The things they carried: What refugees take on their journey

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. A carton of Winstons, a yellow plastic bag, lemons, a laser pointer, bandages, sunscreen, painkillers, a change of clothes and a life jacket. These are some of the items in Syrian refugee Abu Jana’s bag when he cross the Mediterranean from Egypt. Photographer Sima Diab recently documented the items that Syrian refugees, including Abu Jana, decided to bring on their journey to Europe.


Sima Diab: He’s more prepared than most. I think he was thinking more longevity and survival skills than anything else. I mean, he considered the laser pointer, and that was kind of profound for Patrick and I. I mean, he knows the risks in front of him, and so he’s packing accordingly.


Werman: Right, Patrick is the writer on the story.


Diab: Patrick Kingsley, the writer on the story, yeah.


Werman: And why did Abu Jana bring a laser pointer?


Diab: Sometimes these trips can take seven to twelve days, and if you’re on a rickety boat crossing the Mediterranean that’s an illegal boat, you don’t have your regular lights that you would normally have on a boat, and so you’re not really drawing attention to yourself. But if something goes wrong, that’s the one thing you want to do. The idea that he would take a laser pointer, for anybody to see miles or kilometers around, was pretty profound.


Werman: Where was Abu Jana from and what prompted him to ultimately leave Syria?


Diab: He was is an ex-army officer, he’s from the south, and he decided that he didn’t want to partake in what he considered a government crackdown on protesters, and so he decided to leave Syria and defected from the army.


Werman: And how did he know what to pack, like that laser pointer? Is the advice mill now just full of suggestions like “Bring a laser pen and lemons, they might be life-savers”?


Diab: I mean, lemons is more of something that you find a little more common. The laser pointer I haven’t actually come across before.


Werman: Right. And life jackets, does everyone pretty much have one now or are they still hard to get?


Diab: If you’ve got the money, there’s nothing hard to get. Keep in mind what they normally take with them is really quite small, so it’s not much more than just a small backpack on their backs. All of these things are very tightly packed inside of that backpack. As somebody who travels quite often, I find it often very difficult to kind of cram everything into a carry-on. So the idea that this is all they’ve got and it’s the most important things to them to kind of keep them alive until they get to the other side, and the hope is that when they get to the other side the worst was behind them, and that as long as they’re alive, they can get everything back--they can get clothes, they can get the other things, they can get other necessities.


Werman: I gather, Sima, you were just at the train station in Budapest. I’m curious, are these migrants’ belongings just as spare now as, say, a few days or a few weeks ago when they first landed?


Diab: I’d probably say more so. I mean, we had done a previous story, Patrick and I, on migration called “The Journey,” about a man who had gone from Syria to Sweden. In that piece, I had also photographed and we had talked to him about the things that he would take with him. He had gone with quite a few things in his backpack, like most people do. And yet when he arrived, he had no more than a handful of things, like a small little notebook. And when he was asked what happened to them, he kind of laughed and said, “They’re either ruined or lost at sea.” So, a lot of people end up arriving with a lot less than what they left with. So, you can imagine a pack of cigarettes will go relatively quickly on a ten-day boat ride, the lemons will probably be used, and so what is actually left is the small little stuff, things that would identify him, for him to start a new life.


Werman: And Sima, was there anything that really surprised you about what any of the people you and Patrick profiled, what they brought?


Diab: The lemons were actually really interesting to me because it’s a perishable good. In case they don’t have water, lemons act--you hydrate yourself a little bit and it’s an anti-nausea. First, I thought, “Well, why don’t they just take anti-nausea pills?” and I realized, “Well, they might not even have water,” and that was an incredible realization, that it could get that desperate.


Werman: That is so desperate. Sima Diab. She recently profiled, along with Patrick Kingsley for The Guardian newspaper, Syrian refugees and the things they were carrying with them on their journey across the Mediterranean. Sima, thank you very much.


Diab: Thank you so much for having me.