PHOTOS: Syrian refugees and their most prized possessions
What would you bring with you if you had to flee your home and escape to another country?
More than 750,000 Syrians have been forced to ponder this question before making the dangerous flight to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey or Iraq.
The first part focused on refugees fleeing from Sudan to South Sudan, who openly carried pots, water containers and other objects to sustain them along the road.
By contrast, people seeking sanctuary from the conflict in Syria must typically conceal their intentions by appearing as though they are out for a family stroll or a Sunday drive as they make their way towards the border. Thus they carry little more than keys, pieces of paper, phones and bracelets – things that can be worn or concealed in pockets.
Some Syrians bring a symbol of their religious faith; others clutch a reminder of home, or of happier times.
These are their stories.
All text and photos: UNHCR/Brian Sokol.
Iman*, 25, poses for a portrait with her son Ahmed, 2, and daughter Aishia, 1, in Nizip refugee camp, Turkey, on Dec. 4, 2012. They arrived in Nizip 10 weeks before this photograph was taken, after fleeing their home in Aleppo, Syria. After weathering months of conflict, Iman decided it was time to flee when she heard accounts of sexual harassment against women in Aleppo.
One day combatants came through her neighbourhood, going door to door in search of men. When they found none, they intimidated the women. The next day, 36 women and children left Aleppo and fled to Idlib. Shortly after they arrived, the area came under a ferocious attack. In an instant, Iman lost five family members, and the home where they were taking shelter was destroyed. Fifteen houses in the neighbourhood were destroyed that day, and the survivors set out again. As they fled Idlib, the children saw blood in the streets and clouds of smoke filling the sky.
The most important thing Iman was able to bring with her is the Qur'an she holds in this photograph. She says that religion is the most important aspect of her life, and that the Qur'an inspires a sense of protection. "As long as I have it with me, I'm connected to God," she says.
Omar*, 37, poses for a portrait inside his tent in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Nov. 16, 2012. Omar decided it was time to flee his home in the Syrian capital of Damascus the night that his neighbours were killed. "They came into their home, whoever they were, and savagely cut my neighbour and his two sons. They dragged the bodies into the street, where we found them in the morning." The next day he used the majority of his savings to hire a truck to flee with his wife and his two sons.
The most important thing that Omar was able to bring with him is the instrument he holds in this photograph. It is called a "buzuq" and he says that "playing it fills me with a sense of nostalgia and reminds me of my homeland. For a short time, it gives me some relief from my sorrows."
Alia*, 24, poses for a portrait in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Nov. 15, 2012. Alia was living with her family in Daraa, Syria, when fighting forced them to flee their home four months before this photograph was taken. As the fighting drew closer, she recalls, "It was terrifying because I'm not able to help myself." Confined to a wheelchair and blind in both eyes, Alia says she was terrified by what was happening around her.
"At the beginning of the fighting, my family decided to stay because we thought it would be over soon. But as it went on, I was scared that they might run away and leave me at home alone." Although she never cared for television, Alia began to follow the news programs closely as the fighting intensified, because it helped her make sense of the things she heard, but couldn't see, going on around her. "Men in uniforms came and killed our cow. They fought outside our house and there were many dead soldiers. I cried and cried, scared because I had to call my family even to know what was happening."
Alia says the only important thing that she brought with her "is my soul, nothing more – nothing material." When asked about her wheelchair, she seemed surprised, saying that she considers it an extension of her body, not an object. "I am happy. I am happy to be safe, to be here with my family," she says.
Salma*, whose age is somewhere between 90 and 107 according to family members, poses for a portrait in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Dec. 15, 2012. Salma fled her home in Qamishly City, Syria, at the beginning of December when the apartments surrounding hers were destroyed, arriving in Domiz ten days before this photograph was taken.
She escaped with her three sons and their families, leaving home in the middle of the night in a rented car. Crossing the border was a very difficult process for her, and the journey on foot which ordinarily takes two hours – lasted the better part of a day, throughout which she was terrified, unable to run if needed. Salma says, "Whether I miss my home or not doesn't matter. It's gone now, and I can't go back."
The most important thing that she was able to bring with her is the ring she displays in this photograph. When she was ten years old, her mother gave it to her from her death bed, saying, "Keep this ring and remember me." She intends to wear the ring to her grave. "It's not valuable – not silver, or gold – just an old ring. But it's all that I have left."
A doctor, Waleed*, 37, poses for a portrait in the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic where he works in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Nov. 16, 2012. Waleed fled Syria with his wife and their newborn baby in early 2012. “Twenty days after my wife gave birth we left the country. It took us two hours to reach the border. We stayed in a village close to the Syrian/Iraqi border for two nights before finding a smuggler. We paid $1,100 U.S. to cross the border. I left the country for the sake of my family. I don’t want to see my children grow up as orphans.”
