The Most Important Thing
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.
Refugees From Syria, Sudan, Pose With Their Prized
Possession In Brian Sokol Project.
As a rising tide of refugees continue to flee the brutal violence
in Syria and Sudan, photographer Brian Sokol, working with
the United Nations Refugee Agency, has sought to match faces
and stories to the startling statistics.
In a two-part project, titled "The Most Important Thing," Sokol
traveled to separate camps housing refugees from Syria and
Sudan, and took portraits of the refugees with the most
important object they were able to grab before departing. The
photos paint a powerful image of the refugees' daily struggle
for survival and the harrowing journeys they took -- leaving
behind all they knew for the promise of an uncertain future.
Eight-year-old May in Domiz camp, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The girl and her family made their way by foot and bus hundreds of
kilometres from Damascus, Syria, to the border, where they followed
a rough trail in the cold. Since arriving in Domiz, May has had
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."
She adds that the toy was left behind in the rush to leave.
Salma, aged 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 the Kurdistan Region of Iraq after fleeing
with her three sons and their families from Qamishly City, Syria.
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. 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."
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, 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) and his wife, 67-year-old Yasmine, the most
important thing Ayman 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 Nizip refugee camp, Turkey, fled their rural home near Aleppo,
Syria, after their neighbour and his son, a shepherd, were brutally
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 homes were looted and set on fire. "It is
unbelievable that any human being can do this to another," adds,
Ayman, who misses his farm.
Yusuf holds his mobile phone in the building where he now stays 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." 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 the
Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He holds the Koran, 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 the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, 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 neighbours
were killed by a shell. They now live in an uninsulated, partially
constructed home; there are about 30 people sharing the cold, drafty
Ahmed, 70, holds his cane in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan
Region of Iraq. 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.
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.
Iman, 25, with her son Ahmed and daughter Aishia, in Nizip refugee
camp, Turkey. They fled their home in Aleppo, Syria, after months of
conflict. Iman decided it was time to flee when she heard accounts
of sexual harassment against women in Aleppo. 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
Koran she holds in this photograph. She says the Koran inspires a
sense of protection. "As long as I have it with me, I'm connected to
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 the
Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Omar decided it was time to flee his home
in the Syrian capital of Damascus the night that his neighbours 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
Amuna Jaffa, 30, poses for a portrait in Yusuf Batil refugee camp
in Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug. 6, 2012. Aerial
bombardment forced Amuna, her husband and four children, to
flee their home in Jaw Village, in Sudan's Blue Nile State, four
months before this photograph was taken.
The most important object that Amuna was able to bring with her
is the pan balanced atop her head, with which she was able to
feed her children during the family's journey from Jaw to the
South Sudanese border.
Eighty-five-year-old Torjam Alamin poses for a portrait in Jamam
refugee camp in Maban County, South Sudan on Aug. 7, 2012.
When war came to Sudan's Blue Nile State, Torjam first fled his
village of Ahmar, hoping to find safety in neighboring Kukur.
However, the conflict followed him there, and he and his family left
Kukur during the night, carrying next to nothing with them.
Asha Babur, 28, poses for a portrait in Jamam refugee camp in
Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug. 8, 2012. In September, 2011
war came to her village of Soda, in Sudan's Blue Nile State. She and
her family weathered aerial bombing raids for months, but decided it
was time to flee when gun battles erupted in their village.
The most important things that Asha was able to bring with her are
the bracelets, or "kubasha," that she holds in this photograph. "I
couldn't carry anything with me. I just ran with what I was wearing.
Everything I have now I bought in Jamam, except these bracelets,
which are the only beautiful things I have from home."
Howard Serad, 21, poses for a portrait in Yusuf Batil refugee camp
in Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug. 6, 2012. Exchanges of
gunfire and aerial bombardment forced Howard, with his wife and
six children, to flee their home in Bau County, in Sudan's Blue Nile
State, four months earlier. At the time of this photograph, two of
Howard's children were suffering from diarrhea.
Haja Tilim, 55, poses for a portrait in Jamam refugee camp in
Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug. 7, 2012. When a bomb was
dropped on the home of her neighbor Issa Unis, he was killed
instantly. That night, Haja and her family fled their home in Fadima
Village, in Sudan's Blue Nile State.
The most important thing that Haja was able to bring with her is the
patterned shawl, called a "taupe" which which she carried her 18-
month-old granddaughter, Bal Gaze. Haja brought nothing else
with her, not even wearing shoes during the family's 25-day
journey from Fadima to the South Sudanese border. She recalls, "I
started to run while wearing my sandals, but they slowed me down,
so I threw them on the side of the trail."
Noora, who doesn't know her age, stands inside of her makeshift
shelter in Doro refugee camp, Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug.
5, 2012. A month before, Noora and her three children fled from the
fighting that killed her husband in their home village of Mayak, in
Sudan's Blue Nile State.
The most important object that she was able to bring with her is the
wooden basket that he holds, as it allowed her to carry her 1-year-
old son, Sabit Idris, atop her head during their four-day journey to
South Sudan. Meanwhile, Noora's 2-year-old daughter, Hanan, and
3-year-old son, Nguma, made the journey on their own feet. The
children are all currently malnourished, and Noora has to leave
them for much of each day in order to earn money by fetching and
selling water to better-off refugees.
