Two hundred fifty miles.
That is how far Shiraz Shoibi, 38, traveled—mostly by foot and aided by smugglers—from her home town of Deir er-Zour in eastern Syria to A’zaz on the Turkish border. The journey took four months, walking through olive groves and on backroads before creeping into safe houses at night for a few hours’ sleep. She worried constantly about landmines and being caught by ISIS.
Shiraz was in A’zaz when fighting flared. She was caught in the crossfire, suffered deep wounds to her abdomen and broke her femur. The nearest field hospital inside Syria was not equipped to treat such severe injuries, and Shiraz was rushed across the border into Turkey, where she spent 45 days in the hospital going through numerous surgeries trying to repair her shattered body.
Through it all, Shiraz kept one prized possession: a hot-pink purse that her husband gave her just before he was killed in the war. “We were only married a short time,” she said, holding the bag close to her heart.
I met Shiraz in Kilis, a Turkish town just across the border from A’zaz, while traveling with International Medical Corps’ rehabilitation team, which provides physical therapy to Syrians with disabilities—mostly from war wounds like hers. In sharing everything she had gone through, from fleeing ISIS in Deir er-Zour to nearly losing her life in A’zaz, the only time she cries is when she shows me the purse—her only remaining keepsake of her late husband and a symbol of the life that was taken from her by Syria’s relentless and brutal civil war.
Once a stable middle-income country known for its deep, rich culture, Syria is now synonymous with a level of human suffering so horrific that is almost impossible to fully comprehend. In March, Syria will mark the grimmest of milestone: six years of war that has reduced cities to rubble, claimed nearly a half a million lives—a sizable number of them civilians—and fueled a massive exodus of humanity that has sent countless thousands of families searching for refuge in camps and communities across the Middle East or offering smugglers their life savings for the chance to clamber aboard unsteady inflatable dinghies bound for Europe.
The scale of displacement is overwhelming: nearly five million Syrians are registered as refugees in neighboring countries, while another one million have applied for asylum in Europe. More than six million are displaced from their homes inside Syria. In total, well over half Syria’s pre-war population of around 21 million has been displaced by war, with many of them deciding to resettle elsewhere permanently.
The sheer size of these figures distracts us from the reality that each and every one of the 12 million forced from their homes is a person whose life has been torn apart and whose future hangs in the balance as the war rages on and countries debate whether to open or slam their doors to them.
For these families, leaving home isn’t a choice. It’s a matter of life-and-death—the only way to live without the fear of losing the ones they love to airstrikes, barrel bombs, sniper fire or, like Shiraz, the brutality of ISIS rule. Many have just a few short minutes to make snap decisions on what to bring before leaving it all behind, not knowing when—or if—they will come back.
If you had to flee, what would you carry?
For Shiraz, it was her pink clutch. For Fadila Karam, a 15-year-old girl who is now wheelchair-bound after being wounded during an airstrike outside Aleppo, it was a memory card with family photographs. And tragically, for some, like Gahida Alsaaid, there was nothing left to recover.
Last January, Gahida was sitting with 13 members of her family, including her four children, in their home in Idleb when a bomb fell from the sky. She was the sole survivor. Her left arm had to be amputated and today is living in a small Turkish town near the country’s border with Syria. Here, she tries to navigate life far from home, without her family.
Despite losing everything, Gahida’s greatest hope is to go back to Syria when the war ends. Until then, she just wants a safe home, something she, Shiraz, and millions of other Syrians have been robbed of—and have no promise of finding again any time soon.
What is the one thing you’d take if you had to leave your home? Millions of men, women, and children escaped the violent war in Syria with only what they could carry. International Medical Corps and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation launched The Things We Carry to feature the children, women, and men who fled six years of war—and what they carried with them to safety.