The Donald Trump victory, the fallout from Brexit, warnings about the return of fascism in Europe, the assault on Aleppo and the unabated refugee crisis. For many people, 2016 won’t be the year that cemented their faith in humanity.
But around the world there are people who have dedicated their lives to helping others, slowly, quietly, with little fuss or fanfare. Unsung heroes have been feeding the homeless, supporting vulnerable gay teenagers and sheltering people from hurricanes. Here we look back at the year with eight of them.
Alexandre Migues was cycling home from watching a Bastille Day fireworks display when he saw a large truck careering down a packed street and running people over. He panicked as the truck nearly hit him and then, instinctively, started to chase it on foot.
“I threw the bike down and started running after it without really thinking – [a] complete reflex to what was obviously someone determined to run over and kill as many people as he could,” Migues says, nearly five months after the massacre.
The driver was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel who, on 14 July, drove more than a mile down Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 people and injuring more than 430.
“When you see something like that and are in a position to do something about it, you react – you try to stop it,” Migues adds. “Some call it heroic, but it’s really instinctive. Something had to be done.”
Eventually the truck slowed down and Migues was able to catch up with it. He grabbed the door handle on the passenger side and hauled himself up to the window to try to get inside, then saw the driver rummaging for something. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel pulled out a gun and pointed it directly at Migues, who had to let go of the truck to avoid being shot.
Moments later, a man who had been chasing the truck on his scooter clambered up to where Migues had been and repeatedly punched Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as he struggled to unjam his gun. Migues then recalls hearing gunshots – which turned out to be the police opening fire on Lahouaiej-Bouhlel – while the second man fell from the driver’s door.
The shootout caused a third man who was also chasing the truck to abandon his pursuit.Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was then killed and his slaughter halted.
The city later awarded the trio medals of honour for their heroism but, as grateful as he is for that recognition, Migues wishes none of it had ever happened.
“The attack was pure evil,” says Migues, who couldn’t sleep for several nights after the attack, and still has flashbacks and nightmares. “My goal is to remember good things about the victims and the people who saved the lives of the wounded. They’re the real heroes. I try to forget the rest.”
Bruce Crumley in Paris
Lena Klimova, who runs an online support network for gay Russian teenagers
Russia’s anti-gay law has led thousands of gay teens to believe they are “abnormal monsters” with no one to talk to, says Lena Klimova, founder of Children 404.
She set up the support group in 2013 and has been playing cat and mouse with the authorities ever since. The government is trying to prosecute Klimova for “promoting non-traditional sexual relations among minors”, which is illegal in Russia.
As a result the group is on its third VKontakte (similar to Facebook) page in three years. In November its website, Deti-404.com, was blocked in Russia.
This has not deterred members of the support network, who are now 73,000-strong and help their peers deal with everything from “typical teenager” problems such as relationship difficulties to “extremely serious situations such as suicidal thoughts [and] suicide attempts”, says Kilmova. The most serious problems are referred to a network of volunteer psychologists.
As the battle with the government rumbles on Klimova says she would prefer to concentrate her “time, nerves and energy” on the teenagers.
In Russia there is a “common atmosphere of hate and contempt for everyone who is ‘different’”, explains Klimova. “Young gay teens hear their friends talk contemptuously about ‘faggots’. Newspapers say that ‘homosexualism’ (a derogatory term for homosexuality) is an illness. On TV, they talk about LGBT and illustrate it with images of men with pink feathers and leather pants … and their parents say that they are all paedophiles.”
Klimova’s main objective is for Children 404 to provide a space where Russian teenagers feel accepted, supported and unafraid.She also wants to make sure her team of volunteers get the recognition they deserve. Nadezhda Leonovna, Aleksey Lazarov, Yevgeniya Sergeyeva, Hana Korchemnaya and Jan Wesenberg are “keeping the fireplace burning in this virtual room. Keeping it cosy,” she says.
Maeve Shearlaw in London
Asem Hasna, who makes prosthetics for fellow injured Syrians
In the early years of Syria’s civil war, Asem Hasna gave up his studies, fled his home town and became a paramedic in a community outside Damascus.
Then in April 2013, when he was 19, the car in which Hasna was travelling was hit by a shell fired by Syrian forces, slicing off his left leg below the knee. He was evacuated to Jordan, joining millions of other Syrians in exile.
Cut off from his family, he felt that his life was on hold. “I decided then that losing my leg was the price I had to pay to see my life from another perspective,” he says. “I wanted my experience to be part of a transformation process for others.”
He teamed up with an aid organisation called Refugee Openware, which helps provide prosthetics to people who have lost limbs in the Syrian war, and became one of 12 people trained for nine months to use 3D printing and modelling technology to design and fit arms and legs.
Hasna and other newly trained technicians were soon helping dozens of Syria’s war wounded. The conflict has claimed more than 400,000 lives and maimed hundreds of thousands, many of whom have no access to technology that could make them mobile again.
