Hidden Lives 4: Treasured Possessions
In the exhibition ‘Hidden Lives’ that took place at St Pancras International in January 2013, alongside the portrait of each urban refugee, there was a photograph of the individual’s most treasured possession.
Leader: ‘Oh, I’d give anything for a bar of chocolate right now.’
‘I have to get the new Justin Timberlake CD. I can’t live without it.’
‘I’ve seen some trainers I absolutely have to have. It’s a matter of life and death!’
We’ve all said things like this. Material things, desirable objects and must-have gadgets become the most treasured possessions in our lives. In a world of plenty, it is so easy to lose track of what is really important. I’m sure you’ve all come across this question before, but let us consider it again today. If your house was on fire and you could only save one thing, what would it be? In other words, what is your most treasured possession?
Reader 1: I know it sounds boring but I would save the family’s important documents. My dad has all the passports, birth certificates, health cards and bank details in a special place. It would be terrible to lose them all and have no way of proving our identity. Everything else can be easily replaced, but it would be a long process to replace all these documents.
Reader 2: Well, I come from a strong Jewish tradition and what matters most to us are the religious items that have been passed down through the generations. These things are irreplaceable. They are a link to our roots and our heritage. Our Shabbat candlesticks have been in our family for centuries. I think I would have to save them.
Reader 3: I couldn’t bear to lose all my photos. All the recent ones are stored in Dropbox so I could retrieve them, but the old ones could never be replaced. My parents’ wedding album is very special and the book my Mum made recording my first years. It would be heartbreaking to lose them.
Reader 4: I suppose it sounds a bit selfish but I would want to save the folder with all of my certificates that I have received over the years. All the piano exams, swimming awards, maths challenges….and my flute of course. My flute is my life and my future. It’s my ticket to success.
Leader: For most of us, that question is merely hypothetical. Most of us will never have to face that sort of decision. But for many people all over the world, that situation is a reality. Their house may not be burning down, but they will have had to run away in fear of their lives, leaving all that they own behind, only able to take their most treasured possessions with them.
Every time the photographer Andrew McConnell met and photographed an urban refugee, he learnt something of their story and asked if he could photograph their most treasured possession. I wonder what these photographs reveal.
Reader 1: For many of these individuals who have had to flee their own home and seek asylum in a foreign country, their papers are their most treasured possession. For Dejana Mekanic from Bosnia, it is her passport. She says ‘This is freedom. Before I couldn’t travel, I couldn’t go anywhere, I felt like a second class citizen.’ For others, it is their Identity Card or their visa. They need these papers to prove their identity. They need these papers to be able to stay. They need these papers to live in freedom.
Reader 2: For others, their most treasured possession is something that they have brought with them from their home country. It provides a link with their tradition, like this beaded lighter case from Syria. This is the only thing Nayf brought with him when he fled to Jordan. It is his only link with home. A traditional Kachin sword and shoulder bag are all that Ahmin Lahpai has to remind him of his roots in Burma. A national flag from Albania, a traditional Syrian pouch, a religious icon, prayer beads and the family Koran…these are all important souvenirs of a home that will never be revisited.
Reader 3: For some, photographs are their most treasured possession. These photos are the only reminder of happier times and of family and friends that have been left behind. Amina Abdi Hassan, a refugee from Somalia, now living in Kenya, has a photograph taken immediately after she got married. She says ‘Those were the days……..I remember being so happy.’ Fawaz Rarhail Turkey, a Syrian refugee now living in Jordan, has a picture on a mobile phone of a relative of the family who was killed by the Syrian army.
Reader 4: And finally, for some of these urban refugees, their most treasured possession is the item that they consider to be their ticket out of poverty and their means to improve their lives…..a school certificate as proof of qualifications, an Engineering study book, an English learning book are all important in finding a job. Kurubusangw Gaspard, a Rwandan refugee now living in Burundi, treasures his radio as a way of keeping up to date with what is going on, so that he can react quickly to new events in the region. And for Ronel Metelus from Haiti, it is his sewing machine. He bought it before the earthquake of January 2010, piece by piece as he could afford it and built it himself. He rescued it from the wreckage of his home and now believes that it provides the only way to get him and his family out of the refugee camp they are living in.
Leader: Did you notice anything there? I did. Did you notice a connection between what our students here would choose to save and what these urban refugees did in fact take with them? When it comes down to it, people all over the world value the same things. Let us consider those things as we bring this assembly to a close.
Reader 1: Identity matters. Knowing who we are and where we come from is important.
Reader 2: Our roots matter. Respecting our traditions and valuing our upbringing is important.
Reader 3: Family and friends matter. Appreciating the people who love us and never taking them for granted is important.
Reader 4: Education matters. Working hard and making the most of our abilities is important.
Leader: Let us conclude our time together with a short prayer. You may make these words your own if you wish.
We remember the refugees who have had to leave everything they value behind and flee to a new country.
May their identity, their roots, their family and friends and their education be protected.
And as for us,
May we recognize our identity,
Appreciate our roots,
Value our family and friends
And make the most of our education.