Humans of New York’s Most Important Story Yet

A petition started by the creator of photoblog Humans of New York (HONY), Brandon Stanton, is one of the fastest growing petitions in the history of Change.org.

Brandon has told thousands of compelling stories to his millions of followers. So when he posted on Sunday that he was about to share “perhaps the most important story” he’s ever told, people listened.

Brandon shared photos and stories about Aya, an Iraqi refugee living in Turkey, whose application for asylum was rejected by the United States. His posts invite users to support her appeal to come to America by signing his petition.

His series, which culminated today in a final and eleventh post about Aya, has moved more than 980,000 people to lend their voice to her appeal to President Obama (and still growing). On average, the petition is gaining over 14,000 signatures per hour, and peaked at approximately 100,000 signatures per hour.

Clearly, people are touched by Aya’s story in the same way that Brandon was when he met Aya on a recent trip to the Middle East. While there, he visited with refugee families in Jordan and Turkey to document their stories for Humans of New York.

“One day Aya, you will be the voice of refugees”

Aya was nine-years-old when she and her family fled Iraq for Syria after war broke out. As Aya explained, there was so much screaming and fighting in Iraq, it seemed like “there was blood in the sky.”  

In Syria, Aya’s life was starting to feel normal again–she enrolled in school, and did so well her teachers told her, “One day Aya, you will be the voice of refugees.” But then war came to Syria, her school was threatened and Aya saw people killing each other on the street. So her family fled war once again, this time to Turkey.

But life in Turkey has not been easy for Aya and her family. Aya has been hit by a car, her sister’s teeth were knocked out in school, and her father has disappeared. In the streets, people shout at Aya and her family to leave.

“Being a refugee is really hard. They blame us for everything. They blame us for no jobs. For crowded streets. For crime. They say that we are the reason for everything bad,”Aya told Brandon.  

In the hopes for a better life, Aya and her family applied for resettlement in the United States. After two interviews, and months of waiting, Aya’s prayers had been answered: her family had been accepted.

She explains when her family found out, “It was like a wedding. We turned on the music. We started dancing and crying and kissing each other. A new life! The United States! We couldn’t believe it!”

But then two weeks later, Aya received a letter say that there had been a mistake and her family had been rejected, with no explanation. “All of my dreaming ended on the day this letter arrived. I became a person without hope,” said Aya. “It was like a nightmare.”

Since her father disappeared, Aya’s family depends on her salary from her work as an interpreter. Without it, her family could not survive as her mother’s physical disabilities and severe panic attacks prevent her from working. It’s a lot to shoulder for a 20-year-old.

“I can’t handle all of this by myself … I’m a warrior and I’m strong and I’ve fought so much, but even warriors get tired,” she told Brandon.

“I’ve been having crazy thoughts lately…I feel very scared. I never wanted to be the traditional Arabic girl who marries her cousin and spends all day in the house. I’ve worked so hard to escape it all…but if things don’t change for me, I think I’ll have to go back to Iraq.”

Sadly, Aya’s story is a common one among refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 4.3 million registered Syrian refugees. As of now, the United States has pledged to take 10,000 refugees.