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What’s in My Bag? :: What Refugees Bring When They Run for Their Lives

by , September 16, 2015

The following has been republished with kind permission from the International Rescue Committee

This year, nearly 100,000 men, women and children from war-torn countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia have fled their homes and traveled by rubber dinghies across the Aegean Sea to Lesbos, Greece.

Refugees travel light, for their trek is as dangerous as it is arduous. They are detained, shot at, hungry. Smugglers routinely exploit them, promising safety for a price, only to squeeze them like sardines into tiny boats. Most have no option but to shed whatever meager belongings they may have salvaged from their journeys. Those allowed to bring extra baggage aboard often toss it overboard, frantically dumping extra weight as the leaky boats take on water.

Few arrive at their destinations with anything but the necessities of life. The International Rescue Committee asked a mother, a child, a teenager, a pharmacist, an artist, and a family of 31 to share the contents of their bags and show us what they managed to hold on to from their homes. Their possessions tell stories about their past and their hopes for the future.

“You will feel that you are a human. You are not just a number.”

A mother

Name: Aboessa*
Age: 20
From: Damascus, Syria

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

When vicious fighting erupted in Yarmouk, an unofficial camp for Palestinians just south of the Syrian capital, Aboessa managed to escape with her husband and their 10-month-old daughter, Doua. After crossing the border to Turkey, they spent one week sheltering in another forlorn camp before jumping into a rubber raft bound for the safe shores of Europe.

The Turkish police patrolling the coast stopped them and detached the boat’s motor in order to force them to turn back, but the refugees kept going, steering the boat through the sea’s strong currents with makeshift paddles.

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

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

“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.”

A child

Name: Omran*
Age: 6
From: Damascus, Syria

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

Little Omran, sporting a cheerful blue shirt, is on his way to Germany with his extended family of five to live with relatives. Because his parents knew they would travel through forests to avoid detection, they made sure to pack bandages for scrapes and cuts.

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

1 pair of pants, 1 shirt
A syringe for emergencies
Marshmallows and sweet cream (Omran’s favorite snacks)
Soap, toothbrush and toothpaste

A teenager

Name: Iqbal*
Age: 17
From: Kunduz, Afghanistan

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

Iqbal dragged his weary body out of the boat with only a backpack. The teenager had traveled hundreds of miles and dodged bullets to escape from the warring province of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, fleeing east to Iran, then traveling by foot to Turkey. Now in Lesbos, he’s uncertain of where to go next. He has kept in touch with a friend who already made the journey to Germany. He has a brother studying in Florida.

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

1 pair of pants, 1 shirt, 1 pair of shoes and 1 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 back-up cell phone
SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey

“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.”

A pharmacist

Name: Anonymous
Age: 34
From: Syria

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

When war broke out in Syria, the pharmacist’s father would recall fond memories of Germany, where he lived for eight years while practicing medicine there. The pharmacist wanted a similar life of peace and hope. He fled with his family to Turkey, where he met a smuggler who arranged his trip to Europe.

With one bag strapped across his chest, the pharmacist climbed into an overcrowded dinghy with 53 others, including a handful of young children. Miraculously, the group made the crossing safely until, near the shores of Greece, they were met by the coast guard, shouting at them to stop the boat.

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

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)

“We didn’t realize it was the police. We were told by friends not to stop because they will take you back to Turkey. We didn’t know the Greek language. We couldn’t understand what they were saying. We held the children. I thought to myself, ‘Let me reach the beach and anything you say I will do.’”

Their boat was punctured and everyone ended up in the sea. The pharmacist treaded water for 45 minutes before he was rescued.

[Read about the pharmacist’s full journey from Aleppo to Germany]

“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.”

An artist

Name: Nour*
Age: 20
From: Syria

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

Nour has a passion for music and art. He played guitar in Syria for seven years and painted. As bombs and gunfire echoed in the distance, Nour grabbed the items closest to his heart before leaving for Turkey — things that today evoke bittersweet memories of home.

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

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
1 shirt

“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.”

A family

From: Aleppo, Syria

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

This family lost everything. When they left Syria, each member took one to two bags. During the course of the journey to Turkey and then Greece, their boat began to sink. There were seven women, four men and 20 children. They managed to salvage just one bag among them.

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

1 shirt, 1 pair of jeans,
1 pair of shoes
1 diaper, 2 small cartons of milk and some biscuits
Personal documents and money
Sanitary pads
A comb

“I hope we die. This life is not worth to live anymore. Everyone closed the door in our face, there is no future.”

What refugees bring when they run for their lives

Name: Hassan*
Age: 25
From: Syria

“This is all I have. They told us we could only bring two things, one extra shirt and pants.”

Learn more about the IRC’s work in Lesbos where we provide clean water, sanitation, trash removal and protection and information services to refugees staying in the Kara Tepe camp and other locations on the island.

*Last names omitted to protect the privacy of those interviewed

The International Rescue Committee helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future. At work in nearly 40 countries and in 25 U.S. cities, the IRC restores safety, dignity, and hope to millions of families in need.

