PetaPixel

Portraits of Refugees Posing With Their Most Valued Possessions

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If you had to quickly flee both your home and country, what one possession would you make sure you take with you? It’s a question that reveals a lot about your life and values, and, unfortunately, is one that many people around the world actually have to answer.

NYC-based photographer Brian Sokol has been working on a project supported by the UN Refugee Agency titled “The Most Important Thing.” It consists of portraits of refugees in which the subjects pose with the one thing they couldn’t let go of when running away from home.

Sokol started the project in Sudan. More than 100,000 refugees have crossed the border between Sudan’s Blue Nile state and South Sudan’s Upper Nile state since November of 2011. Many of the refugees fled on a moment’s notice, bringing only what they could carry in their arms.

The most important thing Omar was able to bring with him is the axe he holds in this photograph. He used it to cut firewood for cooking and to make small wooden structures where his family could sleep at night, and sometimes to rest for several days at a time, during their journey.

The most important thing Omar was able to bring with him is the axe he holds in this photograph. He used it to cut firewood for cooking and to make small wooden structures where his family could sleep at night, and sometimes to rest for several days at a time, during their journey.

The most important thing Maria brought with her is the jerrycan (water container) that she holds in this photograph taken at Jamam camp in Maban County, South Sudan.

The most important thing Maria brought with her is the jerrycan (water container) that she holds in this photograph taken at Jamam camp in Maban County, South Sudan.

The most important object Howard was able to bring with him is the long knife he holds, called a shefe, which he used to defend his family and his herd of 20 cattle during their 20-day journey from Bau County to the South Sudanese border.

The most important object Howard was able to bring with him is the long knife he holds, called a shefe, which he used to defend his family and his herd of 20 cattle during their 20-day journey from Bau County to the South Sudanese border.

The most important things that Torjam was able to bring with him were the plastic bottles he holds here. One carried drinking water, the other cooking oil. "All I could carry was this, and an axe. We couldn't bring much, and even had to leave some other old people behind.

The most important things that Torjam was able to bring with him were the plastic bottles he holds here. One carried drinking water, the other cooking oil. “All I could carry was this, and an axe. We couldn’t bring much, and even had to leave some other old people behind.

The most important object Hasan was able to bring with him is the empty wallet he holds. Though he is now destitute, he left Maganza with enough money to buy food for his family during their 25-day journey to the South Sudanese border.

The most important object Hasan was able to bring with him is the empty wallet he holds. Though he is now destitute, he left Maganza with enough money to buy food for his family during their 25-day journey to the South Sudanese border.

The most important thing Ahmed was able to bring with him is Kako, his pet monkey. Kako and Ahmed made the five-day journey from Taga to the South Sudanese border together in the back of a truck. Ahmed says he can't imagine life without Kako, and that the most difficult thing about leaving Blue Nile was having to leave his family's donkey behind.

The most important thing Ahmed was able to bring with him is Kako, his pet monkey. Kako and Ahmed made the five-day journey from Taga to the South Sudanese border together in the back of a truck. Ahmed says he can’t imagine life without Kako, and that the most difficult thing about leaving Blue Nile was having to leave his family’s donkey behind.

The most important object Dowla was able to bring with her is the wooden pole balanced over her shoulder, with which she carried her six children during the 10-day journey from Gabanit to South Sudan. At times, the children were too tired to walk, forcing her to carry two on either side.

The most important object Dowla was able to bring with her is the wooden pole balanced over her shoulder, with which she carried her six children during the 10-day journey from Gabanit to South Sudan. At times, the children were too tired to walk, forcing her to carry two on either side.

The most important thing that Shari was able to bring with her is the stick she holds. "I've had this stick since I went blind six years ago, she said. My son led me along the road with it. Without it, and him, I would be dead now."

The most important thing that Shari was able to bring with her is the stick she holds. “I’ve had this stick since I went blind six years ago, she said. My son led me along the road with it. Without it, and him, I would be dead now.”

The most important thing Al Haj was able to bring with him is the whip that he holds. Without it, he says, he wouldn't have been able to keep together his herd of 50 goats, and he would now be destitute.

The most important thing Al Haj was able to bring with him is the whip that he holds. Without it, he says, he wouldn’t have been able to keep together his herd of 50 goats, and he would now be destitute.

