The Things They Carried: “What Would You Bring?” Shares Refugee Stories Through Objects

CANVAS Staff

Violet Sassooni fled Iran in 1979. Sophie Herxheimer illustrated her What Would You Bring story. 

One of the great ironies of the pandemic is that while many of us have been stuck in our homes, tens of millions have been forced from their own. According to the United Nations, more than 82 million people fled their homes in 2020, due to “persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order.” More than 20 million are refugees from desperate places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Venezuela.
 
The story of the Jewish people can be seen as one of repeated forced migrations, which is why organizations like HIAS and JDC continue to provide material help to victims. But there is also the salutary act of simply allowing refugees to tell their own stories. 
 
This brings us to Juliet Simmons, a London-based creative producer and Reboot alum who works with arts organizations and nonprofits to, as she puts it, “help good people make good things happen.” Her recent work includes directing the Wingate Literary Prize, producing online forums for the grassroots refugee organization JRAN, and working with award-winning designer Daniel Heath to deliver team-building workshops for the Sky network. 
 
This week she discusses the inspiration for What Would You Bring, where refugees tell their own stories through the lens of the objects they brought with them, accompanied by illustrations or animation. CANVAS also asked artists whose work we admire to share the objects that symbolize migrations in their own lives.


Before the pandemic, I used to volunteer at a center for refugees and asylum seekers. I made cups of tea and handed out sandwiches. I remember one week a friend who also volunteered telling me she came because her grandfather had been a refugee, and she felt like it was just luck that she was making the tea, not drinking it. My grandfather was a refugee too. I felt the same.
 
Sometimes, if it wasn’t too busy, I’d chat with the people we were helping. They’d tell me how they made tea in their country, how having just the right amount of sugar or a bit of mint reminded them of home. They’d recall how some of their most precious belongings—teacups and teapots for example—were things that we might have thought of as inconsequential. 
 
Those conversations made me curious. I began to wonder if there was more that connected those refugees with my grandfather’s experience than just luck. Perhaps there were also real things, objects, that connected them too.
 
My grandfather died before I was born, so I couldn’t ask him what he had brought when he fled from Vienna to the UK in the 1930s. Instead, I began to research what refugees brought from different countries at different times. I was lucky to receive a Reboot Fellowship in 2019 that allowed me to explore the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. I was presented with piles of boxes filled with teddy bears and dolls, china and books, clothes and more. It seems that no matter where people travelled from or when they did so, the objects that reminded them of home were often similar.
 
The box I most clearly remember opening in the YIVO reading room was one that contained a teddy bear. There was a tag around its neck telling me that it had come to the USA from a displaced person’s camp in 1947. I had no idea who it belonged to; all I knew was that it was precious to the person who brought it. I imagined that my grandmother had probably had a similar bear when she was a child and thought of my own toys too.  
 
What Would You Bring tells John Hajdu’s story. He survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the 1956 uprising, escaping to the UK, and his teddy bear was the one constant in his life. His bear was not my YIVO bear, and yet I felt that they were connected, as they both mattered so much to the people that owned them.
 
While producing What Would You Bring, we’ve spoken to many refugees who generously shared their stories with us, and we’ve worked with amazing artists who have beautifully brought those stories—and the objects—to life. We hope to demonstrate that, in a time when migrants and refugees are feared and ostracized, we may all have more in common that we thought.

A still from John Hajdu’s What Would You Bring story, animated by Christopher Noxon and Rebecca Odes. 

We did a soft launch for World Refugee Day in the summer of 2021. To date, we have created three animated short films, two illustrated essays, and a toolkit, all of which is viewable on our website. The reactions have been wonderful, and the films have already been recognized and selected for a number of film festivals, such as the Lonely Wolf International Film Festival, New York’s 2021 Indie Shorts Awards, and Italy’s Venezia Shorts Festival.

This is just the beginning. We have been working with the JCC Association of North America, participating in their wonderful JFEST arts festival, and we are talking to the Jewish Teen Funders Network. We’re also talking with organizations that resettle refugees as we want to share and amplify their stories too. We’re looking to involve artists in the process so that we can illustrate stories in captivating ways, with art, music, or photography. But stories are at the heart of what we are doing—collecting them, sharing them, and harnessing their power.  

It’s exciting, how we’re capturing people’s imaginations, how viewers relate to the stories and objects. We want to show that arts and culture can work with social problems, and when you bring them together it helps people relate to the issues and maybe get involved, because today there are more refugees than ever. We want to show that you can make something meaningful and beautiful, and also influence people to help.

