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Bags and Belongings

Bags and Belongings: Syrians on Leaving and Finding Home

As 2016 draws to an end and many of us head home for the holiday season, Syrian refugees are traveling for a very different reason – to find safety and a new home. We asked some of these men, women and children what they packed in their bags and what they left behind.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
2016 ap year end photos
A Syrian woman takes shelter with her children in an iron box after arriving from Turkey to the Greek Pasas near Chios, by sea.AP/Petros Giannakouris, File

While most of us journey with a pre-determined end point, the travels of the displaced often meander, falter and detour to an undefined destination they hope will lead to a new “home.”

For people uprooted by war and its unfurling wrath, home often becomes limited to the handful of items they carry with them – the bare essentials such as water, pens, papers, phones, passports and money.

Then there are those cherished items that could not be replaced – the photo of a lover, mother or child, the prayer beads of a grandparent, music that induces feverish nostalgia, letters written in an alphabet that might not be found in the land you’re heading to. The intangible items.

Over the past several months, Refugees Deeply met Syrians who left their homes amid unceasing war to reach different parts of the world, from neighboring Lebanon to the cities of Northern Europe.

We asked them what they were able to pack in their bags when they left, what they were forced to leave behind and what they found along the way. We asked them how their idea of home has changed during this journey.

In the coming days, we will be publishing their stories, images and their own words. In the first of the “Bags and Belongings” series, we talk to a Syrian artist who left her work unfinished to concentrate on making new memories in Lebanon.

Diala Brisly

Artist, Painter, Illustrator. Beirut, Lebanon

Artist and illustrator Diala Brisly, with her new work, “Rainbow Man” – a character that she made especially for Syrian children living inside the country. (Dylan Collins)

Artist and illustrator Diala Brisly, with her new work, “Rainbow Man” – a character that she made especially for Syrian children living inside the country. (Dylan Collins)

In Syria, I had everything I needed in my apartment. I left all of it. I gave away a lot of things to people that really needed them because most of them lost their homes.

I left with a 3kg (7lb) suitcase. I brought things like clothes, sheets, simple things like kitchen equipment. I thought maybe when we rented a house in the beginning, we would not have enough money to buy these kinds of things. I thought I would be returning in a few months’ time.

The precious things, I left them behind in Damascus.

Most of all memories. Things made by hand. My photo album. Things like this. I no longer have any photos from my childhood. These kinds of things are in Damascus, and they are stuck there as none of my family or friends will be going back anytime soon. But I managed to get this painting through my sister as I wanted to complete it.

Artist Diala Brisly, from Damascus, Syria, sits in her living room, in front of her painting that she left behind then had sent to her in Lebanon. (Dylan Collins)

Artist Diala Brisly, from Damascus, Syria, sits in her living room, in front of her painting that she left behind then had sent to her in Lebanon. (Dylan Collins)

I started this painting to work on an exhibition for the British Council [before the war started]. The concept was how human beings with good intentions become machines. For example, [the woman in the painting] is a baby machine. Nothing wrong to have babies, but when you have babies just to have babies, there is something wrong with that type of thinking. This was my concept for the whole collection. I had it sent from home, because I wanted to complete the collection, but since then I have changed my mind.

Because that was the kind of society I was living in at the time.

But now, I want to work on a different theme. I’m starting to create a new collection of maps. I’m trying to draw the maps while changing the names of cities and places, because you feel like Syria is not Syria anymore.

For example, Raqqa is now the [declared] capital of ISIS, but it was secular before. Everything has changed. Damascus was full of Damascenes; now it’s full of Iranians.

I don’t really believe in this [physical] idea of belonging. I just believe if you find a good environment and a good place to live, that’s enough. I do not care for things anymore like I did before. It all seems silly now. Yes, I miss Damascus but I miss it because of the people. People who are still in Syria also feel like they are in exile now because the people they knew are not around anymore.

Now I see this planet as smaller than before. You know, many things that you think are important before, now you feel are very silly.

It is a silly idea but when I was young, when I first decided to work in art, I always thought, “I’m going to be famous.” Now I don’t really care about this.

I need a place where I don’t feel like, maybe this month I will get a residency, maybe next month. No. I am paranoid every time I enter the airport, if I will be able to get in. I am sure this happens to other travelers, too. But when it does, they can go back to their homes. I no longer have this home. I’m blacklisted in Syria. If someday I couldn’t enter Lebanon, where could I go?

I always hated this idea of home, especially as I lived in Kuwait for 10 years of my childhood and my grandfather is from Turkey. We are of Syrian origin, so we returned to Damascus. I thought about this many, many times, especially when I was a teenager. I found it stupid when people said, “I’m proud to be Syrian,” or “I’m proud to be British.” Why do you have to be proud of this? You just happen to be from that place for no special reason.

As told to Preethi Nallu and Dylan Collins.

This story originally appeared on Refugees Deeply

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