What they took with them
© UNHCR

What they took with them

Jenifer Toksvig wrote What They Took With Them in 2015, inspired by stories and first-hand testimonies from refugees forced to flee their homes and the items they took with them.

One of the sources for the poem was Brian Sokol’s photography project, ‘The Most Important Thing’, made in collaboration with UNHCR.  Many of Brian’s photos are featured in the 2016 film of the poem being performed by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors and supporters including Cate Blanchett, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Booth, Stanley Tucci, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Juliet Stevenson, Keira Knightley, Peter Capaldi and Jesse Eisenberg.  

Released exclusively on Facebook the film urged people to sign the #WithRefugees petition to help ensure refugee access to education, a safe place to live, and an opportunity to work.  

Jenifer’s poem has subsequently been translated by UNHCR into German, Polish and Serbian for filmed performances in those countries.

What They Took With Them: a List

Wallet (empty), wallet, wallet, money, coins, pennies. 
Torch, whistle, laser pointer - seen more clearly out at sea. 
Three bags. One bag. Rucksack. Trunk. 
Yellow plastic bag for papers, 
sellotaped till waterproof 
and yellow cards for refugees, 
and national ID. 
Army service record, and an information booklet from the government, 
diploma: electronics. Certificate from high school. 
Passport, if you’ve got one you can take. 
Expensive one way ticket: fake. 
Flag, flag, national flag. 
Flash drive, laptop, phone. 
Mobile, phone number, phone number, phone number 
SIM card, spare one, phone, phone, 
smart phone with Skype and Facetime, headphones, 
charger, charger, overseas adapter. 
House keys. 

House keys. House keys. 
Notebook and pen. 
We have suffered so much. 
I want to study so that I can become someone again. 

Painkillers, painkillers, sea sickness tablets. 
Walking stick, walking stick, white cane or crutches. 
Wheelchair. Syringes to use in emergency. 
Bandages, bandages, toiletries, toothpaste. 
Toothbrush and toothpaste, nail clipper, comb. 
Shampoo and hair gel. Barber equipment and 
sunscreen and ointment for sunburns 
and tablets for son’s epilepsy: one every day. 
And all vaccinations recorded to date for the baby, 
and face whitening cream. 

I want my skin to be white 
and my hair to be spiked. 
I don’t want them to know I’m a refugee. 
What if somebody spots me and calls the police 
because I’m illegal? 
But not if I’m white. 
That’s right, isn’t it?

Traditional clothing, 
warm clothing, 
baby clothing, 
favourite clothing, 
dirty clothing, 
wet clothing,
layered clothing, 
pants pants pants.
Sewing machine: it’s my life, it’s my blood. 
Four dresses, a change of clothes. 
One pair of flowery jeans, that I wore to a party, and won’t wear again till I go to another one. 
Shirt, one shirt, and one missing sandal. 
A pair of shoes, pair of shoes, new: never worn. 
A hijab, a gift from a friend. 
My favourite scarf, with the skulls on: I just love the colour. 
My turban. My turban’s my guardian. Now it protects my identity, and my faith. Without it, I’m vulnerable. 
Head scarf, from someone who died in the conflict. 
A hat for the baby, 
and socks for the baby. 
One nappy. Just one. 
And sanitary towels. 
Sports jacket for warmth, and some have a lifejacket too 
and some don’t. 

The most painful thing about being a refugee 
is that you wake up one day to find you’ve lost all of your liberty 
and can no longer decide on your life. 
It’s like everything is closed in your face, 
so there’s nothing else but the sea. 
There’s nothing but the sea 
as a way to get out and be free. 

Cigarettes: cartons, packets, lighters. 
Clay pipe, ginseng, jerry can, milk. 
Sterile water, bottled water, water water everywhere, 
a half a litre bottle for a one week trip. 
Bottled oil, lemons, lemons, dates, dates, dates, dates. 
Biscuits, crackers, crackers, crackers, corned beef in a tin. 
Tea set, for the others on the boat: we’re thirsty, tired and afraid. I’ll make some tea. That’s what we do: we make a family.
Baby food, marshmallows, bread that wasn’t fully baked. The men who threw us out wouldn’t let us finish up. 
Metal cooking pot to make some dinner for the children. 
One man only brought a cup. 

I’d have been ashamed 
to ask every day for a cup, 
just to take a drink of water. 
People get tired of being asked for things all the time, 
and eventually they will say no. 
But now I have my own cup. 
It gives me independence, no matter where I go. 
 

Plastic carpets, rug, rug, pillow. 
Animal skin tent. 
A piece of mortar from the house. 
A piece of soil from the garden, wrapped in fabric. 
Sacred soil, sacred book, sacred text, 
rosary and prayer beads, rosary, prayer beads, rosary. 
My headdress hides the key to a small metal chest 
containing all of the essentials for a wedding. 
Ring, ring, charm, ring, mother’s wedding ring. 
I lost mine in the bombing so my mother gave me hers. 
My earrings. I make jewellery, all the jewellery of my people. 
It symbolises freedom. No-one tells me what to wear. 
Heart necklace, heart necklace, Virgin Mary necklace. 
Bracelet, bracelet, bracelet. 

No, the bracelet’s not my favourite thing. 
That’s Nancy. She’s my doll. 
The night we fled, my mother put her 
on my bed so we would not forget her 
but in all the rush she did get left behind. 
I don’t mind. She’ll keep watch. 

Watch, digital and analogue.
Respect for time, it matters. 
Makes me good at what I do. I’m a well respected leader with an 
axe, axe, knife, axe, cooking knife, goat. 
The goat will bring me hope, bring me joy 
and a sense that things can only get better. 
My pet monkey, little Kako, and the donkey, donkey, donkey. 

The donkey saved our lives. 
Took my family through the desert. 
It took ten days. 
All that way. 
Of course I have the donkey. 
He is family. 

Family portrait. 
Photos, photos, photo of my father. 
Memories of my father. 
I have nothing from my home. 

Everything was broken in the struggle. 
We were out in just ten minutes. 
They destroyed the house around my sick bed. 
The neighbours heard me shout 
and came and carried me out. 

I carried both my children, 
in baskets, swinging from a pole across my shoulders. 
And I carried my virginity, 
out at sea, we rubbed ourselves in vomit so the pirates wouldn’t touch us. 

I escaped with my 
children 
sister 
brother 
husband 
wife 
With my soul 
With my smile 
With my life