Atlanta photojournalist Elizabeth Chappell braves ISIS, Turkish jail to chronicle Syrian refugee crisis

Chappell calls herself a "people photographer," but found herself shooting in a war zone.
Chappell calls herself a "people photographer," but found herself shooting in a war zone.
Chappell calls herself a "people photographer," but found herself shooting in a war zone.
Chappell calls herself a “people photographer,” but found herself shooting in a war zone.

The Turkish border guards pulled up in their military truck on the road on their side of the border, headlights flashing and automatic weapons firing into the air, just after Atlanta-based photojournalist Elizabeth Chappell and a small party of other journalists had managed to cross from Syria back into Turkey last spring. 

The journalists — two from French television, a Persian reporter from Paris, a Kurdish writer and Chappell — were being smuggled out of Syria by handlers and had quietly approached the border fence on foot. Just as the guides were leading them through a dry creek bed toward the Turkish border, three desperate Syrian families fell in behind them. They quickly relayed their story: Islamic State (ISIS) forces were in their villages killing everyone and they were fleeing for their lives. The reality of their situation could be heard in the booming sound of ISIS heavy weapons firing in the distance. 

Chappell in the bombed-out Syrian town of Kobanî.
Chappell in the bombed-out Syrian town of Kobanî.

Although Chappell had crossed this border three times before, this was the first time the 61-year-old, willowy blonde did not have to jump a razor wire fence. Instead, they found a narrow drainage channel that could take them under the fence. But the Syrian children panicked and began to cry and try to push over those in front of them in the culvert. 

Chappell frantically tried to pass the kids forward to safety, but their cries must have alerted the border guards. The guards arrived just as Chappell had gotten through, and she was pushed to the ground. The refugee families were forced back to the Syrian side and an uncertain fate. Chappell’s fate was not uncertain: She was facing interrogation and detention in a Turkish prison for illegally crossing the border. 

Along with the other journalists, Chappell had gone into Syria to document the carnage left by ISIS, the apocalyptic jihadist extremist militant group led mainly by Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria. ISIS currently controls territory occupied by some 10 million people in Iraq and Syria and as a self-proclaimed caliphate, they claim authority over all Muslims worldwide. 

Rising to prominence with a military campaign during the Syrian civil war in 2011, ISIS has embraced the tactic of terror. As shown by their recent attack in Paris and the downing of a Russian airliner, they now have supplanted Al-Qaeda as the primary terrorist organization in the Middle East. 

Chappell was able to witness the beginnings of the Syrian refugee crisis. More than 300,000 Syrians fled into Turkey to escape ISIS forces in September 2014, as ISIS advanced on the politically important Syrian city of Kobanî. The conflict resulted in the destruction of 90 percent of the city.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, aided by air strikes from a coalition of countries that included the United States, finally recaptured the city in March. But the damage was done.

ISIS was defeated in March, leaving rubble in its wake.
ISIS was defeated in March, leaving rubble in its wake.

Chappell was the first American photojournalist to reach Kobanî after the defeat of ISIS. She met with the people, shared their meals and heard their stories. Although she took plenty of photos of the devastation that ISIS wrought, Chappell is not a war photographer. “I am a people photographer and I focused my attention on the people of Kobanî,” she says.

It was her innate compassion that endeared her to many of Kobanî’s survivors, but being an American also was helpful; they credited the coalition bombing with driving out ISIS and they loved Americans. In fact, Chappell says “Obama” is now the number one baby name among the Kurds. 

Born and raised in Atlanta, Chappell comes from a long line of photographers. Her grandfather was a professional photographer and her father was one of the first school portrait photographers in Atlanta in the 1940s. “When I was growing up, my dad owned the largest film processing plant in the Southeast,” Chappell says. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t taking pictures.” 

Although she had always had an avid interest in ancient history, especially in early Christianity, she had an epiphany at the age of 28 that changed her life. “I was sitting in a dentist’s chair, woozy from the drugs, and I overheard him telling his assistant about his recent trip to Turkey,” she says. Chappell knew immediately she wanted to go to that country. Turkey has a rich history of ancient civilizations and was exactly the kind of adventure she was seeking.

When Delta began to fly nonstop to Istanbul, her brother-in-law, a Delta captain, gave her a buddy pass, and Chappell was off to Turkey with her camera gear and eventually moved there in 2010. Her import/export firm, Let’s Talk Turkey, had been helping foreign visitors from North American and Europe for more than 15 years, but photography remained her passion.

She was also passionate about helping the Syrian refugees she saw and photographed on the streets of Istanbul. Through an ex-pat group, she helped collect and distribute blankets, food and toys, while documenting the people she met.

Then, on September 23, 2014, 130,000 refugees crossed into Turkey from the Syrian city of Kobanî in a single day, and Chappell flew to Suruç, a city on the Turkish side of the border, with plans to photograph the mass migration for a documentary.

