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The most important thing they kept: portraying Syrian refugees through their ‘pieces of home’

‘The Most Important Thing: Syrian Refugees’ is a collection of black and white portraits of people and the one thing they got to take when they left their home. Each story is written in a direct style. And looking at the photos and reading those stories somehow show without telling everything someone from far away needs to understand about vulnerability and uncertainty and being far away from home.

Below is a selection of the photos and the stories that touched me most. They belong to UNHCR and to the author of the photos, Brian Sokol. The UNHCR previously published a similar photo documentary of Sudanese refugees, called ‘The Most Important Thing’.

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 neighborhood, 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 neighborhood 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. Iman and her children traveled through the streets of Idlib for hours. She held Aishia tightly with one arm, carried a small bag of valuables on her back, and led Ahmed with her free hand, periodically taking shelter under trees and hiding behind vehicles. When they reached the city’s edge, they hired a car and fled to the border, crossing as quickly as they could. The most important thing Iman was able to bring with her is the Koran she holds in this photograph. She says that religion is the most important aspect of her life and that the Koran inspires a sense of protection. “As long as I have it with me, I’m connected to God,” she said.  UNHCR/B. Sokol

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 neighbors were killed. “They came into their home, whoever they were, and savagely cut my neighbor 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.”  UNHCR/B. Sokol

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 10 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. “Whether I miss my home or not doesn’t matter. It’s gone now, and I can’t go back,” she said. The most important thing that she was able to bring with her is the ring she displays in this photograph. When she was 10 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.”  UNHCR/B. Sokol

Tamara, 20, poses for a portrait in Adiyaman refugee camp in Turkey on Dec. 5, 2012. 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. We left Idlib three months ago. We spent 40 days on the Syrian side of the border with very little water and no electricity. The hygiene there was very poor. I got food poisoning and was sick for a week.” The most important thing she was able to bring with her is her diploma, which she holds in this photograph. With it, she will be able to continue her education in Turkey. Through a generous education program, the government will allow qualified Syrian refugees to attend Turkish universities beginning in the March semester. Ramazan Kurkud, head of education programs at Adiyaman, said 70 B.A. candidates and 10 M.A. candidates from the camp have so far submitted applications to study at Turkish universities.  UNHCR/B. Sokol

Ayman, 82, and his wife, Yasmine, 67, pose for a portrait in Nizip refugee camp, Turkey, on Dec. 4, 2012. They fled their home in a rural area near Aleppo in August 2012 after their 70-year-old neighbor and his son, a shepherd, were brutally killed. Their home stands on 10,000 square meters (33,000 feet) of land covered with olive trees, grapes, nuts and fruits. Breaking into tears, Ayman described how nearby farms came under attack and homes were looted them and set on fire. “It is unbelievable that any human being can do this to another,” he said. “There is no place that compares to home,” Ayman added. “But on the day we crossed the border, 19 people from our village were killed. Here, at least we feel safe. At least we haven’t heard the noise of shelling for two months now. At home, we lived like kings and queens. Now, we are refugees. What I miss most is my farm. I miss the olive trees. I don’t even know if my house is still standing.” The most important thing Ayman was able to bring with him from Syria is his wife. “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.”  UNHCR/B. Sokol

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 traveling more than 800 kilometers (500 miles), 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 2-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 said. 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 said. “My doll is Nancy.” 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.  UNHCR/B. Sokol

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.”  UNHCR/B. Sokol

See the rest of the photos here.



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