The most important thing that Waleed was able to bring with him is the photograph of his wife that he holds here. Although they are still together, he says, "This is important because she gave me this photo back home before we were married, during the time when we were dating. It always brings me great memories and reminds me of my happiest time back home in Syria.”
Leila*, 9, poses for a portrait in the urban structure where she and her family are taking shelter in Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, on Nov. 17, 2012. Together with her four sisters, mother, father and grandmother, Leila arrived in Erbil five days before this photograph was taken, after fleeing their home in Deir Alzur, Syria. Her family is one of four living in an uninsulated, partially-constructed home; there are about 30 people sharing the cold, draughty space.
Leila recalls explosions all around them for days, but the family finally decided to leave Deir Alzur when their neighbours' house was hit, killing everyone inside. The most terrifying thing about the months before they fled, she says, "was the voice of the tanks. It was even more scary than the sound of planes, because I felt like the tanks were coming for me."
In the background throughout the interview with Leila, a television channel from Deir Alzur displayed images of incredibly graphic violence and destruction. When asked what she feels when seeing those images again and again, she replied, "Watching the TV makes me remember Syria and what I saw there. It makes me feel sorry and sad in my heart – but I want to keep it on."
The most important thing Leila was able to bring with her are the jeans she holds in this photograph. "I went shopping with my parents one day and looked for hours without finding anything I liked. But when I saw these, I knew instantly that these were perfect because they have a flower on them, and I love flowers." She has only worn the jeans three times, all in Syria – twice to wedding parties, and once when she went to visit her grandfather. She says she won't wear them again until she attends another wedding, and she hopes it, too, will be in Syria.
Ahmed*, 70, poses for a portrait in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Nov. 14, 2012. Ahmed fled Syria with his wife and eight of their nine children approximately four months before this photograph was taken, when their family home in Damascus was destroyed in an attack. Together with four other families – 50 people in all – they escaped in the back of an open-topped truck after covering themselves with plastic sheeting. The vehicle set out at midnight and Ahmed says everyone aboard was terrified, fearing that they would not reach safety. Many hours later they arrived in Derik City, where they spent 20 days before continuing on to the Iraqi border. Ahmed's one son who remained behind was killed in late October 2012. Following an explosion, he ran into the street to help an injured friend, only to be killed in a second blast.
The most important thing Ahmed was able to bring with him is the cane he holds in this photograph. Without it, he says, he would not have made the two-hour crossing on foot to the Iraqi border. "The only other thing I have left is this finger," he said. "All I want now is for my family to find a place where they can be safe and stay there forever. Never should we need to flee again."
May*, 8, poses for a portrait in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Nov. 16, 2012. She and her family arrived in Domiz about one month before this photograph was taken, having fled their home in Damascus, the Syrian capital. They escaped on a bus at night, and May recalls crying for hours as they left the city behind. After travelling more than 800 kilometres, they made the final crossing into Iraq on foot. May wept again as they followed a rough trail in the cold, while her mother carried her two-year-old baby brother.
Since arriving in Domiz, she has had recurring nightmares in which her father is violently killed. She is now attending school, and says she finally feels safe. May hopes to be a photographer when she grows up. "I want to take pictures of happy children, because they are innocent, and my pictures will make them even more happy," she says.
The most important thing she was able to bring with her when she left home is the set of bracelets she wears in this photograph. "The bracelets aren't my favourite things," she says; "my doll Nancy is." May's aunt gave her the doll on her sixth birthday. "She reminded me of that day, the cake I had, and how safe I felt then when my whole family was together." The night they fled Damascus, May's mother put Nancy on her bed where she wouldn't be forgotten. But in the rush that ensued, Nancy was somehow left behind – and May says these bracelets are the next-best thing to having her in Iraq.
Abdul* poses for a portrait in an urban structure in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon on Dec. 12, 2012. He and his family fled their apartment in the Syrian capital of Damascus shortly after his wife was wounded in the crossfire between armed groups. At the time this photograph was taken several months later, they and nearly a dozen other family members were living in a single concrete room provided by a Lebanese widow. Now the extended family shares two structures, as UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council have constructed a plywood shelter for Abdul, his wife, their daughter and her children to share.
The most important thing Abdul was able to bring from Syria when he fled are the keys to his home, which he holds in this photograph. Although he doesn't know if the family's apartment is still standing, he dreams every day of returning home. "God willing, I will see you this time next year in Damascus," he told the photographer after this portrait was taken.
*Name changed for protection purposes.
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Photographer Brian Sokol's work can be viewed here.