While Jordan offered a temporary haven, Syrian refugees were denied access to most forms of work and Hasna was among those who had to move. He first flew to Turkey, then made an arduous journey to Germany, via Greece and the Balkans.
“Boats, buses, trains, taxis, walking, you name it,” he says. “It was very, very difficult. I helped people with the basics of 3D programming when I got here, but it has been very difficult to work.”
Two weeks ago, Asem was granted asylum in Germany, where he wants to keep helping Syrians to get the prosthetics they need.
Martin Chulov in Beirut
Binta, who offered a Boko Haram bride a home
Until recently, the future looked bleak for 15-year-old Samira. At the age of 13 she was kidnapped by Boko Haram, which still controls significant swaths of land in northern Cameroon.
While much was written about the Chibok girls, who were kidnapped at the same time, no one in the media reported on Samira’s traumatic experience. She was forced to marry a militant nearly twice her age, and witnessed the slaughter of dozens of civilians. While in captivity she had a miscarriage, and was pregnant for a second time when her husband was killed by the Nigerian army this summer.
His absence allowed Samira to escape to Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria – but freedom brought more hardship. She returned home to find her father missing. With her mother long dead, she was entrusted to her uncle. He then died too, and his wife ostracised her because of her experiences with the jihadis. “She said that ‘they have brought me Boko Haram’s wife with Boko Haram’s baby, and there is wickedness in my house’,” Samira explains.
Binta, 50, did not care that Samira was pregnant by a member of Boko Haram: she just saw a child in need of help. “She doesn’t have parents, she’s pregnant … I told her: I will open all my heart to you,” she says, while on the way to hospital with Samira for a late-pregnancy scan.
Samira’s experiences are not unique. Thousands of young women and men are thought to have been kidnapped by jihadis, with those who manage to escape often finding themselves ostracised by their communities.
Many people fear that Boko Haram brides have been indoctrinated, while some of those who have escaped miss the husbands they were forced to marry, say experts who work to rehabilitate former abductees.
Samira, however, is one of the majority who feel relieved to have got away. “My husband was the quiet type,” she remembers. “But even with all the kindness in the world, he still cheated me by taking me from my father.”
Besides, she has someone else to support her now. “I had four children,” smiles Binta. “Samira is my fifth.”
The names of Binta and Samira have been changed to protect them from reprisals.
Patrick Kingsley in Maiduguri
Mary Stuart-Miller, who feeds thousands in Rome
It’s a Tuesday night in Rome and Florin, a homeless man, is keeping an eye on three big pots of stew. Alongside him is 83-year-old Orlando, sweeping up vegetable scraps, while Anas folds clothes.
They are some of the five people living in the home of Mary Stuart-Miller, an energetic 56-year-old from West Sussex who has been helping the Eternal City’s estimated 8,000 homeless and destitute since 2013.
What started with her cooking dozens of nutritious meals in her kitchen rapidly escalated into an operation to feed hundreds of people a night.
The busiest day is Tiburtina Tuesday, when Stuart-Miller and her team of helpers set up a table outside Rome’s Tiburtina railway station.
The project has helped Steve Barnes, a 38-year-old chef from Bradford, get back on his feet after seven years sleeping in night shelters or under the bridges of the Tiber.
He became homeless when he lost his job and couldn’t keep up with the rent. Barnes is now Stuart-Miller’s partner at Project Rome, a non-profit organisation. “I don’t know anyone, other than Steve, who would do this consistently – standing outside, every night in the winter, sometimes in lashing rain,” says Stuart-Miller.
Everyone who lives in her house has to help out with the project: Florin, who is Romanian, cooks, while his compatriot Alexandru and Orlando, who is Italian, do odd jobs. Roberto, another Italian, helps with driving, while Anas, from Libya, organises donations of clothes.
Until recently, they were sleeping under a motorway underpass. “They have changed so much … they have a purpose, which prepares them for going back into society,” Stuart-Miller says.
Two Italians who used to live with her now have work maintaining properties, jobs that came about via a friend of Stuart-Millerand provide food and board.
Stuart-Miller concedes there has been friction in the house because of mental health problems, which is something else the project seeks to eventually help homeless people overcome.
“We talk to the homeless, we bring human warmth,” she says. “Society has become ‘me first’ and inward-looking –- if we keep this up this spirit, we don’t stand a chance.”
Angela Giuffrida in Rome
Meron Estefanos, who runs a one-woman refugee hotline
“2016 has been one of the worst years for Eritrean refugees, which means it’s also been one of the worst years for me,” says Meron Estefanos, who runs a refugee hotline from her house in Sweden.
The Eritrean, who readily gives her mobile number to anyone who needs it, says she has taken more distress calls about kidnappings, deaths at sea and illegal deportations than ever before.
The activist’s phone rings day and night and she also presents a weekly show, Voices of Eritrean refugees, on Radio Erena from her kitchen table, offering practical advice for Eritreans navigating the asylum process in Europe.
