- By Brian Sokol, Foreign Policy
If you were fleeing your homeland, what’s the one thing you would take? More than 1 million Syrians have been forced to ponder this question before making the dangerous flight to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, or another country in the region.
In the first part of photographer Brian Sokol’s ongoing, UNHCR-supported project, “The Most Important Thing,” refugees fleeing from Sudan to South Sudan openly carried cooking pots, water containers, and other items to help sustain them on their journeys, which could sometimes last days or weeks. But those seeking sanctuary from the conflict in Syria typically act as if they are out for a family stroll or a Sunday drive as they make their way toward a border (the journey is often shorter than in Sudan), since they could be prevented from leaving the country if it became clear they were trying to flee. For that reason, Syrian refugees typically carry little more than keys, pieces of paper, phones, and bracelets — items that can be worn or concealed in pockets or in the folds of garments. Some Syrians bring a symbol of their religious faith; others clutch a reminder of home or of happier times.
Above, Iman, 25, is pictured with her son Ahmed and daughter Aishia in Nizip refugee camp in Turkey. Iman decided to flee their home in Aleppo after months of conflict when she heard accounts of sexual harassment against women in the city. The journey to Turkey was full of danger — Iman lost five relatives. The most important thing she was able to bring with her is the Quran she holds in this photograph. She says the Quran inspires a sense of protection. “As long as I have it with me,” she says, “I’m connected to God.”
Omar, 37, holds a buzuq, or long-necked lute — the most important thing that he was able to bring with him to Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Omar decided it was time to flee his home in the Syrian capital of Damascus the night that his neighbors were killed. “The killers came into their home, whoever they were, and savagely cut my neighbour and his two sons,” he recalls. Omar says that playing the buzuq “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 sits in her wheelchair in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The 24-year-old was living with her family in Daraa, Syria when fighting forced them to flee their home. Confined to the wheelchair and blind in both eyes, Alia says she was terrified by what was happening 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,” she says. Alia says the only important thing that she brought with her “is my soul, nothing more — nothing material.” When asked about her wheelchair, she seems surprised, saying she considers it an extension of her body, not an object.
Salma, who is at least 90, wears an old ring that she was given by her dying mother when she was just 10 years old. Salma says her mother told her, “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.” She was photographed in Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan after fleeing with her three sons and their families from Qamishly City, Syria.
Waleed, a 37-year-old doctor, poses for a portrait in the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic where he works in Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. He is carrying his most valuable possession: a photograph of his wife. Although they are 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.” He fled Syria 20 days after his wife gave birth. “I left the country for the sake of my family. I don’t want to see my children grow up as orphans.”
Eight-year-old May is pictured in Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. The girl and her family made their way by foot and bus hundreds of kilometers from Damascus to the border, where they followed a rough trail in the cold while her mother carried her baby brother. Since arriving in Domiz, she has had recurring nightmares. 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 favorite things,” she says, “My doll Nancy is.” But the toy was left behind in the rush to leave.
Abdul holds the keys to his home. 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 UNHCR in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. He and his family fled their apartment in the Syrian capital shortly after his wife was wounded in the crossfire between armed groups. Abdul, his wife, their daughter, and her children share a plywood shelter constructed by UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council.
Tamara, 20, is pictured in Adiyaman refugee camp in Turkey. After Tamara’s home in Idlib was partially destroyed in September, the family decided their best chance of safety was to reach the Syrian-Turkish border. “When we left our house, we felt the sky was raining bullets,” Tamara recalled. “We were moving from one shelter to another in order to protect ourselves.” The most important thing she was able to bring with her is her diploma, which she holds. With it, she will be able to continue her education in Turkey.
Ayman, 82, (left) sits with his wife Yasmine, 67, whom he says is the most important thing he was able to bring with him from Syria. “She’s the best woman that I’ve met in my life,” he says. “Even if I were to go back 55 years, I would choose you again.” The couple, seen here in the Nizip refugee camp in Turkey, fled their rural home near Aleppo after their neighbor and his son, a shepherd, were brutally killed. Their home stands on land covered with olive trees, grapes, nuts, and fruits. Breaking into tears, Ayman describes how nearby farms came under attack, and how homes were looted and set on fire. “It is unbelievable that any human being can do this to another,” he said.
Yusuf holds his mobile phone in the building he now calls home in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. He and his family fled their home in Damascus last year. He values his phone highly. “With this, I’m able to call my father. We’re close enough to Syria here that I can catch a signal from the Syrian towers sometimes, and then it is a local call to phone home from Lebanon,” he explains. The phone also holds photographs of family members who are still in Syria, which he is able to keep with him at all times.
Mohamed, a 43-year-old refugee from Syria’s Hassakeh governorate, is the imam of the only mosque in Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. He holds the Quran, the most important thing that he was able to bring with him. As an imam, religion is the most important aspect of his life. “I love my religion, but I am not so strict in my views. I want to teach the importance of brotherhood and equality between all religions,” he says. Mohamed fled his home with his wife and six children after warnings that armed elements were searching for him.
Leila, 9, holds up a pair of jeans that she brought with her from Syria to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where she and her family found shelter. “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 explains. Leila 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. Her family fled from Deir Alzur in Syria after their neighbors were killed by a shell. They now live in an uninsulated, partially constructed home; there are about 30 people sharing the cold, drafty space.
Ahmed, 70, holds his cane in Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Without it, he says, he could not have made the two-hour crossing on foot to the Iraqi border. “All I want now is for my family to find a place where they can be safe and stay there forever,” he says. “Never should we need to flee again.” He, his wife, and eight of their nine children fled to the border when their home in Damascus was destroyed in an attack. Together with four other families — 50 people in all — they left in the back of an open-topped truck. Ahmed’s one son who remained behind was killed in October 2012.
Photos: UNHCR/B. Sokol