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Photos: What Syrian refugees carry in their bags as they leave their lives behind

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee
All that’s left of one family’s possessions.
By Olivia Goldhill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When Syrian refugees flee their war-torn country, they can bring only a small selection of belongings with them. Large suitcases won’t fit on the tiny boats that are overloaded with people, and so asylum-seekers travel with the few possessions they need the most.

But of course, what a person needs the most varies hugely. And many refugees lose or have to shed items during the dangerous and arduous journey.

The International Rescue Committee has released these poignant photographs of the contents of refugees’ bags, which offer a glimpse of them as individuals. Taken as a whole, the images also paint a heartbreaking picture of what people cling to—and let go of—as they leap into the unknown.

A child

Omran, a 6-year-old from Damascus, Syria, brought sweets in his colorful rucksack, as well as a toothbrush and a syringe for emergencies.

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

One pair of pants, one shirt
A syringe
Marshmallows and sweet cream
Soap, toothbrush and toothpaste

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

A teenager

Iqbal, a 17-year-old from Kunduz, Afghanistan, said he picked out items that would help him fit in.

“I want my skin to be white and hair to be spiked,” he told the IRC. “I don’t want them to know I’m a refugee. I think that someone will spot me and call the police because I’m illegal.”

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

One pair of pants, one shirt, one pair of shoes, and one pair of socks
Shampoo and hair gel, toothbrush and toothpaste, face-whitening cream
Comb, nail clipper
100 U.S. dollars
130 Turkish liras
Smart phone and backup basic cell phone
SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

An artist

Nour, a 20-year-old artist from Syria, packed two bags but was told by smugglers that he could only take one. He left behind his clothes to keep his bag of items with personal meaning.

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

Small bag of personal documents
A rosary (gift from his friend; Nour doesn’t let it touch the floor)
A watch (from his girlfriend; it broke during the journey)
Syrian flag, Palestinian charm, silver and wooden bracelets (gifts from friends)
Guitar picks (one also a gift from a friend)
Cell phone and Syrian SIM card
Photo ID
One shirt

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

A mother

Aboessa, who is 20 years old and from Syria, has been travelling with her 10-month-old daughter, Doua. They were in a rubber raft when Turkish police detached the boat’s motor, and they had to use makeshift paddles to make it to shore.

Hat for the baby
An assortment of medication, a bottle of sterile water, and a jar of baby food
A small supply of napkins for diaper changes
A hat and a pair of socks for the baby
Assortment of pain relievers, sunscreen and sunburn ointment, toothpaste
Personal documents (including the baby’s vaccination history)
Wallet (with photo ID and money)
Cell phone charger
Yellow headband

Tyler Jump/ International Rescue Committee

A pharmacist

This 34-year-old father lived and practiced medicine in Germany for eight years, and so he escaped the war in Syria to travel to Europe.

He travelled in a dinghy with 53 others and almost made it to Greece, until a coast guard started yelling for them to stop and the boat was punctured. He treaded water for 45 minutes before he was rescued.

Money (wrapped to protect it from water)
Old phone (wet and unusable) and new smart phone
Phone chargers and headphones (plus extra battery charger)
16GB flash drive (containing family photos)

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

A family

One family of 31 people (seven women, four men and 20 children) lost all their belongings on their journey from Aleppo, Syria, to Greece. They saved just one bag.

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

One shirt, one pair of jeans,
One pair of shoes
One diaper, two small cartons of milk, and some biscuits
Personal documents and money
Sanitary pads
A comb

Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee

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