These Heartbreaking Illustrations Tell the True Stories of Syrian Refugees

Médecins Sans Frontières commissioned Oliver Kugler to visit the Greek Island of Kos and interview refugees to bring to life their stories and day-to-day lives.


A series of Olivier Kugler’s Syrian refugee illustrations is being displayed at the British Museum this month following two and a half years he spent uncovering multiple refugee journeys to the Greek island of Kos from Turkey.

The London-based German artist produced six pencil drawings with text after being commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders). They are on display at the museum’s West Foyer until the end of June.

The prints reveal the reality of two worlds – tourists and refugees – suddenly exposed to each other.

“You could see the refugees camping along the yacht marina and the main tourist destinations,” Olivier says.

“Many of the women were wearing head scarves and long black coats and then literally centimetres away from them you could see Scandinavian, Dutch and British tourists walking or cycling past them, many of them only wearing bikinis and Speedos.

“I was surprised how both worlds tried to ignore the other.”

This disparity confronted them from the moment they left the boat.

“One of the first things many refugees saw when they arrived on the beaches and walked towards Kos town to register at the police station was a poster attached to a lamp post advertising a striptease club.”

Olivier carried out a large number of interviews and took reference photos on Kos. He learnt the registration process for refugees to travel to Athens by ferry took one to two weeks.

Syrians told of their frustrations at the slow administrative process and the lack of support from Greek authorities.


Refugees were sleeping rough – in parks, beaches and in a dilapidated hotel on the outskirts of Kos.

“The conditions in the overcrowded hotel Captain Elias were appalling. No electricity, no toilets, no showers,” Olivier says.

“After a while Doctors Without Borders installed a small doctors surgery in the hotel. They also installed showers and toilets.”

Image: Olivier met medical student, Omar, who voluntarily worked in Red Cross cars that brought wounded people to the hospital. He wants to study in Germany.

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However prices for food and water soared on the island due to tourist seasons, and refugees told Olivier they ran out of money quickly.

“Many of the refugees I met run out of money as they already spend a lot of their savings on the people smugglers who enabled their sea journey to Kos.”

Image: Physiotherapist Sherine left Aleppo with her mother and father more than a year ago where their house was destroyed. Her 75-year-old father is diabetic, and upon arrival at Kos had a breakdown. They also want to go to Germany.


This is not the first time Olivier has produced reportage illustrations on refugees.

A similar series of drawings on Syrians in Iraqi Kurdistan earned him the World Illustration Award in 2015, and he was crowned V&A Illustrations Awards overall winner in 2011 for his 30-page illustrated journal of a truck driver’s journey across Iran.

Read our interview with Olivier about that project here.