Today is World Refugee Day, and a photography project pays tribute to the indomitable spirit and courage of the refugees in Malaysia by documenting their untold stories.
WHAT’S it like to be a refugee? To lose everything you value - family, friends, your home - and be forced to flee in order to save your life? Refugees usually travel hundreds of miles, on foot through dense jungles, and in leaky boats across dangerous seas to seek safety.
People often misunderstand who a refugee is, thinking that they are migrants looking for economic opportunities. The truth is refugees had no choice but to run, and are unable to return home safely.
In Malaysia, as of June 2013, there are some 101,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The majority of them are from Myanmar, but many are also from other countries around the world including Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most of these refugees flee on a moment’s notice, bringing only what they can carry, and sometimes with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. What they chose to carry with them, or what they were left with after their arduous journeys, become their most precious possessions.
For World Refugee Day this year, UNHCR ran a global campaign entitled “The Most Important Thing” to tell the stories of refugees and the most precious item they carried with them when they fled.
Photographer Brian Sokol had been commissioned by UNHCR last year to conceive this project which has
inspired the global campaign. You can check out his website at www.briansokol.com.
In Malaysia, UNHCR collaborated with photographer Ted Adnan to tell the stories of the refugees here. The photography project introduces a part of the refugee story that is often overlooked – the difficult decisions made by refugees when they decide to leave their homes and countries.
Rubba and her family had to suddenly flee from Sri Lanka following threats to her husband’s life in 2006. With barely time to pack, Rubba grabbed what she thought was important for a future she could not anticipate. The most important items she brought with her are her husband’s and her university degrees and her children’s school report cards because she felt that education was the most important thing that anyone could possess.
“I brought the report cards to remind my children how well they did in Sri Lanka, to give them hope, and confidence that they have the capability to achieve success again,” said Rubba, 42.
They are waiting to go home when it’s safe for them, but they also hope to find a new home in a third country. In the meantime, Rubba works with a Sri Lankan refugee organisation and her children continues their studies in refugee learning centre.
“The Most Important Thing” photo exhibition will be held at the KL Sentral Station this Saturday from 10am-4pm in conjunction with World Refugee Day.
Visitors will also be able to enjoy a bazaar and performances by refugees. Admission is free.
Pin your thing
Malaysians can also join in and add their voices to this global campaign at the UNHCR Most Important Thing page on Pinterest (Pinterest.com/refugees/The-Most-Important-Thing). They can post photos of themselves with what they would bring if they had to flee, and read posts from people all over the world. Here are some of the pictures:
The beautiful woven blanket 33-year-old refugee Biak took with him when he fled from Myanmar wasn’t special to him then.
“My mother weaves blankets and cloths for our family, which we just took when we needed them. This blanket was not special,” said Biak. He had taken the blanket for an overnight trip to another town, when he learnt that the military was looking for him. “I could not return home, not even to say goodbye to my mother. I just ran. In my backpack I had a shirt and this blanket. I thought I would only be gone for one night,” said Biak who paid smugglers to take him to Malaysia.
Biak has been here for five years. “The memory I have of my mother is her weaving. She was always weaving. She was old when I left, I don’t think I will be able to see her before she dies.The blanket that she wove was not special when I took it, but now it is the most important thing I have,” said Biak.
When 36-year-old Shaima fled from Iraq with her husband and four children, she took took with her many practical and valuable items including important documents and education records. But she sheepishly showed her set of car keys and house keys as her most prized possessions.
“I know it’s stupid. My car is stolen by now, my house is looted and seized by the authorities. It is no longer my house. But I couldn’t help taking these keys,” she said. “They remind me of my life, the life I want to go back to.
“I desperately want to go home again, and to go back to my old life,” said Shaima who thinks often of her family in Iraq, and wishes to see them again. They had a comfortable life working in the corporate sector before troubles began for them in Iraq and they were forced to flee.
“I want to start a new life in safety. My husband has diabetes and I want to be somewhere where he can get proper treatment. And I want my children to get the education they need to succeed in this new society,” said Shaima who now works as a teacher in a refugee learning centre run by a local NGO.