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Portraits of Refugees with Their Most Prized Possession

"This phone gave me the feeling that I wasn't alone. It meant everything to me."

av Gabriel Hill, Text: Laura Tenchio
2016 08 24, 11:35am

This article originally appeared on VICE Switzerland

Whether it's the Syrian woman who smuggled her pet turtle all the way to Munich in her pocket or the girl who brought her cat to the Greek makeshift refugee camp Idomeni – everyone who is forced to flee their home and country has to ask themselves: "What's so important to me that I can't leave it behind?"

Gabriel Hill, a photographer from Basel, Switzerland, invited (former) refugees into his studio where he normally takes corporate head shots and asked them to bring the most important thing they brought with them on their journey to safety. It's often the only thing they've brought with them.

Shireen, 21 – Fled Afghanistan in 2010

"I have been living in Switzerland for two years now. My family could only afford one journey out of the country, so I'm all alone here. It's very expensive to leave, so they won't be able to follow me here.

When I left home my father gave me a cell phone. This cell phone and the clothes I was wearing were the only things I could take with me.

Thanks to the cell phone I was able to get in touch with my family and tell them that I had arrived safely. It also gave me the feeling that I wasn't alone. It meant everything to me."

Sejla, 33, fled Bosnia in 1992

"When I was a child, my father would often travel to Africa for work. One time when I was three, I had asked him to bring me back a real life monkey, but he brought me a stuffed bunny he had bought for me during a transit at Zurich Airport.

I took that bunny everywhere. When the war began, everything went so fast I could neither understand what was going on nor think about what I wanted to take with me when we fled. That's how I forgot my bunny when we left. My dad stayed behind, and I wrote him so many letters saying things like: "Did you find my bunny? I miss you!"

I can't describe how I felt when I saw my father again three years later, in 1995. My whole body was trembling when I saw his face at the Airport in Zurich – and saw that he was holding my bunny."

Taghi, 27 – fled Iran in 2011

"Five years ago I had to leave Iran. The only things I could take with me was what fit in the pockets of my trousers.

After a few months I arrived in Switzerland. I made most of the journey on foot. Every now and then we had to cross a river on a rubber boat.

I only took these three photos with me. Every one reminds me of a different time in my life before I had to flee – times I have warm memories of. I would have taken more things with me if that had been an option at the time, but it wasn't."

Yosief, 20 – fled Eritrea in 2014

"The escape from Eritrea was quite long and exhausting. Walking for days, being held captive in several countries and crossing of one of world's biggest deserts didn't make it an easy journey. We were lucky, though. Everyone survived.

I took some personal things with me but I had to throw most of it away before crossing the desert so I could take as many bottles of water with me as possible. I kept a small book with phone numbers and a few photos from my childhood.

The phone numbers were very important, because I was held captive a few times and had to pay my captors a ransom for them to let me go. I'm lucky enough to have an uncle in the United States – he'd send me money so I could pay. That made his number the most important thing in my life."

Nazim, 26 – fled Afghanistan in 2011

"Five years ago I had to leave Afghanistan. I was trained as a police officer there, but shortly after I had started on the job I was forced to leave the country.

I had a backpack with my belongings with me, but the human traffickers told me to throw it away. The only thing I have left is this little book from the police academy and a necklace my mother gave me.

I always dreamed of becoming a police officer. This little book is the only thing I have left of that dream."

Ahmet, 23 – fled Eritrea in 2013

"I got on a ship in Libya that was supposed to bring us to Italy. I couldn't take anything with me except the clothes I was wearing and a little piece of paper with the phone number of my family on it. They had told me to get in touch with them as soon as I would arrive in Italy. About half way, the ship overturned and sank. My clothes were soaked and became so heavy I had to take them off. They disappeared in the sea, along with that piece of paper with my family's phone number on it. I survived, together with about 200 others. Over 250 people from that ship drowned.

Months after fleeing Eritrea I found someone in Switzerland who could reach out to my family. They thought I hadn't survived the crossing. This piece of paper with their number on it used to be the most important thing I owned."

Marie-Therese, 62 – fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2008

"I had to leave my home from one second to the other. Unfortunately, there was no time to take anything with me."

Rohulla, 24 – fled Afghanistan in 2010

"Five years ago I fled Afghanistan. When I left, I couldn't take anything with me except the clothes I was wearing.

I was very little when my father was killed, so I hardy have any memories of him. He always wore a golden necklace and after he died, my mother gave it to me.

I came to Switzerland by myself and this necklace is everything I have from my family and my homeland. It means the world to me – it makes me feel like I'm not alone, like my father is always with me."

Farhad, 27 – fled Afghanistan in 2007

"I had packed some things from home but the smugglers told us to throw everything away. I didn't have the heart to toss out the photo of my mother, so I hid it under my clothes. I haven't seen my mother since I left, so this picture of her is very important to me."

Vinasithamby, 64 – fled Sri Lanka in 1984

"I had to abandon our home in Sri Lanka in 1984. I walked most of the way, but in order to get to Switzerland I took a boat, a plane and a train as well.

I wasn't able to take much with me besides the clothes I had on. Since I had to leave my family behind, these photos were the only things that were important to me, and luckily I could carry them on me. On the photos you can see my parents, my brother and my sister – who's now deceased."

Migmar, 59 – fled Tibet in 1959

"In 1959 I fled with my father, my mother, my sister and my grandparents from Tibet to India. I was two at the time, although I don't know the exact day I was born. I arrived in India only with my father and my grandparents – we had lost my sister and my mother on the way.

The most important items we had on our escape were the torches illuminating the pass over the Himalaya."

Suleyman, 18 – fled Afghanistan in 2014

"It took me almost nine months to arrive in Switzerland. I wanted to take a ship from Turkey to Greece, but we kept getting caught by the coast guard in Greece and sent back to Turkey. I tried five times – once, the boat overturned and sank.

From all the things I took with me, only this cell phone is left. My mother bought it just before I fled Afghanistan – she spent 3.000 Afghani (€40) on it. That's half of my family's monthly income.

The phone was the only way I could let my family know where I was on my journey and that I was OK. My mother was very worried, so a call from time to time helped to calm her down. The phone also made me feel safer and less lonely."

Mahmoud, 20 – fled Lebanon in 2014

"Originally I'm Palestinian but I fled from Lebanon. A few years ago I converted from Islam to Christianity and a priest gave me this Bible. During my journey, a boat I was on was in trouble, and our fixer ordered us to throw all our stuff overboard. Somehow I managed to hide my bible. It's my most treasured possession and gives me strength in hard times. It's been soaked with seawater and it's quite dirty, but I wouldn't want a new one.

Here in Switzerland I live in an asylum with predominantly Muslims – my family are the only ones who know I converted. That's why I can't show my face – I'm living a double life."

Gabriel's project ImPORTRAITS has been selected for the Swiss Photo Award 2016 as one of the seven best Swiss works in the free category. You can see more of his work for yourself until the end of August at the Gallery Parzelle 403 in Basel, if you happen to be around.

More on VICE:

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We Asked Refugees in Denmark to Show Us Their Most Valuable Possessions

Inside Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Which Now Houses 1300 Refugees