The most important thing Magboola was able to bring with her is the cooking pot she holds in this photograph. It was small enough she could travel with it, yet big enough to cook sorghum for herself and her three daughters during their journey.

The most important thing Magboola was able to bring with her is the cooking pot she holds in this photograph. It was small enough she could travel with it, yet big enough to cook sorghum for herself and her three daughters during their journey.

Sokol also took his project to the Middle East, where he photographed Syrian refugees who have fled from their country to neighboring countries that include Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Unlike the refugees of Sudan, Syrian refugees often flee under the guise of taking a family walk or leisurely drive. Thus, they commonly take little more than what can be worn on the body or stuffed into pockets.

The most important thing that Salma 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."

The most important thing that Salma 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.”

The most important thing Tamara 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.

The most important thing Tamara 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.

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."

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.”

The most important thing May 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 most important thing May 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 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 says.

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 says.

The entire series’ are available through the UNHCR’s Flickr account. You can find the Sudan series here and the Syria series here.

You can also follow along with Sokol’s work through his website and through Instagram.


P.S. This project reminds us a little of photographer Foster Huntington’s “The Burning House,” in which he asked people to lay out the possessions they would save if they found their house on fire.


Image credits: Photographs by Brian Sokol and used with permission


 
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  • Tapo

    Camera and gear seem to be of no consequence when I see this photographs… For once, the gearhead in me is not asking ” Which camera and lenses take these pictures ? “

  • Mansgame

    So we’ve seen rich people, poor people, and kids with their stuff. Any way to make this genre more original?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mcnamara Michael McNamara

    This is heartbreaking.

  • Traceykinohio

    Loved this. Heartbreaking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jared.monkman.5 Jared Monkman

    man, you’re a dick

  • Mansgame

    That still doesn’t make these pics original.

  • http://twitter.com/IrelandMichael Michael O’Connor

    And it still doesn’t change the fact that you’re a dick.

  • http://www.facebook.com/janosh.heiduska Janosh Heiduska

    “original” isn’t the point. This is a meaningful essay.

  • owned by John Smith

    This is an interesting and meaningful project but why does the legend says that the most important possession of Ayman is his (nameless) wife and not the other way around ?

  • John R

    Photography with a purpose, what a difference it makes. Pure, simple and heartbreaking. Thankfully devoid of vapid effect and sensationalism.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/eziztm/ Eziz

    What a humbling experience this is.

  • Pam

    Amazing and poignant and beautiful

  • americandolt

    My CEO makes 8 million a year plus bonus’s. wtf.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieQBarnett Julie Q Barnett

    That’s just what I was thinking, Michael. Interesting what we hold dear when we have absolutely nothing.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieQBarnett Julie Q Barnett

    But for the grace of God go I….

  • William Galloway

    “But for the grace of God go I….”
    Are you saying God chose them to suffer and you to grace?

  • A Piece of Cod

    Exactly what I was thinking, William. Julie is either American or a moron….or is that redundant?

  • Gehan Kaviratne

    The truth behind the truth…..sadness all around

  • Jean Valjean

    Don’t be so amazed. I was left with $0.18 (yes, eighteen cents) after being released from jail on a cold October night, in Tacoma, WA. Apparently, my now ex-wife was unhappy with the idea that I have returned from active duty, so she filed an ex-parte restraining order claiming that she was afraid. The order was not properly served, so, upon coming home, I was arrested for three days. Car impounded, told not to come home (the house for which I paid mortgage).
    (The jail takes your cash, in my case about $20, and upon release, they issue you a check and the spare change). How logical is that? What can I buy with a check? How can I use the check when my account is blocked?) Are you surprised people turn to crime?

    It happens here, in America, as well, don’t be surprised.

  • Jean Valjean

    You pay him very well. How much do you pay your janitor?

  • C Rose

    I would cut Julie some slack. It’s just an expression, which can be paraphrased as: “through pure chance (grace), I have been more fortunate.” It acknowledges that the misfortunes of others are through no fault of their own, and how arbitrary and undeserved misfortune can be. At least, that is what I have always understood this expression to mean.

