don't let go

What they couldn't leave behind: Migrants and their most precious possessions

Photos, medication, a shepherd’s cane, and memories of their homes.

Hungary Migrants A pram is discarded on train tracks on the border between Serbia and Hungary. Associated Press Associated Press

TO SURVIVE DAYS on end of walking and camping in harsh weather, they have to concentrate on essentials: pain medicine, foot powder and first aid, food and personal hygiene items.

Some have smartphones with backup battery power and SIM cards that work in the countries they’re passing through.

Otherwise, they can end up walking in circles without satellite navigation, particularly at night, when many travel to avoid police.

The tens of thousands of migrants who spend weeks on foot, vehicle and boat traveling to Europe to escape war, persecution and poverty must weigh carefully what they carry with them.

Men typically carry the tents and sleeping bags, while women hold infants in slings or carriers.

Although most have left personal effects behind with relatives and hope to retrieve them later, some also manage to bring a bit of themselves on the road.

This week, the Associated Press asked trekkers crossing the border from Serbia to Hungary to share what they were carrying — and what they treasure the most.

WAFAA BUKAI, 25, student

Hungary Migrants What They Carry AP AP

Waiting with her brother at a Serbian camp for migrants before the border crossing, Bukai shows a visitor sentimental objects and images from her past in Damascus, Syria.

She explains that she left virtually everything behind with relatives, but needs a few emotional touchstones to keep memories alive.

My homeland is destroyed and not safe. I left everything: my home, my clothes, my friends, my family.

Unlike many, who carry precious photos only electronically on a phone, Bukai thumbs through her album of childhood images, including herself in school uniform and trips with family to the beach.

Perhaps her most prized trinket, while of no monetary value, transports her mind to the vibrant heart of old Damascus, the sprawling Al-Hamidiyah Souq inside the walled inner core of the Syrian capital.

It’s a simple cowrie shell, purchased as a youth in the market beside the medieval Citadel of Damascus.

I remember Damascus everywhere, every town I go to.

MOHAMMAD AL-ABDALLAH, 36, architectural engineer

Hungary Migrants Associated Press Associated Press

“I would never go anywhere without my Quran,” says the Baghdad resident, who has spent three weeks traveling with his 17-year-old son, Bashar, from Iraq to the Hungary border via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans.

I pray five times every day. I read by the moonlight.

He opens his backpack and pulls out his palm-sized edition of the Muslim holy book.

Its cover is frayed and it is wrinkled from water damage from overnight rains. Some pages stick together and threaten to tear, but al-Abdallah opens the book gingerly and recites a favorite passage to his son.

Bashar tells his father it’s too slow. He pulls out his smartphone, launches his Quran app, and finds the same passage in seconds. “My pages never tear,” he says.

MEKDAD MAREY, 25, computer graphics designer

Migrants What They Carry AP AP

The native of Damascus has spent two weeks traveling from a refugee camp in Turkey to the border of Hungary in the hope of making it to Germany.

For Marey, Germany doesn’t represent merely the strongest economy in Europe; it’s also where he thinks his health challenges might be solved.

In his unusually small bag, he carries a wide range of painkillers and, most importantly, a neck brace. He attributes his chronic back pain, including a slipped disc, to long hours at a desk while studying in Egypt and working in Turkey.

He uses it mostly when trying to sleep in his group’s overcrowded tent.

Turkey is good, but the money is little, and I need more money to fix my problems.
I am hoping that medicine is better in Germany, the doctors are better, and they can help me.


Migrants What They Carry AP AP

In his backpack, the university student from the northern Syrian city of Idlib carries what he hopes is the key to his future: the records of his learning.

Al-Shamali carefully unwraps the plastic waterproofing that he uses to protect his old school ID, his academic transcript and the second-level certificate he earned in science.

He hopes that, when he reaches Germany, the university system there will recognise his three years’ study of civil engineering and allow him to pursue a postgraduate degree in medicine.

I really do not know what they will think of my school work. I hope it will be enough.

He says he deeply regrets how Syria’s civil war prematurely ended his education, and he hopes one day to return as a doctor.

But he says family members who funded his journey from Turkey to Hungary via Greece and the Balkans first expect him to send money back home from Germany.

So he imagines that would mean an education and a first job in a hospital there.

“Many people have spent thousands of dollars on me, to get me this far,” he says, covered in sweat as he walks past two simple posts marking the Serbia-Hungary border.

I have to give back. It is expected of me.

BEHAT YASIN, 45, shepherd

Serbia Migrants Associated Press Associated Press

The Kurd, who has lived in Syria and Iraq while following his flocks of sheep, says he was fortunate to flee west ahead of the threat from the Islamic State group (ISIS).

“Many of my friends, I am sure, are dead,” says Yasin, who unlike many travellers has no smartphone or social media skills to keep in touch with home.

He does have his shepherd’s tool with him: a long, bone-colored cane that he once used to tap the rear ends of his sheep. Now he uses it simply to keep himself upright, seven hours into his walk across the border from Serbia to Hungary.

Now I am the sheep. I just follow the others. I must go faster now.

MOHAMMAD ZAMANI, 26, high school maths teacher

Migrants What They Carry AP AP

Zamani had a bag full of belongings when he left his home in Shiraz, Iran, nearly a month ago: clothes, toiletries, a gold chain, a watch.

The bag is gone now. While being smuggled with about 40 others by vehicle through Turkey, he says the driver suddenly stopped when confronted by police and ordered everyone out.

He then drove off with many of his clients’ bags, including Zamani’s.

“I’ve had only these same clothes for three weeks. It’s terrible,” Zamani says, wearing a blue shirt, white t-shirt and blue jeans.

He arrived in Hungary on Sunday, as part of a larger group of Iranians, including couples with young children.

They all had crawled under razor wire at Hungary’s border and evaded police that morning.

Exhausted from an August heat wave, they allowed themselves to be caught and processed as asylum seekers, even though none of them wants to stay in Hungary.

Zamani says he hopes to teach in Belgium.

He still has his most prized possession, on his finger: a ring of silver and black stone that his older brother, Mojtaba, gave him for his 25th birthday.

My brother is dead now. He died last year in a car accident. I have no other brothers or sisters. This ring is most precious to me.

Read: Distressing images of drowned Syrian toddler highlight tragedy of migrant crisis>

Read: Main Budapest train station evacuated as migrants try to board trains to Austria and Germany>

Associated Foreign Press
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