If you were forced to flee your home tomorrow and could bring just one bag with you, what would it contain? Medicine? Family photos? An item of spiritual comfort? A book? Candy? A cell phone? There is no easy way to fit your entire life and the life of your family into a small bag when violence and civil war force you to flee.
Yet this year alone, 300,000 men, women, and children from the Middle East and North Africa have been forced to make this impossible choice, packing their small bags and risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the hopes of reaching Europe, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
. It's a huge increase from last year, when 219,000 people made the journey. The European Commission has called
it the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II.
One of the principal destinations for refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan is Greece. According to the International Rescue Committee, nearly 140,000 refugees have arrived in Greece this year, a 750% increase from last year, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Some 96,000 of these refugees have fled their homes in the hopes of reaching one island. The Greek island of Lesbos, in a part of the Mediterranean known as the Aegean Sea, currently hosts 13,000 refugees, according to the (IRC)
. The aid organization estimates that nearly 2,000 people per day have been making the crossing to Greece's Eastern Islands in rubber dinghies over the past month.
Not all of the people who make this perilous journey reach their destination, however. Nearly 26,000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean
this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. This week, the world's attention finally turned to those victims, when two tiny brothers
, 3-year-old Aylan and 5-year-old Galip Kurdi, drowned along with their mother off the coast of Turkey.
Those who do make it to the shore safely are faced with the Herculean task of starting a new life in a foreign land with nothing but the bare minimum. Since the tiny boats that ferry refugees across are usually packed beyond capacity, people are required to travel light and end up keeping very little of their belongings. Most people have no choice but to dispose of what little they have managed to salvage during the conflict as they pack their small bags to flee. Refugees who are allowed to bring extra baggage usually end up dumping its contents overboard when the overloaded boats begin to give way to the harsh waves.
The International Rescue Committee asked a mother, a child, a teenager, a pharmacist, an artist, and a family of 31 people who had recently arrived on Lesbos to display the items they packed in their bags. Here, these refugees share the very personal contents of what little they have left.