What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from Iraq and Syria

Jim Lommasson

2010 - Ongoing

What would you take with you?

What is left behind?

What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from Iraq and Syria

What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from Iraq and Syria is an ongoing collaborative photography and (participant) writing, storytelling project with Iraqi and Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland because of war.

I asked participants to let me photograph those few items that they were able carry on their long and dangerous journey to America. Those journeys can take years, refugee camps, multiple countries, and sometimes a few bribes. The carried objects ranged from a family photo, a doll, a Qur’an, a game of dominoes. I photograph the object and then returned a 13″ x 19″ archival photographic print of the object to its owner to provide personal reflections by writing directly onto the photograph. This process allows the participant to tell their own story, in their own language, in their own hand.

The stories speak to much more than the object. The luminous inner life of these ordinary things are a testament to the unspeakable anguish of a life left forever behind. Ordinary objects become sacred objects.

More than 2.6 million Iraqis have been forced from their homes but remain inside of the country. 220,000 are refugees in other countries. There are also 300,000 refugees in Iraq from neighboring countries – the vast majority escaping violence and persecution in Syria. (UNHCR)

Travel bans have reduced the numbers of Syrians admitted to the U.S.

In 2016 the U.S. resettled 15,479 Syrian refugees. In 2017, the U.S. let in 3,024.

In 2018, only 11 Syrian refugees were admitted to the U.S. (U.S. State Department)

In 2010 I began working on What We Carried after finishing my book about returning U.S. soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan called Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories – Life After Iraq and Afghanistan.

When I began interviewing returning veterans in 2007, I interviewed an Iraqi woman living in Portland, Oregon. I asked her what she the thought about the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, she said, “I thank America for removing Saddam Hussein, but did you have to destroy my entire country to do it?” The simple power of that statement demanded a new project. I felt we needed to hear from those affected by our wars.

Refugees often flee under the cover of darkness, sometimes with a kid under each arm, with a few practical items, and a memento to remember the lives that they are leaving behind, possibly forever. These often ordinary items are the only physical evidence of their former lives that they have left.

When exhibited or published all photographs include translation. I hope viewers of these collaborative photo/writings will imagine themselves making decisions about what they would gather before leaving their homes forever. The next realization is, what are they be leaving behind? Friends, schools, jobs, language, culture, and history. What We Carried is a bridge building project to illustrate our common humanity.

What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from Iraq and Syria has traveled to Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Portland, Dearborn, Detroit, Atlanta, Seneca Falls, NY, and Cleveland thanks to The Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. We often create new work with the local community and add to the exhibition. Next stop: THE ELLIS ISLAND NATIONAL MUSEUM: May 28 - September 3, 2019. A half a million visitors will see the exhibition.

The hands-on photo/writing storytelling approach draws media attention because What We Carried is a different kind of storytelling. I have done NPR interviews, local, national, and international TV interviews about What We Carried. Refugees need to tell their stories and we need to hear them.

I will continue to work with more communities of refugees and expand What We Carried. I recently completed a similar project with Holocaust and genocide survivors using the same photo /writing approach.

To read the English translations of the Arabic writing please click on this What We Carried blog: https://whatwecarried.com/

Thank you for your consideration,

Jim Lommasson

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • Brother in law: Seattle Washington USA. Sister: Budapest Hungary. Brother: In Jordan….no maybe Dubai/UAE. Brother: Brighten England. G.B. (Me) Portland/OR/USA. Mother: Buried in Dubai or maybe Abu Dhabi….well, I have to admit I don’t know where my mother was buried! I am waiting for my American passport because UAE will not let me visit my mother’s grave with my Iraqi passport … oh those politicians. – Dr. Baher Butti 6/28/2013

  • This pottery form includes on it many traces from Iraq’s great history, Malyaia Sammarra, Lion of Babylon, Ziggurat Ur, and Ishtar Gate. Before I left Baghdad, my Christian friend’s family gave me this as a gift. They were our neighbors and best friends in our hearts. They told us, “Don’t forget Iraq…
    – Iman Shati

  • It’s Strange How Happy this Make Me Feel
    – Zaid

  • I brought this domino set with me from Baghdad because it reminds me of the great times I spent with my friends. I chose this from all the other stuff because I know those old times may not come back again. When I went to see my friends for the last time before leaving my country, they gave this domino set to me to keep and to remind me of the great times we spent together. – Othman Al Ani

  • 01-what-we-carried-ali-iraqi-flag-w-text-g1

    I want to ask my country “Iraq” when we will get some rest. Shall we spend tears on our current circumstance or should we cry for the past. We have been carrying our miseries for long time on our chests. Strangers from around the world occupied our land and they kill our people for a very cheap price. We are tired, we are tired and we want to get some rest.
    – Ali Ali

  • I am Mujtaba 15 years old, I bought these shoes from Al-Ashar in Basrah 5 years ago. I could not believe that I will travel to USA one day and these shoes will accompany me, and will take part in the exhibition around USA, as if I knew that these shoes will a visa to freedom. Your Friend, – Mujtaba Ashour, Detroit 9/2015

  • Alas is today similar to yesterday? Despair, sickness, and foreignness, Will my tomorrow be just like my yesterday? – Haifa Al Habeeb

  • The Wedding Video I Never got to watch. The Father I’ll never meet. – Zaid

  • 14-what-we-carried-platter-susan-barwary-g14

    We ate on this plate since childhood and on every holiday until 2005, when I left to go to the south of Iraq, then to Syria, and then to Chicago. Can you believe how many times this plate has traveled, from the areas of Iraq, to other Arab regions, then to America!! This plate reminds me of my precious mother… When I felt danger threaten my life, and the life of my family, I took some clothes and put them in bags, then I went to the kitchen and took this plate that always reminds me of my mother, when she used to cook biryani and served it to us during holidays in Iraq. Whenever I see it, I remember the holidays in our house and how beautiful they were, and how they carried the real meaning of holidays. I remember every Christmas when I see this plate, and I remember my sisters, brothers, and the beautiful, safe days we spent in our home in Iraq. I couldn’t abandon this plate and leave… I wanted something that reminds me of my mother and my home…
    – Susan Birwary

