What Would You Take?

When we first arrived in Egypt years ago, we had a shipment of goods that we were allotted by the university. At the time we didn’t have that many possessions so it was not too difficult to decide what to bring. In fact, we would have packed more, we just didn’t have enough to fill the space, nor did we have money to buy more stuff to fill the space.

As would be expected after we packed the necessities like clothes and baby stuff, we packed things that we love, that represent who we are and what we care about. So there were a lot of books, and a fair number of decorative pieces (think candle holders, table cloths, vases….pretty stuff) and photo albums – always the photo albums. Our downstairs neighbors brought none of that. Instead they filled their shipment with ski equipment.

Ski equipment in the desert.


We were surprised as well. They loved skiing and decided that during their breaks from school and work they would head to Switzerland and Austria and take up the slopes. It was their choice to fill their luggage allotment with boots and poles and skis.

We would never in a million years have brought ski equipment. And that’s the point – they brought what they wanted, and we brought what we wanted. We were all uprooting our lives and had limited options for what we would take, we all had to decide.

We brought what was important to us. 

Those of us who have uprooted our lives, whether it be domestically or internationally know the process of weeding out, of sifting through and setting aside that which is the most important. You have to be brutal, you have to guard yourself and go into a “I’m not going to think, I’m not going to feel” mode.

How much more does a refugee experience this as they pack only fragments of a life lost and head out into a world unknown? 

“If you had to quickly flee both your home and country, what one possession would you make sure you take with you?

This is the subject of a photo essay I recently looked through. The pictures are poignant and telling. Unlike our neighbors and us, these are people who don’t have shipments, they have the clothes on their backs and most probably one small bag, a bag that has to be manageable for a long journey.

So what would you take? As the photo essay shows, for many in the world this is not a hypothetical question. It’s real.

The title of the essay is “The Most Important Thing”. So what is your most important thing? What would you take? 

Take a look at Portraits of Refugees Posing With Their Most Valuable Possessions and think about the question for a minute. It’s a sobering exercise. And then think about sharing in the comments – I would love to hear from you. 

Pakistan - Displaced people returning to villages after losing much when their homes flooded.
Pakistan – Displaced people returning to villages with all their earthly possessions.

25 thoughts on “What Would You Take?

  1. We are in the process of “weeding out” ourselves. We are going to the Asia Pacific area in July to serve as missionaries. However, we started the difficult task of weeding out last year when we rented out our 2400 sq ft home to live with my parents (all 4 of us in 1 bedroom..not fun. lol). At first, it seemed like a task, but now that I have acclimated to having less I really do prefer it & it almost seems freeing. Now that it has been a year we are going back through our things & trying to decide what our family of 4 really needs to take as we will only have 8 suitcase to load for 2 years. What in the world will I really need? Who knows…thankful that I will have the most important things strapped into a seatbelt, next to me on the plane. ;)


  2. Lol no I was not frantic at all actually, quite calm in fact, the broken shoes only meant Zain had to be carried everywhere. Once things calm down here I am going to write about this it


  3. The opening narrative of “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond depicts a man named Yali from New Guinea asking the question, “Why is that you white people developed much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” I was 34 when I first read this book, and the question Yali posed made me smile.

    When we moved to Papua New Guinea from the United States, we were afforded by the mission a certain sized crate to ship belongings over. We were warned that at best, the shipment would arrive 3 months after our arrival by plane, thus we were encouraged to bring as much as the airlines would allow with us on the journey, knowing it needed to last us that whole time. My folks had two small children in tow: so our suitcases contained not only clothes and towels and toiletries, but toys as well. At that time, the airlines would allow one carry on bag, and two checked bags free of charge.

    Our flight left St. Louis, with a layover in Los Angeles, and another in Honolulu. My parents scheduled us a few days in Hawaii as a means of adjusting to the time change, climate and temperature change, etc. When we arrived in Honolulu, and attempted to hail a cab to take us to our hotel, we realized this could be quite a production. We’d need a van or a large station wagon to carry us as we had so much ‘cargo’ along for the trip.

