The Things They Carried: Syrian Refugees Pose With The Most Precious Items They Could Grab Before They Left (PHOTOS)

 @MayaErgas
on March 08 2013 2:59 PM

Syrian Refugee Mother With Her Children And Koran 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

These photos, from the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, series called "The Most Important Thing: Syrian Refugees," ask the viewer, "What would you bring with you if you had to flee your home and escape to another country?"

Syrian Refugee Man With His Musical Instrument 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

UNHCR said in a statement that when Syria refugees attempt to flee, they must disguise their intent "by appearing as though they are out for a family stroll or a Sunday drive as they make their way toward a border." Often, they carry little more than what they can fit in their pockets.

Young Syrian Refugee Woman 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 recalled, "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 said.  UNHCR/B. Sokol

At the end of November 2012, UNHCR estimated that of the almost 30,000 people who had registered as refugees, 14,900 of them were in "critical medical condition." And 38.8 percent had special needs.

Elderly Refugee Woman With Her Ring 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

Jordan is currently housing the highest number of refugees: more than 275,000. Lebanon is hosting 213,000, Turkey has almost 186,000, Iraq has 107,000, and Egypt has 20,000. These numbers only reflected the number of registered refugees plus those waiting to be registered. The actual numbers are higher.

Doctor In A Refugee Camp With A Photo Of His Wife A doctor, Waleed, 37, poses for a portrait in the Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, 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 USD 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.”  UNHCR

Unicef, the U.N.'s children's fund, has requested $68.4 million for its Syrian efforts in 2013.

Syrian Refugee Girl With Her Bracelets 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

Estiamtes say more than 70,000 people have been killed by the two-year-old civil war.

Syrian Refugee Man With The Keys To His House 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.  UNHCR/B. Sokol

Actress and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has twice visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which grows by between 2,000 and 3,000 more people every night.

Young Syrian Refugee Woman With Her Diplomas 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

The past winter was a huge challenge for UNHCR, which struggled to distribute enough blankets, heaters, warm clothing and tents. Many people had to sleep in the mud and rain.

Elderly Syrian Refugee Married Couple 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

Many of the refugees who arrive in the camps are under 18. Many are unaccompanied.

Young Syrian Refugee Man With His Phone Yusuf poses for a portrait in an urban structure in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon on Dec. 12, 2012. He and his family fled their home in Damascus, the Syrian capital, several months before this photograph was taken. The most important thing Yusuf was able to bring when he fled Syria is the mobile phone he holds in this photograph. "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 call home from Lebanon." The phone also holds photographs of family members who are still in Syria, which he is able to keep with him at all times.  UNHCR/B. Sokol

The U.N. World Food Programme said they are daily struggling to feed the 2.5 million people displaced within Syria.

Syrian Refugee Imam With His Koran Mohamed, 43, poses for a portrait next to his tent in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Nov. 13, 2012. Mohamed, the imam of the camp’s only mosque, fled his home in the Hassakeh Governorate of Syria and arrived in Iraq on Sept. 26, 2012. After being warned that armed elements were searching for him, Mohamed got into a car with his wife and their six children and drove toward the Iraqi border. The family walked for two hours before crossing safely into Iraq and making their way to Domiz, where they were registered as refugees. The most important thing that Mohamed was able to bring with him is the Koran that he holds in this photograph. As an imam, he says that 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 said.  UNHCR/B. Sokol Syrian Refugee Girl With Her Favorite Jeans 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, drafty space. Leila recalls explosions all around them for days, but the family finally decided to leave Deir Alzur when their neighbors' house was hit, killing everyone inside. The most terrifying thing about the months before they fled, she said, "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 said she won't wear them again until she attends another wedding, and she hopes it, too, will be in Syria.  UNHCR/B. Sokol Elderly Syrian Refugee Man With His Cane 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

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