Mali refugees' 'Most Important Things'

Documenting refugees and their most-cherished items taken with them when they fled their homes.


Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso - The Most Important Thing is a photo documentary that reveals, through words and pictures, the heart-wrenching decisions a family has to make when they decide to flee their home.

In the run-up to the UNHCR's World Refugee Day on June 20, photographer Brian Sokol visited Malians who had fled fighting in the north of their country to take refuge in neighbouring Burkina Faso.

The project, now in its third installment, asks refugees from different geographic and cultural settings what they brought with them when they were forced to leave. The idea is simple: ask people to pose for a portrait with the single most valuable object that they carried, and ask them why they chose that one thing. While the photographs may reveal a fair amount about the subjects, it is their words - their stories - that share far more.

The project began with Sudanese refugees, for whom the most important things were primarily objects to keep them alive during their long, difficult journey: a pot, an axe, a water jug, a basket. In the second chapter, Syrian refugees carried objects that were largely sentimental: an old ring, a torn photograph, the key to a door that may no longer exist.

Among refugees from Mali, the objects most prized were largely to do with cultural identity. Having left their homes behind, they spoke of how these objects helped them to still feel part of their people, despite having been forced to flee.