  • k

    So then Julie should say that and ditch the anachronistic phrase she used. Times change. She should update her language to reflect that or risk inviting the valid responses she has received. It’s a stupid and useless expression in this day and age. And it’s is not “just an expression” if you bring god into it. She should rightly be called to answer William’s question. I would like to read her response.

  • esearch

    Witajcie – Jestem robotem z Wykopu! Pozdrawiam

  • http://twitter.com/delamazaphoto guillermo de la maza

    More than heartbreaking, I find that this images could help us re-evaluate what’s worth in our lives. I love this images because they show people just as they are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.salafia1 Paul Salafia

    Makes me realise what a materialistic prick I am!

  • dontbelieveawordofyourstory

    Wow. You had to try to one up what these refugees with your whinging, ego bruised one sided story? What the hell type of photographer are you? You want some sympathy? Try another tack.

  • TBTGOGisallrightbyme

    anachronistic? update her language? Stupid and useless expression?

    That expression shows a bit more heart and feeling than you seem to be able to grasp.

    I’m a non-believer myself. The people that I’ve heard use that saying weren’t being judgmental, but expressing an acknowledgement that some things are beyond their mortal comprehension-they were expressing empathy. I respect that sentiment. Now, when a judgmental cuss uses it-it pisses me off.

    Perhaps it’s you that needs to update your language, maybe crawl down off that high horse, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or-learn not to let your battleship mouth overload your rowboat ass. What the hell sort of photographer are you? That’s all you got out of this whole post?

  • Veronica Zundel

    My mother left Vienna in 1939 with a case full of pink shoe lining material. Her parents had been in the shoe retail and wholesale trade, and she thought it would come in useful. It lay in a drawer for 40 years and she never used it for anything!

  • Veronica Zundel

    Good point John! She is not a possession at all.

  • worldnomad

    … my soul. When I left, I had absolutely NOTHING so as not to risk being found out. After all, I was acting as someone else. So no personal items, no jewelry or keepsakes, no diary, no clothes, no underwear that could be traced to the OLD ME… nothing. I took my life in my hands and risked it all in order to find FREEDOM.

  • Bob Schlafer

    where did the saying count your blessing come from?

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.henderson.54 Rick Henderson

    Dear William – I presume the country of your birth is full of oxymorons, i.e., perfect individuals, like you?

  • gouelk

    odd, wonderful, strange what people will choose at moments like that, from meaningful to trifle, the mind works in strange ways

  • Ida Review

    I understand the gist. The idea is that she’s the most important thing in his life, the only “thing” he felt worth focusing all of his attention bringing. The man clearly celebrates his wife. It’s the wording of the project that’s making him look bad, not his words or sentiments.
    As for his wife’s being “nameless,” “Ayman” and his wife clerly want to remain unknown (see how they over their faces, folks?) . “Ayman” could be a name he made up to satisfy the writer. Women all around the world regard their names to be “private.” Travel, and you will learn a few things.

  • four tabby house

    One word:profound.An excellent article with excellent photography…

  • Barbara Ellen

    My mother’s family is in the shoe business as well. That’s a material that would be interesting to use in a project.

  • lois

    Beautiful, raw, tender all at once. Thank you for these glimpses out of my ‘bubble’ and into a broader reality

  • Riatha

    A picture is worth a thousand words. This was an eye-opener.

  • Joe

    Yo Jean Valjean I feel you bro the person who replied to your comment is obviouslly a huge jackass. People need to respect. Thank you for your service to our country

  • Jennifer Leigh

    TBTGO, Thank you so much for saying what I was thinking!! Only the uneducated mock what they don’t understand.

    “Perhaps it’s you that needs to update your language, maybe crawl down off that high horse, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or-learn not to let your battleship mouth overload your rowboat ass. What the hell sort of photographer are you? That’s all you got out of this whole post?”

    Spot on my friend, spot on!!

  • Jennifer Leigh

    Humbling! Awakening! This makes you think and prioritize your life or at least it should!

  • Wikitoria Smith

    Well said.

  • SAndro

    Can’t tell, would be really heartbreaking, such situation!!!

  • Soren Olson

    and you sir, are a prejudiced idiot. How dare you.

  • Leticia Walker

    Makes you realise what is actually important in your life… brought tears to my eyes…

  • Kaleta

    I am more grateful this morning after seeing this article. I feel for these
    people…and would help if I could…