    When my father finally flagged down a large station wagon cab, we crowded to the curb with all our luggage. The driver opened the back of the wagon, then rounded the car to the curb we were waiting on. He eyeballed our bags-all twelve of them-with obvious amusement and skepticism. ”Just how long are you visiting Hawaii?” he asked. Mom’s response was quick “Three days.” He stood there gapping, then shaking his head laughing, loaded the car. When we arrived at the hotel, mom quietly asked dad why the cabby acted so strangely. Dad explained, “He thought we each had 3 suitcases for our visit to Hawaii. That’s one suitcase a day for each of us.”

    Little did we know that this interpretation of our baggage would serve as a metaphor for our whole tenure in New Guinea.


    1. Love this story Donna! Us and our stuff….I wrote this in the midst of working on ‘getting rid of’ so easy to be too attached and put my focus on the impermanent.


  4. I saw a show about some of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan and one of them carried his Bible through the desert, over a crocodile infested river where soldiers were shooting from the other side and to a refugee camp where he lived for 10 years. He still has that Bible and he just returned to South Sudan to be the first Anglican priest of this new country. I never thought I would take a Bible because I could just buy a new one, but this boy literally clung to God’s word during his journey as his most prized, and only, possession.


  5. Marilyn, your timing is amazing! Just today, our moving company confirmed that our packing date will be 15 and 16 June – to leave Egypt after 18 amazing years. You were speaking right to me when you wrote of, “. . .the process of weeding out, of sifting through and setting aside that which is the most important.” It is a process during which I try to consistently say to myself, “Will we miss this in 3-4 years when we retrieve these items from storage” (we’re going to Cambodia from here, not back to the States). I would like bring up one more dynamic of the moving process. I may not have to decide what I am taking in a matter of hours or even minutes, but I do have to decide with my spouse. At first it seemed that we were beginning this task at opposite ends of a spectrum, with my husband, Dan being on the let’s-get-rid-of-it-all side and me being on the but-what-do-we-want-for-the-grandchildren side. I’m happy to say we have found a compromise, but I will gladly admit that is because Dan realized how many things meant something to me (that, and the realization that once we have a certain quantity of things to ship, the price will not go down without a drastic reduction). Moving is definitely a family-affair. We are blessed not to need to prioritize our “stuff” in a lightning amount of time, but we need to still remind ourselves that is just that, stuff. It’s the people that matter.


    1. Ann – so glad for the timing! You bring up such a good point. Cliff and I have really dealt with this in all our moves – sometimes I’m the ‘get rid of everything’ person and sometimes he is. I think there’s a bigger thing at play as well – and that is that we are created for eternity. And so facing our mortality, and our ‘impermanence’ can feel overwhelming and make me want to hang onto stuff. If I remember that this is one of the reasons why I sometimes struggle with the letting go, I feel like I’m in a better place to recognize that my wanting to hang on isn’t at core bad – rather it’s a reminder of why I want to hang on. I’m just choosing the wrong things to hold on to! Also think how little any of us had when we first moved to Cairo! We were all young and poor….! We had all just come off WIC :) Thinking of you during this time – what will your place be like in Cambodia?


  6. Wow, what a great photoessay and question. As a serial mover, I’ve got all my possessions down to one suitcase. But one item… that’s difficult to fathom.


    1. One suitcase? That is both amazing and enviable. I have a friend that went from a 2000 plus square foot home to a 600 square foot condo….I want to sit at her feet and listen and learn….to own your stuff and not have your stuff own you. But back to the point of the post – it is difficult to fathom and the myriad of stories behind each choice are quite simply – amazing.


  7. http://unhcr.org/g-5138b1466
    “What is the most important thing you brought from home?” UNHCR and Brian Sokol Photography asked this question to Syrian refugees.

    This was a great photo essay, as well.

    I have needed to do this once when evacuating after a earthquake at age 16. I foolishly did not bring any change of clothes, but photo album, my Bible, briefcase with a club’s minutes as I was the secretary and did not want to lose it, and nothing else I can recall. Today it is tough, as I begin to go through saved work of my children, I end up reading things they have written or admiring art work and I save it all again. I do need to overcome this. SO I will think about this question more and search my heart to see what things of thsi world I fear to lose.


    1. Me too! (I mean the kids’ stuff!) Memories come flooding over me as I look at the little stories and books. Thanks for sharing about the earthquake – again a reminder that this question is only hypothetical for some. Thanks for linking the UNHCR photo essay.


