Pictures on smartphones are all many refugees have left

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The pictures show birthday parties, family, friends and former homes. Most refugees are not able to take many personal items on their journey. The photos on their smartphones are often the only link they have to their past.

About a year ago, he was still dressed in a suit, sitting in his smart office in Kabul. “I was working for a large telecommunications company and in charge of 11 employees,” Mohammad says with a big sigh.

Today, he is wearing an old pair of flip flops and a blue track suit jacket as he stands in the office of a refugee shelter in the southern German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

He points to pictures on his smartphone of his former workplace in Afghanistan.

The 26-year-old left his home with his siblings in September, fleeing Taliban violence.

Around 320 migrants from 14 different nations currently live in the reception centre in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, an old hospital site from the 1930s. “The majority of them come from Syria and Afghanistan,” Ulrike Kunye, head of the institution, says.

Most refugees are able to take very few belongings on their long journey to Europe. The photos on their smartphone are often their only memories of the past – memories of a life to which they won’t return any time soon, or ever.

Suad, 28, finds it difficult to talk about her home in the Syrian city of Homs. A picture on her phone shows a yellow house surrounded by greenery and mountains. Her brother is sitting on a hill wearing sunglasses and smiling into the camera.

These happy days are now long gone. The apartment building has been completely destroyed by the bombs of President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.

Suad lived there in a two-bedroom flat together with her husband and young daughter before they fled to Germany. “I don’t know what it looks like there today,” the trained nurse says and turns away.

Nadeem is 37 years old and also struggling to come to terms with his decision to flee his home in Syria.

He arrived in Germany two months ago and has been living in Garmisch-Partenkirchen since. He pulls out his phone and shows photos of his two sons, Salem and Mohamed. They are standing in front of a sofa in the family’s former living room.

“I miss them a lot,” Nadeem says quietly. “I hope they’re well.”

He has not seen them in over a year. He tries to phone his family in Syria as often as he can and says he constantly fears for their safety.

Kelsum too has a picture on her smartphone that reminds her of happier times.

The 38-year-old woman in the black headscarf has tears in her eyes as she shows a picture of her daughter Hilbi’s birthday party. The girl was four year’s old when the picture was taken. She is standing behind a table laden with fruit and a big birthday cake, wearing a pretty white dress.

Kelsum risked life and limb crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat with her cousin and brother in autumn. They then trekked through Europe along the Balkan route, before reaching Hungary, Austria and finally Germany. The journey took about 40 days.

“I was only able to take a few clothes,” she says.

“These pictures here used to hang on our living room wall,” 43-year-old Hamid from Kabul explains as he shows two black-and-white photographs of his relatives. One shows his father and grandfather, the other his extended family with uncle, aunt and many children.

Hamza, 42, has selected a picture on his phone which shows him together with hospital staff in Damascus. “We were celebrating the successful graduation of one of our doctors,” he says.

Several of his former colleagues were still in the war-torn city.

“I don’t know how they’re doing these days,” he says. Hamza fled out of fear of the many bomb attacks. The trained physiotherapist has been in Germany for two months.

“I always liked to come here to clear my head,” says Wayih. The photo on his smart phone shows him at the mouth of a sea cave in the Syrian port city Latakia. For the 29-year-old student from Damascus, the place was a refuge among the confusion of civil war.

He has been in Germany for a year now. He speaks English and has picked up German as well, allowing him to help out as an interpreter at the refugee shelter in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

His family still live in Latakia.

A student exhibition at the technical school in nearby Herrsching am Ammersee shows how little migrants are able to take on their journey.

“Besides the clothes on their backs, it’s often little more than some baby food, soap, tooth paste and their phone charger,” a student explains.

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