When Iqbal, a 17-year-old, fled the fighting in Afghanistan, he took a single bag. One change of clothes, $100, some Turkish lira, and SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. A comb, a few bandages. He also brought face whitening cream and hair gel.
“I want my skin to be white and my hair to be spiked–I don’t want them to know I’m a refugee,” he told a photographer from the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “I think that someone will spot me and call the police because I’m illegal.”
In a heartbreaking variation on the ubiquitous “what’s in your bag?” photos–the kind that usually feature a sampling of the excess of some celebrity’s life–the IRC asked refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos to share what they’d carried from their former lives.
A 6-year-old boy from Damascus carried a pair of pants and a shirt, along with marshmallows–his favorite snack–a few toiletries, and bandages for scrapes as he and his family try to hike undetected through forests.
A 34-year-old pharmacist carried a wet cell phone, ruined when the Greek Coast Guard punctured the rubber dinghy that he was clinging to as he traveled across the sea. A 20-year-old mother carried only supplies for her baby, like a hat, socks, and vaccination records. A family of 31 people–who each left Syria with one or two bags–were left with a single bag among all of them after their boat began to sink and they had to toss the other luggage overboard.
“We wanted to bring out some personal stories, in an overall story that can be all about numbers,” says Juliette Delay, global communications officer for the International Rescue Committee. “Whenever it’s all about numbers, it kind of dehumanizes all the people that are going through this. I do think a lot of people who didn’t really care about this story can relate to it in a different way.”
The numbers are staggeringly hard to take in: When the IRC arrived in Lesbos a couple of months ago, about 200 people arrived each day. Now, on some days, 3,000 people arrive on the tiny island, one stop on a seemingly endless journey to places like Germany.
On Lesbos, the IRC is trying to provide a few basic services. “Anytime you have a bunch of people who are hungry, exhausted, and have nowhere to sleep, and there’s not appropriate facilities for them to go to the bathroom, it creates tension,” Delay says. “So that’s where the IRC kind of fits in. We’re trying to help with sanitation, and basic cleanup, and helping people go where they need to go.”
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