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Dead Brother's Vest, Bracelet, Coffee Pot: What Refugees Take When They Flee


DECEMBER 08, 2016

London. When Syrian refugee Zakaria Alssayadi fled his village he grabbed his passport, money and the plain white vest his beloved brother was wearing the day he died of cancer.

Fellow refugee Amal Tayyawi took a bracelet given by her sister, Anas Humidy picked up his poetry, Kawther Jahwani her coffee pot and five-year-old Nizar Rastnawi his Spiderman costume.

These treasured items and the stories behind them feature in a film project by the charity International Medical Corps which aims to put a human face on the refugee crisis.

The videos were filmed in Turkey which hosts more than 2.7 million of the 11 million Syrians uprooted from their homes since the war began in 2011.

Many of those who fled bombings had no time to pack and could only bring their most valuable things.

For Alssayadi that was his brother's vest. "When I hold it in my hands, it's bittersweet," he says in the film as he chokes back tears.

"I feel happiness because it's something of his — I feel like he's next to me — but I also feel sadness because he died. His smell, it's still there."

Cameraman Salam Rizek, who was born in Syria, said The Things We Carry project would encourage people to think about which single item they would pick if they were in the same position.

"Everybody has a house and things they like. This will help people identify with refugees as human beings rather than see them as numbers," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a London launch event on Tuesday (06/12) night.

Special gift

In one of the 11 vignettes, former finance student Amal Tayyawi, 23, tells how she took the black bead bracelet given to her by her sister who remains in Syria, trapped in a village surrounded by Islamic State.

"There was no time to pack. The only thing I took is my bracelet," says Tayyawi, recalling the day she fled shelling near her home in Hama.

She had to be carried by her brother because an earlier airstrike had left her with a broken back. Now receiving treatment in Turkey, she only removes the bracelet during operations.

"The bracelet gives me strength. When I am wearing it I feel like my sister is still with me," she says.

Tayyawi wishes she had taken her university books, "but when the explosions begin you don't have time to think about what you will take."

Coffee and poetry

Jahwani's 15-year-old metal coffee pot looks like any other, but the memories imbued in it are irreplaceable. It has been everywhere with her — to the olive groves during harvest time and on summer picnics with her children.

She left when bombs started falling on the mosque next to her home in Homs.

"In one night we abandoned everything it took us 25 years to build," Jahwani says.

The 50-year-old grandmother now lives in a shop storeroom, her pot a reminder of happier times. "When I drink my coffee I am transported back to Syria," she says.

Former policeman and keen poet Humidy left for Turkey after a rocket attack in a market killed five friends and left him with a serious leg injury.

He left the southern city of Deir al-Zour at night with a handful of his poetry notebooks. Several contained poems criticizing Islamic State (ISIS) that could have got him arrested.

"We were afraid of both the regime and ISIS. We had no time to pack or prepare, everything was done in secrecy," he says.

Humidy lives in a rehabilitation center in Sanliurfa where he is receiving physiotherapy.

International Medical Corps, which runs nine health centers for refugees across southern Turkey, said it saw hundreds of new cases of people disabled by conflict every month. It also highlighted a desperate shortage of psychiatrists to treat high levels of mental trauma.

Humidy takes comfort in rereading his old poems, but he has not written since arriving in Turkey.

"I have not yet found the peace I need to pick up the pen again," he says.