The blue sky of home

For refugees, it's the memories they carry and the objects they treasure that help connect us all.

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The news from Aleppo just before Christmas was grim. Tens of thousands of civilians were still trapped in one of Syria’s largest cities as the endless war in their country raged around them. I’d seen the images of ruined neighborhoods and read the tweets from people enduring the constant airstrikes.

At Oxfam, we talk about the devastation in that war-shattered country every day.

Even so, it can all seem so far away. Until it’s not.

It was a story my husband told that makes me feel the weight of the tragedy almost more than anything else. He’s co-teaching a class of people determined to learn English, people from all over the world—from China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Peru and Nepal, from Ukraine, Morocco, and the Dominican Republic.

The task for the students on this particular day was to tell their classmates—in English—about the countries they came from, to describe the one thing that would make everyone else want to visit. Some people talked about how beautiful their coastline and beaches were. Others rhapsodized about their local food.

When it came time for Lely (not her real name) to describe home, she paused for a moment, held her arms aloft as she looked at the ceiling, and managed just one sentence before sobs of longing shook her to her core: “The sky is so blue,” she said.

In that one simple sentence you can hear a lifetime of love—and of terrible loss.

The place Lely was talking about was Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where more than 800,000 people once lived. War has completely destroyed it, leaving block after block of crumbling concrete buildings, ghostly and abandoned. In pre-war photos, Homs looks like a vibrant city, with markets and people filling the streets. And yes, the sky was blue. So blue. It still is. But now everything beneath it has been smashed to pieces. Drone footage shows the wreckage—stunning and heart-aching.

For a woman in her 70s who is starting a new life in a strange country, home, with its decades of memories, must be on her mind all the time. It takes courage and incredible stamina to be Lely, or any migrant, who has severed ties with all that was familiar—that big blue sky—and plunged into a world of unknowns. Could I ever be so brave?

What I wish as we face the next four years with an administration that swept into office on a wave of fear and xenophobia is for everyone, of every political persuasion, to have the opportunity for empathy, however they stumble on it: through a phrase, a photograph, a video clip.

Below is a small collection of photos. Each shows a pair of hands holding something. These are the hands of refugees, some from Syria, some Burundi, and all anonymous to protect their security. At first glance, the objects don’t look like much—a broken watch, a frayed dress, a dog-eared portrait. Forgettable stuff. But study them more closely and you’ll begin to see that this is what flight looks like: the detritus of other worlds treasured now as links to all that’s lost. And behind each object is the story of a life, as full of dreams and aspirations, love and heartbreak, as each of our lives is.

In their own words, these refugees tell us why these objects are so important to them. And in the explanations, you might hear, as I did in Lely’s longing for the sky of home, the humanity that connects us all.

His watch

The woman behind this photo is a mother who had lived a fairly privileged life in Syria. Within three short months, she lost not only her husband, but also her oldest son—her confidant. She is now living in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. This is her son’s watch. She found it on the floor after he died and brought it with her. This is what she said about the watch: “I cannot look at it. I cannot. He wasn’t my son. He was my friend. … We sat together as friends and told each other our worries. If somebody was upsetting him, or somebody was upsetting me, we would sit together and just chat. Even at home, we would spend evenings together, and talk about school. Not like a mother and a son. Even when his dad passed away, I told him, ‘You’re not crying. How come you’re not crying?’ He told me: ‘Dad told me to be a man, and not to cry like a woman.’ So he would go and cry elsewhere, and come back and sit with me with dry eyes. … Once I followed him; I saw him crying outside and drying his tears before he came to sit next to me.”

Star student

At an informal tent settlement in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, this mother showed us one of the few valuable possessions she was able to save and bring with her after her family’s house was destroyed. It’s the last report card her son, who did very well in school and longed to go far with his studies, received before the family fled. About her son and the report card she said: “A few days before we left Syria, before we left the house, he had received his school results. He had really high grades, so we had a barbecue and invited the neighbors, and I was really proud of him. My dream was for [my children] to finish schooling. … The eldest one was going to go to high school. We stopped sending him to school, especially the last year when the fighting became very intense in Syria. He was interested in medical studies. He has a scientific mind. He should have graduated from high school. And he likes English. His twin sister would have liked to study law. I don’t know if we’ll be able to register them in school here because it requires money. Six children who need to go to school—that needs money. They need notebooks. They need clothing. They need everything. Their father used to work and cover for all these expenses. Now we have nothing.”

I asked what she felt when she looked at the report card, and she said, “I feel very sad. My heart is broken. I think his life has been destroyed.” And then she started to weep.

Myself

Now living in an informal tent settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, this man is newly married to a second wife. The couple is expecting their first child. He carefully pulled this photo of himself as a child from his wallet and said : “It reminds me of my mother. She took the photo and she told me to keep it. There was another at home, which I lost. This one I have.”

Certificate of missed opportunities

A hard worker, this father of four told a love story about how he met his wife and knew, instantly, that she was the one for him. The shock of that knowledge was so intense he said he felt his hair stand on end. He shared with us a certificate that reminds him of what could have been: “There was a time when we got to Burundi when I met this new boss of mine. While I was working for him I got connected to some Americans who came to teach us English lessons. So during the period when I was taking English lessons was actually when the chaos began. But they had initially given me a certificate during that time we were taking lessons. I was still meant to proceed with the training. It’s the certificate I have—if I look at it I remember a lot and say to myself I missed out on so much.”

The dress she wore

These hands belong to a woman—a mother—who barely escaped with her life after witnessing the murder of one of her children in Burundi. She was in the bath house, outside, and heard voices back in the house, including the sound of her child, her first born. The attackers killed the child and then noticed there was some movement in the bath house where she was, and they threw a grenade at it. It did not explode. She managed to flee, naked, to her neighbor’s house. She was given a dress—the one in this photo, the dress she came with and has held onto. About it she says: “That dress reminds me when I went through all the troubles. That was initially not my dress because I left naked. When there were bullets being fired around, I ran to a neighbor’s house. When they saw me naked, they grabbed that dress. They gave it to me and they lifted me and threw me over the fence, and that’s how I fled.”

The mold that made him a man

This man is one of the few Syrian refugees to be resettled in the US. He is now living in a Chicago suburb with his family. He is determined to stay here, to buy a home someday, and to open a restaurant—the work he built his life on back in Syria. He's holding a falafel mold that he brought with him from Jordan. About it he said this: “It’s so small. It looks simple, even almost unimportant. When I was in Syria, when I was 13 years old, I picked one up, I started working. This tool made me a man . . . it gave me a better life. It was the source of my livelihood. In my whole being, I don’t know anything like I know how to run a restaurant. It’s the only profession I know. For this reason, this piece is invaluable to me.”

He cries quietly for a moment before continuing.

“My father said to me, ‘This tool used to be 300 . . . You have to take care of it, it won’t be good if you have to keep replacing it. Take this profession as your honor and a source of respect. Take this mold and safeguard it.’ He was testing to see if we are up to it [the responsibility]. For three years I used the same tool, I didn’t change it. After three years, my father asks if it’s still good, does it need changing? I said no. He said, ‘Listen to me. You’ve done a good job. Unlike before you’ve taken care of this tool, not had to replace it numerous times and lost money.’ Since then I’ve taken his advice to heart: to safeguard and take care to achieve maximum success. I am now remembering my father. He died in 2007. He was an amazing person. He took care of us well. He was orphaned. We are 5 boys and 3 girls.”

Now, more than ever, your support matters. Support refugees seeking safety and families struggling to overcome poverty. Make a tax-deductible gift today.

Now, more than ever, your support matters. Support refugees seeking safety and families struggling to overcome poverty. Make a tax-deductible gift today.

Additional credits: Shot by Oxfam’s Pablo Tosco, the opening photo shows an informal tent settlement in the north Lebanese town of Chekka that has been the home of Ibrahim and Aisha since they fled from the outskirts of Aleppo many months ago. They are among the nearly five million Syrians who have become refugees since the war in their country started.

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