Refugee stories are often more terrifying than scary movies, made even more horrible because they’re real. Those who survive their ordeals are left with grisly memories, and worse yet, remembrances of those who did lose their lives during the nightmare voyages.

Small wooden sailboat crafted for the Human Cargo Art Project.

In an effort to help refugees from Syria and other countries that traversed the Mediterranean to escape persecution, an art project called “Human Cargo” was initiated. The project hopes to help them heal from the terror they’ve endured and cope with the loss of family and friends they experienced along the way. It’s also hoped that the project will make more Germans sympathetic to their plight and inspire them to take proactive roles in the healing process.

Surviving Displacement

Overhead shot of the Human Cargo Art Project, with makeshift tombstones and memorials visible in the center.

Human Cargo was organized by Malteser International, the worldwide relief agency of the Order of Malta that provides aid and support to internally dislocated people in Syria, as well as Syrian refugees all around the world. The project is located in Ahaus, a small town in western Germany. It was created by the refugees themselves, who methodically piled up wooden pallets used in the freight holds of cargo ships to form a large oval frame on the ground. Each person then placed handmade crosses and plaster tombstones in the center of the frame in honor of their lost loved ones.

Tales Of Terror And Trauma

A lot of these refugees recall being stacked like lumber on boats, five people stacked on top of one another so that the traffickers could make the most possible money. Each person paid between $1,700 and $4,500 for their spot on these boats — a sum commonly raised by up to 40 family members just to pay for a single person’s chance at asylum in Europe. Many others attempted to cross the sea in even smaller wooden boats and dinghies, praying and making phone calls in fear that they might never make it onto dry land.

A young Syrian man stands at the center of the Human Cargo Art Project.

When it comes to humanitarian crises like this one, the horror stories are endless. One group of men fled their homeland of Eritrea with their sisters. To save them from harm, the men told traffickers that the women were their wives. The traffickers saw through the ruse and retaliated by insisting that the men sleep with their “wives” to gain passage on the boats. When the men said no, the traffickers raped the women, several of whom discovered that they were pregnant when they arrived in Germany. Not long after learning the news, a few of these women committed suicide.

Hope Springs Eternal

Ines Ambaum, Human Cargo’s artistic director, explains that refugees “show different faces” depending on who they interact with and what they’re doing. Each screw they drilled into the project’s pallets brought back memories of their ghastly trip across the sea, but with each passing day they continue to speak and heal a little more. She notes: “When you think about the fact that the people who had to go through this are being attacked by xenophobes and chased through the streets in Germany — that’s like a second rape.”

Ines Ambaum works alongside Syrian refugees to build the Human Cargo Art Project.

Ambaum has high hopes going forward, citing the continually increased integration of Syrian refugees into German culture. She shared: “Ninety-eight percent of them are able to fully integrate! But no one’s reporting on that. It’s too positive for the press and doesn’t seem to match our country’s current mood. But it’s true. I see it every day.”