Her second day at the border, Kurdish fighters began to climb the fence to go into Kobanî to fight against ISIS, and Chappell followed with her cameras. But when the Turkish military began to fire tear gas over the border, she ran back to the fence and tried to jump over, breaking her arm. She did, however, shoot photos on both sides of the border.

Recuperating in Istanbul, Chappell continued to follow the war in Syria. After ISIS was defeated in intense fighting by the Kurds, Chappell returned to Suruç and waited for two weeks along with two Germans, a Brazilian with CNN and some Kurdish activists, all trying to get across the border into Kobanî to document the carnage of the ISIS occupation. 

Chappell is eager to return to Turkey, if authorities there will let her back in.
Chappell is eager to return to Turkey, although it’s unlikely authorities there will issue her another residence card..

Finally, in a small cottage near the border, the group met with a handler willing to guide them across the border. “It was pitch dark at three o’clock in the morning when we were led down a narrow path across three mountains to a razor wire fence,” Chappell says. “I could clearly hear the sounds of ISIS artillery in the distance.” 

This time she had help getting over the fence, but as soon as she did the area was lit up by the Turkish military and the group had to hit the deck. They crawled into a darkened ditch beside a railroad track and waited there until the lights were extinguished. 

In a scene that could have been lifted from The Great Escape, the journalists had to crawl to a mountain path and walk single file to avoid potential land mines — one step off the path could have been their last. 

After a two-hour hike, the group reached a village at sunrise and a Kurdish truck came to pick them up to take them to Kobanî. “They would not accept any kind of payment for bringing us across.” Chappell says. “The Kurds just want their story told.” 

She spent two weeks with the people in Kobanî, and would have stayed longer except she wanted to get her photos out. Making a rendezvous with a Kurdish van, she and the other journalists were taken to a hill overlooking the border. When Chappell saw there were no mountains to cross this time, she thought, “Thank goodness!”

Chappell has done extensive work to help the Syrian refugees in the United States.
Chappell has done extensive work to help the Syrian refugees in the United States.

Her guide had told her to claim she was a tourist, but when the border guards searched her they found her residence card. There is a law that foreigners caught crossing from Syria into Turkey would be deported for a period of one year, but the Turkish officials had only just begun to enforce it.

Stuck in a crowded cell in Urfa with 50 other women — mostly prostitutes, a Syrian family and Islamists who had been trying to join the fight with ISIS — Chappell had reason to fear for her life. “Security was lax inside the prison and the cell doors were left open so the inmates could go to the bathroom or go for a smoke,” she says. “Among the men in an adjoining cell was a 22-year-old kid who had been with ISIS for seven months and I feared for my life. Since ISIS places a bounty on American heads, I was afraid he would murder me in my sleep.”

She was relieved when the prison officials told her she was being transferred to a better facility in Ankara. But when she got there, she realized they had lied to her. There were 300 women in the Ankara jail, many with kids, and the inmates were fed one cold meal per day. 

Chappell was told she would not be released until she had passage back to the United States, but she didn’t have the money to purchase a plane ticket home. It was only thanks to a social media campaign that her friends raised the money to pay her fare. She remained in Turkish custody for 25 days. Under the terms of her deportation, she cannot return to Turkey for a year and it is unlikely that she’ll be issued another residence card. 

A little Syrian girl finds hope in a refugee camp.
A little Syrian girl finds hope in a refugee camp.

An exhibition of Chappell’s photos will be held at a date to be determined in 2016 at Mousa Fine Art as part of a fundraiser for Syrian refugees. Plans for a documentary are in the works.

Chappell’s decision to photograph the plight of Syrian refugees affected her life in ways she did not expect. While she awaits a return to her adopted home, she remains an activist and has been working with the Kurdish Cultural Center in Atlanta to help the refugees coming to the United States.

Chappell never expected them to become political footballs, with a large segment of the country vilifying the refugees as potential terrorists. 

“As a Christian whose life is about compassion for the downtrodden and the underdogs, I believe that America should take in Syrian refugees,” she says. “Our Christian community needs to support and get behind refugees coming to the U.S.A. The message of Christ was all about helping the poor, the widows and orphans.”

Chappell says it is a measure of their despair that so many Syrians have left the country to migrate to Europe, and for many of them to seek refuge in the United States. To them it is worth risking their lives traveling across the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats, rather than face sure death under ISIS. The so-called caliphate has caused one of the greatest humanitarian crises since World War II. 

“Those who remain are getting some assistance, but they need a lot,” Chappell says. “I am hopeful my photographs can help make a difference. The Kurds are the kindest, most hospitable, most giving people I’ve ever met and I can’t wait to go back.”

Related posts