See the Objects Refugees Carry on Their Journey to Europe

3 minute read

Standing at a refugee stop in the Austrian town of Nickelsdorf, near the Hungarian border, 17-year-old Ahmad explains that he no longer owns much of anything. After fleeing their home in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, Ahmad and his family hope to end up “in Germany, Finland, Sweden” — whichever country will take them in. As Ahmad recounts how his family had to abandon all of their belongings — carrying only small packs of clothing with them — he unwraps a chocolate wafer handed out by Austrian volunteers. And though he has next to nothing, Ahmad breaks the chocolate in two and politely offers me half.

This small, but remarkable act of sharing was something photographer James Mollison and I would come to witness over and over as we interviewed refugees on a recent trip to Austria. Though everyone we met had an urgent need — for a hot meal, for a working phone signal, for information — many were more than willing to share what little they did have, whether it was their time or their stories.

One by one, refugees agreed to stop and have their portraits taken by James, in a makeshift studio he had assembled in a tent, alongside discarded wool blankets and ruined articles of clothing. We heard story after story of smugglers shepherding desperate refugees into tiny, ramshackle dinghies and then forcing them to throw their only bags overboard, in order to prevent the boats from sinking. “We did it to save our lives,” says Marie, a 32-year-old woman who had traveled from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result, many were left without papers or passports. Yet, amazingly, many people were willing to hand over, for a few instants, their last remaining possessions — a beloved watch; vials of insulin — so that James could photograph them.

Some people we met were even eager to show us what they carried: cell phones or digital cameras with photos of loved ones who they had been separated from during the journey. These devices, and the photos on them, held their greatest hopes of being reunited with a missing mother, a lost son or a wife, two-months pregnant and nowhere to be found.

Of course, there were also several people who were initially mystified by our assignment. Why did James want photographs of old clothing or an ordinary phone charger? But once he explained that we wanted to capture what they thought was worth holding on to throughout the grueling and often dangerous route into Europe, people got it and recounted in even greater detail the stories behind their objects. And even if they still didn’t quite understand our interest, many refugees would still hand over their bags with a smile, before they went on their way, onto the next leg of their journey.

James Mollison is a commercial and documentary photographer based in Venice, Italy.

Caroline Smith, who edited this photo essay, is a special projects editor at TIME.

Megan Gibson is a writer for TIME based in London. Follow her on Twitter @MeganJGibson.

Kabir, 23, from Afghanistan; “My mother has been missing for one day. The men were separated from the women in Croatia and her phone is not working. I took this photo two months ago. I am hoping someone recognizes her. We all want to go to Germany.”James Mollison for TIME
Abdullah, 9, from Turkmenistan; “I had to leave all my toys behind. I don’t know when we left home. I don’t see the days.” James Mollison for TIME
Marie, 32, from Democratic Republic of Congo; “I’m diabetic. I have to give myself an injection every day. I lost all my possessions at sea on the journey. The smugglers asked us to throw our bags overboard so we wouldn’t sink. I got these syringes from aid workers.”James Mollison for TIME
Parisa, 15, from Afghanistan; “We’ve been traveling for two months. We’re going to Sweden—I don’t know where. I got this bag six months ago. I keep our papers that the smugglers needed to get us past the borders.”James Mollison for TIME
Muhammed, from Afghanistan; “My family sent me this ring from Afghanistan. It’s a cross. I’m a Muslim, but I accept Christian prophets. It’s a symbol of my religion that I like to show. It’s also a memory from my family.”James Mollison for TIME
(from left back) Kader, 9, and Muhammed, 10 with (front) Caesar, 3, from Syria; “We came on a boat. We don’t have anything. They gave us these biscuits here. Traveling with children is hard.” — the boys’ mother, Shakrea, 26James Mollison for TIME
Ahmad, 27, from Syria; “My father [top photo] is a lawyer. He’s in Jordan with my mother and brother and sister. In Syria there’s nobody. Those [bottom photo] are my friends, taken at a party in university. We were dressed up for a dinner. All my friends are now in Syria, Turkey, Jordan — all split up.”James Mollison for TIME
Aisha, 14, from Syria; “I brought my charger because I need to use my phone to contact my friend in Sweden. We are going to live with him. My family was split up for hours on the journey and my phone didn’t work. It was horrible.”James Mollison for TIME
Parastoo, 23; Nooradin, 15 months; Mohsen, 31; from Iran; “We’re going to Italy. I bought this pendant a year ago in Iran. It has a part of the Quran written on paper inside. I wear it to bring us luck. It worked—we’re here.”James Mollison for TIME
Mariam, 56, from Syria; “I take it for pain. The traveling is bad for my knees. I have a headache everyday. The sun hurts my head. It gets so hot.”James Mollison for TIME
Muhammed, 7, from Syria; “We were on a boat and the smugglers took our bags. We only had the things we were wearing, the things we knew we’d need.” — Muhammed’s father, Ammar, 35James Mollison for TIME
Ahmad, 17, from Syria; “My friend gave me this watch. He’s like a brother. He’s in Syria still. He’s coming in a week. The watch helps me remember our history.”James Mollison for TIME
Muhammed, 22, from Iraq; “I don’t have anything. No bag. I’m like this. I want to go to France because I speak French.”James Mollison for TIME

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