The Most Important Thing
If conflict tore your country apart and forced you to run for your life, what would you bring with you?
Photographer Brian Sokol, working with UNHCR staff around the world, has posed the question to hundreds of people who have been forced to flee their homes. What’s the most important thing you brought with you? The resulting photo project, “The Most Important Thing,” provides surprising and thoughtful responses. Here, 11 Rohingya refugees present the things that mean most to them.
The most important thing Mohammed brought with him are his land use documents from Myanmar.
Before he was forced to flee an attack on his home, Mohammed was chairman of his village and had a thriving 100 kani (132 acre) farm that included a large family house, two lakes, a rice paddy, vegetables and several cows, chickens and goats. Today, the 44-year-old lives in a refugee settlement in southern Bangladesh without enough food to feed his family. The most important thing Mohammed brought with him are his land use documents from Myanmar. As a Rohingya, these documents showed he was entitled to use the land. “We will return and rebuild and be productive again,” he says. “If I go back to Myanmar and have to prove where my land is, these documents will help.” Mohammed says that he will only return when the Rohingya are counted as one of Myanmar’s official ethnic groups and given citizenship.
The most important thing Mohammed brought with him to Bangladesh are his educational certificates, which are required for any formal job back home.
Mohammed, 26, was the only person from his village to study at university. The young man had almost secured a BA in English when Rohingya were banned from attending Myanmar’s Sittwe University. Returning to his village, he found work with the aid organization CARE and focused his energies on helping people. After a nearby village was attacked and Mohammed failed to save a 10-year-old boy who had been soaked in petrol and set alight, he stuffed his educational certificates, his laptop and a change of clothes into a bag and fled. Shortly afterwards, his village was set on fire, the women gang-raped and men killed. “Here, I don’t feel well,” he says. “In Myanmar, I had a big home, clean water and a good job. I want to go back – but I won’t go unless we are given citizenship.”
“If hadn’t had my lati, I would have crawled to Bangladesh.”
The most important thing that Omar, who is 102 and blind, brought with him is his lati or walking stick. He and his fellow villagers fled their homes after witnessing a horrific attack on the neighbouring village and several brutal murders. Omar found his way by following the voices of the other refugees and using his lati. At one point, after hopping off of a fisherman’s boat, he was lost in a mangrove forest for seven hours, up to his neck in water. He weeps as he recounts the harrowing tale. Eventually he found his way to shore but was exhausted after the ordeal. Omar says leaving his village was the hardest thing he has ever done, but now that he is safe and reunited with his family, he is happy and at peace. “If you laugh, others will laugh with you. And if you stop laughing, you will die.”
The most important thing Nuras brought with her into exile from Myanmar is a baby she found while fleeing an attack on her village.
After her neighbours were murdered, 25-year-old Nuras and her four children were chased and fired at as they fled. While running, Nuras heard a baby crying and coughing nearby. She found him near the bodies of two slain Rohingya people, in a dry and faraway rice paddy, flailing his arms. “Maybe Allah has given me a gift to protect me and my children during this journey,” she thought. With the infant in her arms, Nuras walked with her children all day and eventually arrived at the Bangladeshi border, where her husband, who had gone ahead, waited. She searched the site for the baby’s family but when no one claimed him, she and her husband decided to name him Mohammed Hasan, after the prophet Mohammed’s grandson. They hope that Mohammed will grow into a strong man who will become a religious teacher one day.
The chain around 15-year-old Yacoub’s neck is the only thing he has left to remind him of his father.
The last time they spoke, it was early in the morning and the man was heading out to gather firewood. That same day, there was a brutal attack on Yacoub’s village. When he saw his home burning, Yacoub, who lost his mother in childbirth when he was eight, took his two little sisters by the hand and ran barefoot into the jungle. They stayed hidden for 15 days, living on biscuits and tea brought from their uncle’s shop and later by picking rose apples. Yacoub bought his necklace at a market in Myanmar five months ago with money his father had given him as a gift. The boy now lives alone in a tent, with just his new puppy Sitara, a sleeping mat and a blanket. His aunt, uncle and sisters live next door. Nobody knows what became of his father.
“If I’m in a crisis, maybe no one will come to help me – but Shikari will always come.”
Fifteen-year-old Jamir reaches toward his dog Shirkari, outside of the small shop his family run in a refugee settlement in southern Bangladesh. “Shikari is the most important thing that came from Myanmar, because he is my best friend and my protector.” says Jamir. Jamir, whose family fled Myanmar 28 years ago, was born in the settlement and has never set foot in Myanmar. He first saw the dog last autumn, shortly after it arrived from Myanmar with a Rohingya refugee. When the animal approached him and sniffed his foot, Jamir threw a piece of food. After the dog sprang into the air to catch it, Jamir named him Shikari, which means ‘hunter’. The young man and his dog have been inseparable ever since. Shikari even sleeps outside of the door to the family shop where Jamir spends the night. “Shikari and I will go home to Myanmar, inshallah,” he says.
Kalima, who still struggles with the memories of the massacre, says nothing is important to her now after the unspeakable losses she suffered in Myanmar.
“I don’t know why Allah did not let me die,” the 20-year-old says through tears. She had been married just three months when attackers came to her village, burning houses and opening fire on the people. Surrounded by armed men, Kalima watched, terrified, as babies were thrown into the water and groups of children were set on fire. Kalima’s husband and little sister were shot. She was then brutally beaten and raped by multiple men, before being knocked unconscious. When she woke up, the house was on fire. She fled, walking for three days with her uncle and cousin into Bangladesh. Kalima was once a tailor and would very much like to sew again. When asked what her specialty garment is, she transforms from a weeping, stooped figure into a confident and composed young woman. “Anything you need!” she says, smiling.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.