You can help them with their work and donate here

Photos by Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee


  • Brad

    Let’s see, we have seen environmentalist, musicians, spelunkers, cinematographers and now…refugees. This trivializes the plight of refugees around the world beyond comprehension. This blog is devoted to the aesthetic effects of carrying and carry goods. Words like ‘pockets’, ‘shoulder straps’, ‘capacity’ and ‘naf’ get tossed around to describe the bulk of the material reviewed here with pseudo-critical snark that makes for good reading. This is a website predicated on a very surface and unimportant concept; carry is an affectation at best ( I say this and I openly admit to being “carry-obsesses”) it is easy to couch seriousness within a piece about a cinematographer who photographs the places and peoples that this particular article (very vaguely) touches upon, to write a piece about “serious” carry for someone who is paid to repel into caves for a living; linking a serious approach to carry goods to occupations born of a safely housed in upmarket economies and “first-world industrial nations, is relatively safe as the triviality of carry can be expanded upon and explored, veering causally into “serious” territory. To reduce the carry habits of people “running for their lives misses the point entirely that these people are literally “running for their lives” I do not need or want to know what they carry in their backpacks as there is nothing in there that means more to them (or me) than the distant promise of a life spent in security and comfort. Perhaps, on second thought, that is why this piece exists. There is NOTHING on this site that means more to any one, any reader, more so that a life lived in security and comfort; everything written about on this site can be left behind. and maybe that was the pitch, the angle for writing this; everything here is trivial, here, finally, are people who literally carry to live. This simply feels like an opportunistic piece, one that takes carry past a point that it is and should be comfortable going. Refugees are real, they are forced into this lifestyle in the thousands daily. Carryology is not topical past the point of covering the latest in buckle technology and bevel angling. I love this blog but I am sad to see this here.

    • DogSheet

      What a wall of utter dogshit.

      • michael rankin

        In general I disagreed too. But I thought the writer offered a different perspective on the issues. I wish I could convey my ideas as well as Brad did. I just took this article and the comments to mind for my own personal use. It positively helps with analyzing the outcome of scenarios. I also like that Brad recognized the humanity in these people. Something the world cares little about.

  • TeamCarryology

    @Brad, I think you’ve missed the point entirely. Through this piece, and by using ‘carry’as a thread, we’re able to bring this ‘serious’ and dire crisis to the attention of our 130K + readers, in the hope that they may take interest and visit the International Rescue Committee to learn more… and maybe even speak up, like we have.

    • Brad

      I genuinely do appreciate your effort to raise awareness for the problem, this is good. I only take umbrage with the abruptness of the jump in context. When you use a similar or the same format to describe the life of a surfer and the contents of a refugees backpack, the result can seem callous. I still love the site; count me as reader 130k+1

      • TeamCarryology

        Thanks for getting back @disqus_bbEU5osmtZ:disqus. We totally understand the jump in context may have been irksome. Although we’d like to point out that this piece wasn’t commissioned by Carryology, but published by the IRC on their own channels and republished by us. This was the IRC’s chosen format / angle to communicate something intrinsically human – and an opportunity to put faces and people and lives to the crisis. And like you said, it’s a good thing. 😉

  • alex

    Pretty damn real, and decent journalism to boot.

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  • volm

    Sorry but what do you want us to feel ? A compassion for these refugees ?

    Do you know that these are middle class men and most of them lived a better life than the people from the eastern european block.

    And now the all mighty uber alles germans are telling the EUROPE to feed them, incorporate them to the society. The germans that destroyed all europe,raped,murdered and have stolen countless of money,resources and lives. The germans that paid only a laughable price to the countries of europe. They laugh at our face for enslaving us economically.

    And the whole europe should feel solidarity because the US,France,UK and the rest of the western powers fought the war they could not win ?

    Are you insane ?

    Do you know that we have not been able to enter the Western job markets for 7 years after we got accepted to EU ? Do you know that educated asians are not able to get visa because of all the bureaucracy and papershit ?

    And now they are telling us that we can freely accept millions of people ?

    Because the germans are getting old and the Germany replaces Japan as country with world’s lower birth rate ? And the eastern european immigration to germany is not that high as it once was as there is not need to clean their asses anymore and work on their pensions ?

    Corruption and the post-soviet mentality played a role too in the history of the ost bloc but do not tell me we have to feel compassion with the refugees and show the solidarity because some bureaucrat from the bruxelles told us to.

    • Bernhardt Scherer

      Never go full retard.
      No bureaucrat should tell you to feel compassion, your very own humanity and common sense should tell you to.

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  • http://Carryology.com/ Taylor (Carryology)

    I found this article to be extremely insightful. For me, it provided a look into the lives of these refugees, who we rarely get to see individualized.
    I took a few things from this…
    1) The gear some of us carry is full of frills and luxury. Look at what these people are carrying in contrast. it is the necessities. What they could grab in a time of urgency. The things that are important to them. The things that will keep them alive. It makes you realize how difficult their lives must be right now. Very humbling.
    2) From the opposite end, showing what “gear” is most important to stay alive while these individuals traverse hundreds of miles on foot is fascinating. Perhaps we can all learn that we don’t need fancy gear XYZ when something simple can take its place.
    3) Last and not least important, it exposes this very human tragedy that is happening in our world.

  • Pilgrim Seeker

    Thank you for the article despite some of your readers finds it offensive in its manner of presentation. I for one finds that the article brings out commonality with them, seeing the refugees as humans like me rather than as a bunch of figures. Empathy restored. Thank you.

  • trath

    Thank you TeamCarryology for this article. The more exposure these people get the better.

  • Jonas Hanna

    I have been listening lately to BBC on the radio following the refugee crisis. It has made me want to research more on why. I found myself searching the different places that the people being interviewed are from and following on google maps their journey. (I think you meant travelling West from Kunduz to Iran by the way) This article helped with my awareness of not only current events around the world (I am an American currently living in Jamaica) in a way that I found personal but also seeing what people find essential to carry in such a desperate situation. This article to me has been one of the most interesting ones on this site!

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