For this intimate project entitled ImPORTRAITS, professional photographer Gabriel Hill has produced a series of portraits of refugees, revealing their most valuable possessions. A powerful and moving way of telling their stories through a simple object, be it a picture, a cuddly toy or even a simple piece of paper.
#1. Sejla, 33 – Fled Bosnia in 1992 with just a plush bunny
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.
#2. Ahmet, 23 – Fled from Eritrea in 2013 with a piece of paper with the number of his family
I got on board of a ship in Libya which had to bring us to Italy.
I couldn’t take anything with me except the clothes I was wearing and a tiny little piece of paper with the phone number of my family on it.
They told me to contact them soon after my arriving in Italy.
About half way en route to Italy the ship overturned. It was already very old.
My clothes were soaking with sea water and were getting heavy so I had to take them off. They disappeared in the sea.
With them the piece of paper with the phone number.
I survived together with about 200 others. Over 250 have drowned.
Months after my escape from Eritrea I found someone in Switzerland who could contact my family. They thought I didn’t survive the crossing by ship.
The piece of paper with their number was the most important thing that I owned.
#3. Farhad, 27 – Fled from Afghanistan in 2007 with a picture of his mother
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.
#4. Marie-Therese, 62 – Fled from DR Congo in 2008 with nothing
I had to leave my home from one second to the other. Unfortunately, there was no time to take anything with me.
#5. Nazim, 26 – Fled from Afghanistan in 2011 with a little book from the police academy
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.
#6. Shireen, 21 – Fled from Afghanistan in 2010 with a mobile phone
I have been living in Switzerland for two years now. My family could only pay for my escape. Therefore, I am all alone here.
It is very expensive to flee and my family won’t be able to come to Switzerland.
When I left home my father gave me a cell phone. This cell phone and the clothes I was wearing were the only things that I could take with me. My cell phone was the only way to get in contact with my family and to tell them that I have arrived well. It also gave me the feeling that I am not alone. It meant everything to me.
#7. Suleyman, 18 – Fled from Afghanistan in 2014 with a mobile phone
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 (about £34) 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.
#8. Taghi, 27 – Fled from Iran in 2011 with three pictures of his family
Five years ago I had to leave Iran. The only thing that I could take with me was what fitted in my trouser pockets.
It took a few months till I have arrived in Switzerland. Most of the time I was walking. Sometimes we had to cross a river by a rubber boat.
I only took those three photos with me. Every single one stands for a certain time in my life before my escape, that I like to remember back.
If I could I would have taken more things with me, but it was impossible.
#9. Vinasithamby, 64 – Fled from Sri Lanka in 1984 with pictures of his family
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.
#10. Yosief, 20 – Fled from Eritrea in 2014 with a notebook of phone numbers
The escape from Eritrea was quite long and exhausting. Walking for days, being held captive in several countries and crossing of one of the 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.