Hope in their hands: Refugee children share their keepsakes

A picture, a toy, a blanket. All have something in common — they’re the most precious object in the world for a Syrian refugee.

Christopher Herwig & Adrian Brune
17 June 2019

Many of us have a cherished childhood object. A keepsake. A reminder of something or someone we love. Even as violence continued to rage around them, Syrian children fleeing for safety found space among the necessities they carried for their own such items.

For many of the nearly 44,000 Syrian children under age 5 at the Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, these precious objects provide a connection to their past and bring comfort in a turbulent world. Each item comes with a story.

Nine refugee children share these stories – about their uprooted lives, their keepsakes, and the powerful memories that these precious objects represent.



Hala, 11, keeps the photos she brought from Syria hidden, to protect them from damage. But she sometimes takes them out to look at them, to remind her of her former life. Her favourite: one of her and her brother. “It was a Friday. My mom had dressed me nicely for Friday prayer, then we went to the market and a restaurant,” Hala says. “After that we went to a photographer’s studio where this photo was taken. When I look at this photo, I remember those days again.”



“This key ring belonged to my Dad; I inherited it from him a long time ago,” says Ahmed, 12, who holds a key fob inscribed with his father’s name. Ahmed’s father died of a heart attack at the start of the war in Syria. Ahmed now lives with his grandmother and brother in the Za’atari camp. “I barely have any memories of my Dad but…my favourite memory is the time he brought us to the river for a picnic. If I want to remember him, I take out his key ring and look at it.”



Yara, 10, holds her doll, a birthday gift from her father. She has named the doll Farah. “It got scary in Syria. There were shootings. Dad said get your stuff together, we’re going,” she says. “I wanted to bring [my] teddy bear, but my parents said no, it was too big, so I put Farah in my bag.” Yara wants to return to Syria someday, and has pledged to bring Farah back with her. “I will dress her up and get her ready and we will go. But this time, I’m bringing all of my toys.”



“My Ben 10 transforms into an alien from space and saves the world,” says Omar, 11, referring to his teddy bear. Omar lost both of his brothers in the Syrian conflict. One of them, Abdulrahman, “bought [the bear] for me and told me to take care of it. We used to watch the [Ben 10] cartoon together.” Omar’s family had to leave most of their things in Syria, “but my mom packed Ben 10.”



Rudaina, 11, still has her house keys from Syria. “I brought them with me because when we go back to Syria, I’m going to be the one who opens the door,” she says.  Rudaina, who is in the fourth grade at a school in the Za’atari camp, doesn’t remember her native country, but says that her parents told her it was beautiful. “We once had a home, but now we live in a caravan. I feel so sad when I hold the keys because I’m so far away from home,” she says.



“This is my blanket…My grandmother bought it for me” explains Nour, 12, as she holds it out. “I remember that we had to flee because there was bombing. I was wrapped up in it when… I came here.” Nour says she sometimes feels sad when she wraps herself up in the blanket now, but also safe. “I’m going to keep it as long as I can.”



When she was little, Iman’s parents would give her a doll when she was crying. Iman, 13, says she named the doll Lulu. “I feel safe as long as Lulu is with me,” she says, adding that having her doll with her helps her feel better when she is afraid or sad. Although she usually keeps Lulu hidden these days, Iman says she allows her little sister to play with her. “I’ll keep Lulu forever.”



Qusai, 13, also has something he says he’ll keep forever: his school backpack. “I’ll tell my children my father gave this to me,” he says. The bag is now too small for him, but he has been keeping it safe anyway because it reminds him of his father. “Also, it’s from my country.”



“I brought this dog,” says Shatha, 15, as she holds the small toy in her hands. She was 9 when she left Syria. “When we had to leave, I had so many toys to choose from, but he was my favourite.” She says she held him the whole way to the Za’atari camp. “I never let go of my dog…so he could protect me,” she says. “My toy dog will always be with me. I’ll tell my children my whole life story and his – because it’s the same as mine.”