Behind the scenes of "Where the Children Sleep"

Swedish photojournalist Magnus Wennman had just arrived in Beirut, Lebanon when he met a refugee family – two little girls and their father – living on the side of the road.

"They told us that their home in Damascus had been hit by a grenade. The grenade had killed their mother and their brother," Wennman recalled. "Now they sleep on a piece of cardboard right next to the road, waiting for cars to stop and throw them some food. Their father told us that every time a car stopped he was afraid that someone would take the kids away from him. He told us that every now and then men in cars asked if they could buy the girls for a few hours."

Ralia, 7, Rahaf, 13 - Beirut, Lebanon Ralia and Rahaf live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. The girls and their father have been sleeping on the street for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of "bad boys," at which Ralia starts crying.  © Magnus Wennman

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimates that 2.5 million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Among them, stories like that of Ralia and Rahaf are sadly common. These children have fled the violence and terror that have become so synonymous with their country. The Syrian conflict is now in its sixth year with no end in sight, and one-in-three Syrian refugee children have never known anything but war and flight.

"I've covered a lot of different situations and conflicts and disasters, but from my experience, it takes a lot for a child to stop being a child"

Wennman, a two-time winner of the World Press Photo Award, decided to raise awareness about the tragic consequences of the crisis by photographing what bedtime brings for the youngest and most vulnerable refugees.

"I came up with this idea that I wanted to document where the refugee children sleep," said Wennman. "No matter how hard this conflict may be to understand, it's not hard to understand that children need a safe place to sleep."

In early 2015 Wennman traveled through seven countries in the Middle East and Europe where he met refugee children who showed him where they lay their heads at night. The result is "Where the Children Sleep", which puts faces, names, and stories to the millions of refugee children who spend the night in camps, in fields, outside closed borders, and on the side of the road now that their lives have been violently uprooted.

The stunning photo exhibition also depicts the devastating impact of the conflict that lasts long after they escaped their war-torn country.

Walaa, 5 - Mar Elias informal settlement, Lebanon Walaa wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, Syria, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the informal settlement, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa's mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.  © Magnus Wennman

"Many mentioned that they remembered the sounds of the bombings. One girl was afraid of resting her head on the pillow because nighttime in Syria was so horrible – that's when the attacks happened," he recalled.

When viewing Wennman's photos, it is clear that the subjects have been forced to face realities, responsibilities, and experiences that no child should have to endure.

"I've covered a lot of different situations and conflicts and disasters, but from my experience, it takes a lot for a child to stop being a child," said Wennman. "It takes a lot for a child to stop playing and stop laughing, but in some of these cases it felt like these children had to grow up and become adults far too fast."

Ahmed, 6 - Horgos, Serbia It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still awake, formulating plans for how they will continue their journey through Hungary. Ahmed is six years old, and he carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. "He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings," says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown of Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.  © Magnus Wennman

"Where the Children Sleep" is a powerfully simple portrayal of the effect of the Syrian conflict on the lives of children who have lost something that so many of us take for granted – a safe place to sleep at night. Wennman has partnered with UNHCR to display these photos in the United States to raise awareness about refugee children.​

"I don't know what happened to Ralia and Rahaf, but I do know that their story has travelled all over the world. I hope these photos help people understand, and perhaps care, to do something to help these victims of the war," he added.

By Arielle Moncure

UNHCR, in close collaboration with Fotografiska - The Swedish Museum of Photography, has brought Magnus Wennman's award-winning exhibit to the United States for the first time.