  • In 2003 someone told me that Paul Bremer sent a message to George Bush saying”we are not in the Gulf… we are in Mesopotamia.” Well, first it’s unfortunate that Bremer relies on Hollywood to believe that Gulf is still using camels for transportation and expects to see flying carpets in Baghdad! Second, it’s a pitty that I was not given the chance to show him before going to Baghdad this photo of teachers in school annual party in Baghdad… in the 60’s…I could have told him that Iraqis are modern, and we are civilized enough to build our own Democracy…. Maybe, and just maybe, he could have limited his job to ousting Saddam and not oust the craddle of civilizations itself!! Thank you Jim Lommason.. late is better then never!
    – Dr. Baher Butti

  • We all have had a childhood….But it differs for everyone…
    – Ula Butti

  • My father bought this set of coffee cups when he was a young adult, before he was married… in 1945. He was insistent that it would be a big family. This was a set of 12 cups, but after this long time, only 5 cups are left… This set has also travelled multiple times, from Baghdad to Dohuk, to Syria, to Chicago… I have wrapped every piece of this set with fabric and with care as if it was a piece of gold… it is worth a lot to me… These coffee cups remind me of my precious father who taught me so much, and who I will always remember with love and gratitude… How many times have we happily drunk bitter coffee from these cups in our house… until the decorations disappeared from its surface… I couldn’t leave these cups in Baghdad despite having left so many valuable things… I left my friends and those that I have loved, and they were many…I left the job that I loved… I left my home and my memories… and my roots… – Susan Birwary

  • When I set off from Iraq, I [left] many dear things, but I could not leave my mother’s glasses. She passed away in 1986. So [she] would stay a dear memory in my heart.
    – Dhuwiya Al Obaidi

  • 06-what-we-carried-holy-book-g06

    When I left my country Iraq in 2000, I left everything behind, my photos, my personal stuff, my memories because I just wanted to forget everything about my life but the only thing that I couldn’t leave behind was my faith. This is our Holy book “Qura’an.” I wanted to have with me all the time so I can get protection and guidance to my family during this uncertain Journey.– Zahra AlKaabi

  • The morning Dawns, the Sun is up. Children playing. Mothers cooking. My little notebook holds my memory of my friends remembering me when they start writing. Oh! this is my life that is no longer alive. One night just changed it all. That night was dark. Everyone was running. People were crying. That one bomb, it destroyed my land. A mother cries where is my son? He went with the sun, gone like yesterday. The sand was thirsty. It drank his blood. He went to asleep. He never woke up. We wanted to live. But were kicked out. Leaving with our memories that made my history. That one night that changed my life is forever alive inside my mind. Past and future will always collide. Everytime I raise my eyes and look up to the skies. – Schmeiran

  • This picture is to remember my dear father who passed away in 1987.

  • The genie of Aladdin says to Saddam: I answer your wishes; Iraq is in your hands…. We love Saddam on the outside, but inside us we hate him…. Saddam loved only Saddam, didn’t love the Baath Party, didn’t love the oil, didn’t love the people, and didn’t love Iraq…. Iraq in the hand of Saddam was like a cigarette, once smoked, the cigarette will be thrown to the ground… Saddam had one hope to be the leader and chief of the Arab Nation… We don’t know if he was crazy or if he was an agent, we don’t know if he is truly the leader or chief… we don’t know until now… what is this my Allah… what is this my Allah… my Allah… We are here for the graciousness of America; I thank America with all my heart… I thank you UN with all my feelings…. I thank you IRCO with all my passion… Thanks and thanks to my family of Portland, and thanks with all my heart, Art Falcon… We don’t know if this is luck, if it is destiny that is written on the forehead, is it a surprise from Allah… I am Samir, an artist and painter; I painted for Saddam 380 portraits (oil and watercolors) in Tikrit, Kirkuk, Baghdad, and Tuz, during my military service that lasted 36 months… what is this my Allah… Note: 1- Only Allah knows how many painters and sculptors and calligraphers and poets and singers and actors and even non-artists…. 2- We had Saddam’s name in schools, hospitals, courts, government department, in journals, and TV, and even the cleric mentioned Saddam’s name during the call for prayers [Athan]. 3- The dictator and his gang managed to put a painting or photo or portraits on all walls, in every book, in the schools, in the government offices, and even in markets and restaurants, in every house there was a photo of Saddam, it was more important than the Iraqi flag, even on the Iraqi Dinar [currency] Saddam is there…. Saddam…Saddam…Saddam…
    – Samir Khurshid

  • Studying for a Future that will never come.
    – Zaid

  • When I was done with my mandatory service in the Iraqi army in 2000, I went to live in Baghdad. I worked with a group of Iraqi artists and made an agreement with a gallery owner to sell my paintings at his gallery. My paintings were about my home town “Tooz Khirmatoo.” After six months, I decided to settle and work in Baghdad as an artist. I met a photographer called “Abo Mustafa” at Bab Alsharqi’s place in Baghdad and he asked me to work with him at his studio. I was working and living in the same place with this photographer and he helped me a lot. In 2002, I tried to use the photo papers that were wasted in the garbage, and I discovered that I can use my fingers to scratch the papers and draw very nice paintings on the wasted papers. Since that time I created a unique way of drawing.
    – Samir Khurshid

  • Those were the days my friend . . . . we thought they never end!!
    Dr. Baher Butti