If you were forced to flee your home tomorrow and could bring just one bag with you, what would it contain? Medicine? Family photos? An item of spiritual comfort? A book? Candy? A cell phone? There is no easy way to fit your entire life and the life of your family into a small bag when violence and civil war force you to flee.
Yet this year alone, 300,000 men, women, and children from the Middle East and North Africa have been forced to make this impossible choice, packing their small bags and risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the hopes of reaching Europe, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It's a huge increase from last year, when 219,000 people made the journey. The European Commission has called it the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II.
One of the principal destinations for refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan is Greece. According to the International Rescue Committee, nearly 140,000 refugees have arrived in Greece this year, a 750% increase from last year, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Some 96,000 of these refugees have fled their homes in the hopes of reaching one island. The Greek island of Lesbos, in a part of the Mediterranean known as the Aegean Sea, currently hosts 13,000 refugees, according to the (IRC). The aid organization estimates that nearly 2,000 people per day have been making the crossing to Greece's Eastern Islands in rubber dinghies over the past month.
Not all of the people who make this perilous journey reach their destination, however. Nearly 26,000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. This week, the world's attention finally turned to those victims, when two tiny brothers, 3-year-old Aylan and 5-year-old Galip Kurdi, drowned along with their mother off the coast of Turkey.
Those who do make it to the shore safely are faced with the Herculean task of starting a new life in a foreign land with nothing but the bare minimum. Since the tiny boats that ferry refugees across are usually packed beyond capacity, people are required to travel light and end up keeping very little of their belongings. Most people have no choice but to dispose of what little they have managed to salvage during the conflict as they pack their small bags to flee. Refugees who are allowed to bring extra baggage usually end up dumping its contents overboard when the overloaded boats begin to give way to the harsh waves.
The International Rescue Committee asked a mother, a child, a teenager, a pharmacist, an artist, and a family of 31 people who had recently arrived on Lesbos to display the items they packed in their bags. Here, these refugees share the very personal contents of what little they have left.
Aboessa, 20 years old, from Damascus, Syria
Aboessa managed to escape with her husband and 10-month-old daughter, Doua, when fighting erupted in Yarmouk, an unofficial camp for Palestinians just south of the Syrian capital. The family briefly sought shelter in another refugee camp in Turkey before boarding a rubber raft heading to Europe. The Turkish police patrolling the coast stopped their boat and even detached its motor to prevent the refugees from proceeding further. The refugees on board, however, steered through the strong currents with makeshift paddles. Aboessa packed her bag with her child in mind.
“Everything is for my daughter to protect her against sickness. When we arrived in Greece, a kind man gave me two jars of food. Another man gave us biscuits and water when he saw my baby," she said.
When Aboessa, her husband, and her daughter finally made it to Lesbos, Aboessa’s bag contained the following items:
An assortment of medication
A bottle of sterile water
A jar of baby food
A small supply of napkins for diaper changes
A hat and a pair of socks for the baby
Sunscreen and sunburn ointment
Personal documents including the baby’s vaccination history
A wallet with photo ID and money
A cell phone charger
A yellow headband
Omran, 6 years old, from Syria
When Omran and his extended family of five set off for Germany to live with their relatives, his parents packed ample bandages for scrapes and cuts. The family knew the bandages would come in handy when they travelled through forests to prevent being caught.
To make the difficult journey sweeter for the 6-year-old, Omran's family also packed marshmallows and sweet cream, his favorite snack.
When Omran and his family finally arrived in Lesbos, his bag contained:
A pair of pants and a shirt
A syringe for emergencies
Marshmallows and sweet cream (his favorite snacks)
A toothbrush and toothpaste
Iqbal, 17 years old, from Kunduz, Afghanistan
Iqbal is a long way from home. To escape the war in his hometown of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, he first fled to Iran, traveled to Turkey on foot, and got on a boat to come to Lesbos. He has kept in touch with a friend who has already made his way to Germany, but Iqbal is not sure where he will go next.
“I want my skin to be white and hair to be spiked — 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," Iqbal said.
When he arrived in Lesbos, Iqbal's bag contained:
A pair of pants, a shirt, a pair of shoes, and a pair of socks
Shampoo, hair gel, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and face whitening cream
A comb and a nail clipper
$100 in U.S. currency
130 Turkish liras
A smartphone and a backup cell phone
SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey
A family of 31 from Aleppo, Syria
When this family of seven women, four men, and 20 children left Syria, each member took two bags apiece. During the course of their journey to Turkey and then Greece, their boat began to sink. All they could manage to save was this one bag.
"I hope we die. This life is not worth to live anymore. Everyone closed the door in our face, there is no future," one of the adults said.
After losing almost all of its possessions when its boat sank, this family had only:
A pair of jeans
A pair of shoes
Two small cartons of milk and some biscuits
Personal documents and money
Anonymous, a 34-year-old pharmacist from Syria
When war broke out in Syria, the pharmacist said he wanted to go to any country in Europe where he could continue his studies. He particularly dreamt of going to Germany, where his father had spent eight years studying and practicing medicine, and which he recalled with great fondness.
Unfortunately, all the embassies in Syria had closed down after four years of intense war, and there were hardly any countries welcoming refugees. Most smugglers were demanding exorbitant amounts of money (for example, $3,000 just to get to Egypt) to transport Syrians hoping to flee.
As a pharmacist who made $2,000 a month, the smugglers' fees were a luxury he could not afford. Hence, like many others, he had little choice but to flee to Turkey with his family, where he met a smuggler who arranged his trip to Europe.
The smuggler crammed 54 people, including a couple of children, into a dinghy meant for 35. Inevitably, it punctured and all the passengers ended up in the water. The pharmacist waded in the sea for 45 minutes before he was rescued.
"I had to leave behind my parents and sister in Turkey. I thought, if I die on this boat, at least I will die with the photos of my family near me," he said. He chose not to give his name because he fears for his safety.
After nearly drowning when the boat he was on sank, the pharmacist finally made it to Lesbos. His bag contained:
A 16GB flash drive containing all his family photos
Money wrapped in plastic to protect it from water
An old phone, which got wet and is now unusable
A new smartphone
Phone chargers and headphones, plus an extra battery charger
Nour, 20 years old, from Syria
Nour is an artist. He loves music and art, and painted and sang in Syria for seven years until the war tore his country apart. Before leaving for Turkey, he stuffed his bag with treasured possessions that remind him of home.
"I left Syria with two bags, but the smugglers told me I could only take one. The other bag had all of my clothes. This is all I have left," Nour said as he opened his bag.
After being forced to abandon his other bag, this is what Nour had left when he arrived in Lesbos:
A small bag of personal documents
A rosary, given to Nour as a gift by his friend. He doesn’t let it touch the floor
A watch from his girlfriend, which broke during the journey
A Syrian flag pin, a Palestinian charm, and some silver and wooden bracelets given to him as gifts by his friends.
Guitar picks, one of which is also a gift from a friend
A cell phone and a Syrian SIM card
His photo identification