  8. I don’t know what I would take with me now, but in 1994, when I came to America as a refugee I brought some clothes, the family album, my favorite books, and $20, which I lost in New York.


  9. This is a great question and I love that you connected it to the refugee experience. Even though we have packed and moved many times, it hasn’t been exactly the same as refugees – we’ve had support and resources and money and jobs to help in the process. Once, though, we did evacuate. From Somaliland, with less than 30 minutes to pack and I have never been back in almost 10 years now. That was a bit different – we grabbed our evac-bag, $, clothes, computers, photo albums, the few books we had, and the kid’s ‘blankies,’ their precious comfort item. Just enough to fit in a backpack and a carry-on bag for our family of four. It took us about 8 months to a year to get on our feet again. I haven’t thought about that for years, thanks for this reminder (I mean that in a good way)!


    1. I’m so glad you came by – the whole time I wrote this I was actually thinking about your family and what you must have gone through when you left Somaliland. It’s remarkable that you got on your feet after 8 months. When I first started boarding school we took a small evacuation suitcase to boarding with us. Everyone had to have a change of clothes, some water, crackers, tinned meat, and tinned cheese. What would happen is that half way through the boarding term, when school food reached it’s maximum grossness in our minds, we would begin going through each suitcase. We only ever had to be evacuated once, but that was after we stopped bringing those little suitcases. I still laugh thinking about it, and also think “What if we really had to evacuate and all that food was gone….?”


  10. Four years ago this month our home burned to the ground in an unpredictable wild fire that consumed 80+ homes and damaged many more. We were awakened out of a sound sleep by our smoke alarms and a neighbor pounding on our door. We had 15 min to get out of the house. Our back yard was on fire and the homes next door and across the street were in flames.

    We quickly dressed, grabbed wallet, purse and dog. I managed to grab our computer’s hard drive that I had backed up the week before. My wife grabbed the kids’ baby books. Then we got in our car and drove away. That was it.

    We lost everything – 43 years accumulation of our best marriage artifacts and historic family photos and memorabilia. All gone.

    But in the end – it was just stuff. We had each other. And that was most important.


    1. I read this comment yesterday and then read it 3 more times plus posted it on Communicating Across Boundaries Facebook page. This is remarkable – and a remarkable testimony to life being more precious than stuff every time. Thank you for sharing. It makes me want to know more of the story so if you’re ever interested in writing more about it – I’d love to share it.


  11. Having just gone through the experience of sorting through every item in our household as we closed down our home to relocate to another country, this resonates with me! We had the luxury of being able to ship thngs and having time to decide. But each item had to be decided on–to take, throw, give away or sell–and sometimes the decisions were very difficult and emotionally exhausting. I found myself thinking about our final move to our heavenly home. I am very glad that I won’t have to make a single decision about what to take (physically) with me! But for now, that is part of our earthly nomadic existence.


    1. Yes – so so exhausting Ruth. Our last move nearly did me in. The cumulative effect added up and I was trying to go on my own strength. We are in so much stronger a position than many to recognize the impermanence of this life, but it still hurts, it’s still hard. Thinking of you through this time. Are you relocating state-side or elsewhere. Would love to see you.


  12. If you were told you had an hour to pack and could take only two suitcases, what would you pack? What did I pack in two medium sized suitcases? How do you fit the needs, the wants, the memories,the loves, and so much more of a family of three, in two medium sized suitcases.
    What I packed were the photos. I removed them all from the many albums, there was no place for the albums but the photos were all important. I forgot to pack shoes for my 2 year old daughter, who then had to be carried everywhere as the shoes she was wearing broke. I left my first home, which had been decorated with such love and expectation and where we had barely spent two whole years, without a backward glance, I left almost all my formal evening wear much of what my husband had bought or my mother had so lovely given in my trousseau and just took the basics,
    Pampers, milk bottles kids clothes etc were given importance, yes but I still forgot the shoes from the line of shoes of every colour that my daughter had. Books could be bought again, I could not find my gold earrings in the hurry, a couple of my husbands expensive suits found their way into the bags but yes the pictures were all important and when I see my grown up girls look at them and enjoy the memories I am glad I made the choice I did.


    1. Pari – I loved this comment. You brought me right into your world and I can just see you as a frantic young mom looking for shoes. Thank you for sharing so others could read as well.


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