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10 Heartbreaking Stories Of Survival From The Lives Of Refugees

"It is unbelievable that any human being can do this to another." Photographer Brian Sokol reports on the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

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The first chapter of Brian Sokol's ongoing photo-series, "The Most Important Thing", captures the faces and stories of refugees forced to flee their homes due to heinous conflicts in the region.

In this chapter, refugees from Syrian Civil War share their personal stories of survival and the last meaningful object they were able to escape with.

*Several of the names have been changed for their protection.


May, age 8.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing she was able to bring with her when she left home is the set of bracelets she wears in this photograph. "The bracelets aren't my favorite things," she says; "my doll Nancy is." May's aunt gave her the doll on her sixth birthday. "The doll reminded me of that day, the cake I had, and how safe I felt then when my whole family was together." The night they fled Damascus, Nancy was somehow left behind. May says these bracelets are the next-best thing to having her in Iraq.

She and her family arrived in Domiz after fleeing their home in Damascus, the Syrian capital. They escaped on a bus at night, and May recalls crying for hours as they left the city behind. Since arriving in Domiz, she has had recurring nightmares in which her father is violently killed.

She is now attending school, and says she finally feels safe. May hopes to be a photographer when she grows up. "I want to take pictures of happy children, because they are innocent, and my pictures will make them even more happy," she says.

Ahmed, age 70.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing Ahmed was able to bring with him is the cane he holds in this photograph. Without it, he says, he would not have made the two-hour crossing on foot to the Iraqi border.

Ahmed fled Syria with his wife and eight of their nine children when their family home in Damascus was destroyed in an attack.

Together with four other families they escaped in the back of an open-topped truck after covering themselves with plastic sheeting. Ahmed's one son who remained behind was killed in late October 2012. Following an explosion, he ran into the street to help an injured friend, only to be killed in a second blast.

Iman, age 25, with her son Ahmed, age 2, and daughter Aishia, age 1.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing Iman was able to bring with her is the Koran she holds in this photograph. She says that religion is the most important aspect of her life, and that the Koran inspires a sense of protection. "As long as I have it with me, I'm connected to God," she says.

They arrived in Nizip after fleeing their home in Aleppo, Syria. Iman decided it was time to flee when she heard accounts of sexual harassment against women in Aleppo. In an instant, Iman lost five family members, and the home where they were taking shelter was destroyed. Fifteen houses in the neighborhood were destroyed that day, and the survivors set out. As they fled Idlib, the children saw blood in the streets and clouds of smoke filling the sky.

Alia, age 24.

Brian Sokol

Alia says the only important thing that she brought with her "is my soul, nothing more; nothing material."

Alia was living with her family in Daraa, Syria, when fighting forced them to flee their home.

As the fighting drew closer, she recalls, "It was terrifying because I'm not able to help myself." Confined to a wheelchair and blind in both eyes, Alia says she was terrified by what was happening around her. "At the beginning of the fighting, my family decided to stay because we thought it would be over soon. But as it went on, I was scared that they might run away and leave me at home alone."

Leila, age 9.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing Leila was able to bring with her are the jeans she holds in this photograph. "I went shopping with my parents one day and looked for hours without finding anything I liked. But when I saw these, I knew instantly that these were perfect because they have a flower on them, and I love flowers."

Together with her four sisters, mother, father and grandmother, Leila arrived in Erbil after fleeing their home in Deir Alzur, Syria.

Leila recalls explosions all around them for days, but the family finally decided to leave Deir Alzur when their neighbors' house was hit, killing everyone inside. The most terrifying thing about the months before they fled, she says, "was the voice of the tanks. It was even more scary than the sound of planes, because I felt like the tanks were coming for me."


Salma, age somewhere between 90 and 107 according to family members.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing that she was able to bring with her is the ring she displays in this photograph. When she was ten years old, her mother gave it to her from her death bed, saying, "Keep this ring and remember me." She intends to wear the ring to her grave. "It's not valuable, not silver or gold. Just an old ring, but it's all that I have left."

Salma fled her home in Qamishly City, Syria, at the beginning of December when the apartments surrounding hers were destroyed. She escaped with her three sons and their families, leaving home in the middle of the night in a rented car.

Crossing the border was a very difficult process for her. Salma says, "Whether I miss my home or not doesn't matter. It's gone now, and I can't go back."

Omar, age 37.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing that Omar was able to bring with him is the instrument he holds in this photograph. It is called a "buzuq" and he says that "playing it fills me with a sense of nostalgia and reminds me of my homeland.

Omar decided it was time to flee his home in the Syrian capital of Damascus the night that his neighbors were killed. "They came into their home, whoever they were, and savagely cut my neighbour and his two sons. They dragged the bodies into the street, where we found them in the morning." The next day he used the majority of his savings to hire a truck to flee with his wife and his two sons.

Tamara, age 20.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing she was able to bring with her is her diploma, which she holds in this photograph. With it she will be able to continue her education in Turkey. Through a generous education program, the government will allow qualified Syrian refugees to attend Turkish universities beginning in the March semester.

After Tamara's home in Idlib was partially destroyed in September, the family decided their best chance of safety was to reach the Syrian-Turkish border. "When we left our house, we felt the sky was raining bullets," Tamara recalled. "We were moving from one shelter to another in order to protect ourselves."

"We left Idlib three months ago," she continued. "We spent 40 days on the Syrian side of the border with very little water and no electricity. The hygiene there was very poor. I got food poisoning and was sick for a week."

Ayman, age 82, (left) and his wife Yasmine, age 67.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing Ayman was able to bring with him from Syria is his wife. "She's the best woman that I've met in my life," he says. "Even if I were to go back 55 years, I would choose you again."

They fled their home in a rural area near Aleppo in August 2012 after their 70-year-old neighbor and his son, a shepherd, were brutally killed. Breaking into tears, Ayman described how nearby farms came under attack and homes were looted them and set on fire. "It is unbelievable that any human being can do this to another," he said.

"There is no place that compares to home," Ayman added. "But on the day we crossed the border, 19 people from our village were killed. Here, at least we feel safe. At least we haven't heard the noise of shelling for two months now. At home we lived like kings and queens. Now, we are refugees. What I miss most is my farm. I miss the olive trees. I don't even know if my house is still standing."

Waleed, age 37.

Brian Sokol

The most important thing that Waleed was able to bring with him is the photograph of his wife that he holds here. Although they are still together, he says, "This is important because she gave me this photo back home before we were married, during the time when we were dating. It always brings me great memories and reminds me of my happiest time back home in Syria."

A doctor, Waleed poses for a portrait in the clinic where he works in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Waleed fled Syria with his wife and their newborn baby after only twenty days from giving birth.

"We stayed in a village close to the Syrian/Iraqi border for two nights before finding a smuggler. We paid 1100 USD to cross the border. I left the country for the sake of my family. I don't want to see my children grow up as orphans."

Brian Sokol is an award winning photographer dedicated to documenting human rights issues and humanitarian crises in conflict-affected societies. To view more of his work, check out his website at

And to learn more, check out UNHCR - The UN Refugee Agency at


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