Most of the calls she fields in the summer are from Eritreans on boats that get into trouble in the Mediterranean. “They are screaming and crying, but the most important thing is for me to get their coordinates so I can pass them on to the coastguards, many of whom have got to know me now,” she explains.
Estefanos then follows up every hour to check that a rescue mission is under way.
This year changes in the refugee policy in Sweden, a popular destination for Eritreans, have meant she has dealt with more queries about rules and regulations.
Sweden has stopped giving permanent asylum, making it much harder for families to be reunited. “It has gone from having one of the best refugee policies in the world to one of the worst. It’s really sad,” she says.
Estefanos has been repeatedly trolled by regime supporters, has received death threats and was nearly kidnapped when she travelled to the Sinai to try to stop fellow Eritreans being tortured. But none of that has deterred her. “The trolls are my motivation: the more they insult me and threaten me the more I want to do,” she says.
This year has also brought some positive developments. Estefanos’s “high point” was when the UN called for the Eritrean government to face the international criminal court for crimes against humanity. She celebrated the ruling in Geneva with thousands of other anti-regime campaigners.
Maeve Shearlaw in London
Marie-Ketly Cazeau, who sheltered dozens from a deadly storm
The frantic knocking on the front door of Marie-Ketly Cazeau’s home in the Haitian city of Jérémie began at 3am one night in October.
Hours earlier, she had learned that a hurricane, which was to lay waste to much of Haiti’s south-west and kill more than 1,000 people, was on its way.
“There were people who didn’t take the warnings seriously, because in Haiti we have the hurricane season from June to November, and often they predict a storm which then deviates,” she says in the living room of her house in Sainte-Hélène, one of the most deprived areas of the coastal city, where 145mph winds would level 80% of all buildings.
This time, however, a son in the US had called and urged her to take extra care because of the way Hurricane Matthew was moving and taking shape.
“I hadn’t told the people to come, but I came down from my room and when I heard a lot of screams I opened the door and told them “vini, vini!” [come, come],” she adds.
Among the group of 30 people who would eventually seek refuge in Cazeau’s house – a modest two-storey building that was sturdier than most of the makeshift shacks in Sainte-Hélène – were men, women and children, the youngest just two years old.
For the the next 12 hours, the group huddled together as the hurricane wreaked havoc outside, ripping up trees and sending corrugated iron roofs and other debris flying. Later they would find out that the two-year-old’s family house had been totally destroyed.
Cazeau is well known in Sainte-Hélène as a pillar of the community, particularly through her involvement with the local church and collaboration with NGOs such as ActionAid, which distributed hygiene kits and tarpaulins after the hurricane.
But that night of 4 October, her role in potentially saving the lives of dozens of people is remembered with particular gratitude. A month after the hurricane, five people were still living in her house.
Cazeau deflects compliments with a shrug, insisting that it is typical to step up during the very difficult times in Haiti : “You know, there’s a saying here that women ‘have more heart’, and that they care more, especially for the young kids. Men help too, but in different roles.”
She adds that hers is a “a community in which one helps the other. We don’t have problems among ourselves; we are not divided. Especially in that moment, we were all helping one another.”
Ben Quinn in Jérémie
Amanda Mellet, who went up against the Irish state
Amanda Mellet made history in 2016 by forcing the Irish state to compensate her for the trauma she suffered when she had to travel to Britain for an abortion.
Mellet became the first of three Irish women to fight against Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws by asking the UN to denounce a ban in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities – when pregnancies are doomed because of serious defects in the foetus’s brain or other vital organs.
Mellet and her husband, James, took their case to the UN’s human rights committee in 2013 after the couple were forced to obtain a termination in England. In her testimony Mellet spoke of the trauma of having to go abroad for the procedure after being told her baby would not survive.
Speaking previously to the Guardian Mellet stressed that this was “very much a wanted baby” but given that the pregnancy was doomed, she and her husband had no option but to have a termination.
The committee ruled in the summer that she had been subjected to discrimination and cruel and inhuman treatment. Significantly, the UN body urged the Irish state to amend its law on termination of pregnancy, to ensure healthcare providers were in a position to supply full information on safe abortion services.
It also called on the Irish state to provide Mellet with adequate compensation and to make available any psychological treatment she required.
Rather than oppose the ruling, Ireland’s health minister, Simon Harris, offered €30,000 in November as compensation for the trauma inflicted on Mellet.
Reacting to the original UN judgment in June, Mellet said: “With today’s decision in hand, I wish to finally leave behind these painful memories, and hearing the committee’s findings today does help in my own healing.
“I hope the day will soon come when women in Ireland will be able to access the health services they need in our own country, where we can be with our loved ones, with our own medical team, and where we have our own familiar bed to go home and cry in. Subjecting women to so much additional pain and trauma must not continue.”
Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent