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.