Dowla Barik, 22, poses for a portrait in Doro refugee camp, Maban
County, South Sudan, on Aug. 5, 2012. Several months before, Dowla
and her six children fled from their village of Gabanit, in Sudan's Blue
Nile State, after numerous bombing raids forced them from their
The most important object that 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.
Ten-year-old Ahmed Sadik poses for a portrait in Jamam refugee
camp, in Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug. 7, 2012. Continued
aerial bombardment forced Ahmed and his family to flee their home
in Taga Village, in Sudan's Blue Nile State, seven months before this
photograph was taken.
The most important thing that Ahmend was able to bring with him is
"Kako," his pet monkey. Kako and Ahmed made the 5-day journey
from Taga to the South Sudanese border together in the back of a
truck. Ahmed says that he couldn't imagine life without his best
friend Kako, and that the most difficult thing about leaving Blue Nile
was having to leave his family's donkey behind.
Taiba Yusuf, 15, poses for a portrait in Jamam refugee camp in
Maban County, South Sudan, on AUg. 12, 2012. Eight months before
this photograph was taken, Taiba fled from her village of Lahmar, in
Sudan's Blue Nile State. Leaving with nothing but the ragged
clothing she was wearing, she, her mother and five brothers
embarked on a two-month journey to South Sudan. She regularly
went days at a time without eating, wore no shoes and had not even
a cup or a plastic bottle to carry water. She stayed alive by
scavenging for fruits in the forest, and by begging food and water
from other refugees and in villages she passed through along the
way. During the journey she suffered from diarrhea and a skin
infection which made walking painful.
Hasan Chata, who is unsure of his age but imagines himself to be
between 60 and 70 years old, poses for a portrait in Jamam refugee
camp in Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug. 7, 2012. Fighting
forced Hasan and his family to flee their home in Maganza Village, in
Sudan's Blue Nile State, four months before this photograph was
Maria Hamed, 10, poses for a portrait in Jamam refugee camp in
Maban County, South Sudan on Aug. 12, 2012. Four months before
this photograph was taken, soldiers arrived in Maria's village of
Makaja, in Sudan's Blue Nile State. In the middle of the night, they set
fire to her house, burning it, and all the food inside, to the ground.
The next day she set out, shoeless, for the South Sudanese border --
a journey that would take her three months to complete. Along the
way she suffered from malaria and at one point went five days without
Magbola Alhadi, 20, and her three children pose for a portrait in
Jamam refugee camp in Maban County, South Sudan on Aug. 11,
2012. Magboola and her family weathered aerial bombing raids for
several months, but decided it was time to leave their village of
Bofe the night that soldiers arrived and opened fire. With her three
children, she travelled for 12 days from Bofe to the town of El Fudj,
on the South Sudanese border.
The most important thing that Magboola was able to bring with her
is the saucepan she holds in this photograph. It wasn't the largest
pot that she had in Bofe, but it was small enough she could travel
with it, yet big enough to cook sorghum for herself and her three
daughters (from left: Aduna Omar, 6, Halima Omar, 4 and Arfa
Omar, 2) during their journey.
Al Haj Mattar Musu, 27, poses for a portrait in Jamam refugee camp
in Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug. 12, 2012. Driven out by war,
Al Haj travelled from his village of Lahmar in Sudan's Blue Nile State
to seek refuge in South Sudan. During his journey, he was ill with
malaria, making it an even more difficult process.
The most important thing that Al Haj was able to bring with him is
the whip that he holds in this photograph. He says that without the
whip, he wouldn't have been able to keep together his herd of 50
goats, and he would now be destitute.
Seventy-five-year-old Shari Jokulu, who is blind, poses for a portrait
with her son Osman Thawk, 40, in Jamam refugee camp in Maban
County, South Sudan, on Aug. 8, 2012. In September 2011 war came
to their village in Bau County, in Sudan's Blue Nile State. For five
months Shari and Osman went from village to village, trying to find
safety. At points, Shari grew so hungry that she ate the leaves of the
lalof tree to put something in her stomach. Some of the friends and
neighbors who accompanied them along the way died of illness or
hunger. Despite their movements, conflict followed them
everywhere they went, and in February 2012 they arrived in Jamam.
The most important things that Shari was able to bring with her is
the stick that she holds in this photograph. Says Shari, "I've had this
stick since I went blind six years ago. My son led me along the road
with it. Without it, and him, I would be dead now."
Omar Belu Garmut is unsure of his exact age, but believes himself to
be between 60 and 70 years old. Here, he poses for a portrait in
Jamam refugee camp in Maban County, South Sudan, on Aug. 11,
2012. Before fleeing from his village of Bofe, he was a farmer. He and
his family weathered aerial bombing raids for several months, but
decided it was time to leave their home and land when soldiers came
to Bofe in the night and opened fire. With his two wives and 16
children, he travelled for 12 days from Bofe to the town of El Fudj, on
the South Sudanese border.
The most important thing that Omar was able to bring with him is the
axe he holds in this photograph. He used it during their journey to
cut firewood for cooking, and to make small wooden structures
where his family would sleep at night, and sometimes to rest for
several days at a time.
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