this war.



I have been following the migrant situation in Europe progress and delay for months with great sympathy for those struggling to find a home as well as those trying to manage the huge influx of people. I found your article on Fleeing Syria in the L.A. Times this morning to be incredibly moving; you beautifully communicated the struggle Sawsan and her family are going through, especially the medical difficulties that exacerbate the already hard realities that the war and subsequent separation have inflicted upon them and many other families. Unfortunately, I do not work on the Swedish Migration Board so I am unable to directly facilitate the reunion of this family, but I feel compelled to try to help in any way I can.



Beautifully written and very compelling. Everyone who reads the LA Times should just drop to their knees in gratitude. And stop complaining about conserving water.

Kudos to to you!! I eagerly await the hopefully happy ending of this story.



Thank you so very much for bringing humanity to these brave people who are simply living in the wrong place at the wrong time.



I truly feel terrible for these migrants. They didn't ask for this, they would much rather stay in their homeland then have to travel elsewhere, but they have no other choice.



Europe just invited ISIS into their homes! Many of these economic migrants were fleeing Syria because Putin showed up with Russia's military. They knew they had little chance against Russia so have now taken their jihadi terrorist skills and fled into Europe...this will not end well!



They need to be repatriated back to the Middle East when the violence ends and things calm down.



What about the 300,000 refugees we just took from central America? Who is paying for that? The media and our government are strangely silent.



Another reader wondered why the Syrians, once safely landed in Turkey, were pushing onward to Europe.

No one is trying to kill them [in Turkey]. Imagine if economic migrants from Mexico would start rioting and trying to breach the U.S. border. What would we do? Syrians are no different - they stopped being refugees and became migrants the moment they left Turkey.



In another story in the series — “Fortune struck for these Syrian migrants, but can they make it in California?” —Times staff writer Kate Linthicum described the uneasy transition of a Syrian refugee family in Southern California. They had the good fortune to be among the relatively few Syrians to be resettled in the United States, but as Linthicum observes, “lucky isn’t the same as easy.”

From writer Kate Linthicum:

The more time I spent at the American Inn in Pomona, the more I came to understand the good fortune of the Syrian refugee family living there.

It seemed like every day they received some terrible new update from friends or relatives back home or in exile. One night, they showed me video footage of barrel bombs falling on their hometown of Douma, Syria. The next, they shared reports of street harassment from friends seeking asylum in Europe.

And yet here this family was — safe and together in Southern California.

But the story wasn’t that simple. Fouad Wawieh and his family may have hit the lottery when they were chosen for resettlement in one of the world’s wealthiest nations, but refugee life is never easy.

Photographer Katie Falkenberg and I spent about a month with the family, accompanying them to school, to Costco, and to failed job interviews. We watched as they struggled to find a permanent home and the English to accomplish even the most menial tasks. What struck me above all was the tenderness between them. The solidarity. Even the youngest children were attuned to it, and would stop bickering when their parent’s conversation turned to the war at home or their struggles here.

While we were reporting, Congress began debating strict new limits on the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the U.S. Amid all that noise about how refugees are admitted, we hoped to show a clearer picture of who is coming and why.

Readers had a similar range of responses to the article about the family in Pomona:

Thanks for your important article on the Fouad Wawieh family from Syria. I hope it reaches a wider audience than just LA Times subscribers so that it can help soften the hearts and purse strings of those who rail against refugees. Also, I hope you are deluged with inquiries from folks like me who would like to help this immigrant family. Please let me know how we can try to help make their adjustment to a new culture a little less difficult. Thank you.



Thank you for this reporting! I needed to read a refuge story that sounds like the America I know we are meant to be.



If your article was intended to seek sympathy for the refugee issues it, it didn't. It just reinforced my belief that we should take care of our veterans, children who live in poverty and our own social inequities. I would only hope you do an article with stories of our homeless veterans.



Please let Mr. Fouad Wawieh and family know that they are most welcome in California and we wish them all the best for a safe and happy future.

We have a beautiful state, and hope that they will soon be able to see all the beautiful areas soon.

We pray that they find good jobs and that Omar can soon have his love here with him.

May God bless the Wawieh family.



Thank you so much for your story about the Wawieh family. I hope that your article will help to humanize the face of Syrian refugees for Americans who never have a chance to meet any and feel scared by the sight of a hijab.