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Poignant Series of Refugees with “The Most Important Thing”

woman holding two children hanging over her back

The most important object she 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. Doro refugee camp, Maban County, South Sudan.
UNHCR/B. Sokol

When we are confronted with the reality of uprooting ourselves to flee a place or country in order to survive, material possessions become almost insignificant in the balance of what matters. This is the stark reality that confronts most refugees. Photojournalist Brian Sokol has assembled a series of photographs of refugees crossing the border from Sudan’s blue Nile state and South Sudan’s Upper Nile state as well as Syrian refugees who fled to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Sudan man holding his whip

The most important thing he 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. Jamam camp, Maban County, South Sudan.
UNHCR/B. Sokol

woman with three kids holding cooking pot

The most important thing she 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. Jamam refugee camp, Maban County, South Sudan.
UNHCR/B. Sokol

The UNHCR writes on their Flickr account:

“By contrast, people seeking sanctuary from the conflict in Syria must typically conceal their intentions by appearing as though they are out for a family stroll or a Sunday drive as they make their way towards a border. Thus they carry little more than keys, pieces of paper, phones and bracelets – things that can be worn or concealed in pockets. Some Syrians bring a symbol of their religious faith, others clutch a reminder of home or of happier times.”

woman holding hand up in acknowledgement

The most important thing that she 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.”
UNHCR/B. Sokol

woman holding up her diploma

The most important thing she 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. Ramazan Kurkud, head of education programs at Adiyaman, said 70 B.A candidates and 10 M.A candidates from the camp have so far submitted applications to study at Turkish universities.
UNHCR/B. Sokol

young girl holding up pair of pants

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.
UNHCR/B. Sokol

The New Delhi, India based photojournalist has been documenting life in Asia for more than 10 years. Being fluent in Nepali, he has covered political and cultural upheaval in the region such as in the Himalayas.

He is also a close observer of the economics of global migration. His work has earned him numerous awards and accolades, and has been exhibited in the USA, Japan, Korea and Nepal. Among his awards is the 2007 Eddie Adams Grant from National Geographic Magazine, which is given annually to an outstanding young photographer during the first 3 years of professional experience.
“If you don’t feel anything when you tale a photograph, people won’t feel anything when they look at it,” says Sokol. You will understand Sokol’s emotional connection to his work once you see any one of his photo essays.

The poignant series called The Most Important Thing, graphically shows the harshness of how we exist in different realities. It is also a reminder that people are still struggling on a daily basis, by the hundreds, if not thousands, for their lives. Viewing the series also makes one ponder the thought of how our lives have become so cluttered by unnecessary possessions. The photos show us that we are all essentially the same, once stripped of life’s inherent complexities. We all love our families, want to do our best to provide life’s basic necessities, and crave safety and security. It is a thought-provoking series that everyone should find the time to look at.

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Patricia Ramos the author

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I'm talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.

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