Heading into war—in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried—soldiers packed letters, bibles, and soap. Coming out of war—in photographer Muhammed Muheisen’s series “Memories from Syria”—refugees clutched photographs.
In refugee camps across Greece, Muheisen, the Associated Press chief photographer for the Middle East, asked Syrians to see the photographs they took on their thousand-mile journey. They were tucked into wallets and wrapped in plastic bags. There were stacks of headshots and finger-nail sized portraits cropped for safekeeping. The pictures showed weddings, family vacations, and children now scattered across Europe.
One 55-year-old father from Aleppo held a photograph of his two daughters, one now buried in Syria. “The way he held it I could tell he was touching the skin of his daughter,” Muheisen says. Another refugee from Aleppo, Rustum Abdulrahman, said he shrunk his wife's picture to "as small as possible so no matter what it won't be damaged and I will never lose it."
Muheisen wanted to document the items Syrians had taken from home, but few people had many tangible possessions left. “Almost everyone I met had a photograph with them,” he says. Before he asked to see them, he drank tea and heard his subjects' stories. The photographs had near-holy status, and viewing them prompted laughter and tears from a past life. “Photographs are the only physical moment from the past that we carry in the present.”
For the Syrians in refugee camps north of Athens, there are few options. They have been battling the freezing winter in small container shelters with bunk beds and electric heaters that melt from overuse. Many are waiting for word on their asylum cases, unable to travel into Western Europe after borders on the route from Greece were shut in 2015. There's little to do, so the camps' residents pass their days by greeting neighbors, and, of course, sharing memories.
For Muheisen, who continues to photograph the refugee journey, their story doesn't end in a camp in Europe. “These people are not just numbers or Syrians or refugees,” he says. “They have names and stories. They used to have homes, they used to have lives. Now they’re just called migrants.”