What Would You Bring would have been impossible without the Reboot network. First there was the fellowship that brought me to New York, and then an associated grant from the Covenant Foundation that we used to develop and deliver the project. So many Rebooters have been directly involved: Noam Dromi (Dolphin TaleWalking Dead: Red Machete) is the co-producer, and Reboot CEO David Katznelson is Executive Producer. Rebooters Chris Noxon and Rebecca Odes did the illustrations and animation for John Hajdu’s story. Violet Sassooni, who fled Iran in 1979, is the mother of a Rebooter, Tannaz Sassooni. 

With Reboot, you’re tapping into the network for inspiration as well as drawing on a pool of creativity and talent. Nobody ever says, “You can’t do that.” They say, “Let’s figure out how.” 

What Would You Bring response from illustrator Lisa Brown. 

Julian Voloj: What Would You Bring?

Bereshit, with commentary by the author’s ancestor. Photo: Julian Voloj.

Julian Voloj is a writer and photographer. He is author of the graphic novels Ghetto Brother (2015), Joe Shuster (2018), and Basquiat (2019). He reflects on an object, found by accident, that connects him to his past.
 
A few decades ago, I attended a seminar in Budapest. I was not religious, but since there were a few other Jewish participants, we decided to go to services. We arranged a time to meet in the lobby, but since my roommate was late, the group left without us. 
 
“Don’t worry, I’ve been to Budapest before, I know a shortcut,” he assured me when he saw my annoyed face. We started walking through the dark labyrinth of Buda, the hilly western side of the Hungarian capitol.
 
We ended up in front of an entrance to a tenement complex. There, in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by apartment buildings, was a small synagogue. We entered, but there was no one from our group. We had found a synagogue, but not the synagogue where our group was heading. There were maybe two dozen old men in the synagogue, and we definitely stood out. But the service was nearly over, so we decided to stay. 
 
Since my Hebrew is very basic, I did not bother to grab a prayer book. I looked around; it was a beautiful space, and even if I was not religious, the familiar melodies and prayers gave me a warm feeling. 
 
My roommate, meanwhile, was checking out a pile of old books. “Here’s one in German,” he said. “It’s pretty old. Look, 1863.”
 
He saw my annoyed face and nodded. OK, he would be quiet now. But then he elbowed me. “Look here.” He was pointing to the title page of the book. I am named after my great-grandfather who was named after his great-grandfather, and there was his name. It was a German translation of Genesis, or Bereshit, with commentary by my namesake, Julius Dessauer, “rabbi in Neu-Pest.”
 
When I saw the name, I felt a mixture of shock and disbelief. I was a little dizzy.
 
After the services, some congregants explained that the synagogue predates the apartment block, which was built around it in the 1920s to protect the building. During the Shoah, the synagogue was used as a stable, and most of its congregants were murdered. I asked about the book. 
 
“Whoever owned it is probably dead,” I was told. “Since it means something to you, just take it.” 
 
It’s been a few decades since the book found me by coincidence. Appropriately, it was the first book of Moses, Bereshit, which literally means “in the beginning.” For me it was the beginning of a journey to explore my own roots, and wherever I went, I brought this book with me.


Maya Ciarrocchi: What Would You Bring?

Some take a utilitarian approach. Photo: Maya Ciarrocchi.

Maya Ciarrocchi is an interdisciplinary artist working across media in drawing, printmaking, video, and performance. She exhibits her work nationally and internationally. Here she takes a very practical view of family possessions.
 
I’m not particularly attached to objects. I get this from my father, who throws everything away. On the other hand, my mother saves every doodle put to paper. My parents are both the children of immigrants. My father’s family came from central and northern Italy, and my mother’s from various points in the Pale of Settlement.
 
My mother’s mother, Baba Annette, saved everything. She hid chocolate and sometimes her famous homemade cookies in her dresser drawers. I knew there would be something delicious to munch on if I rummaged around in her closets. When I went to look for her, I could find her seated on the edge of her chair in her tiny galley kitchen, looking ready to flee again at any moment.
 
My father’s mother, Andreina, whom I called Nonna, saved very little from her past life. She changed her name to Ann, and at some point started putting swiss cheese on top of her homemade pizza in an effort to be more American.
 
Like all children, my parents are influenced by the sensibilities of their parents. My mother carries the inherited trauma of her mother, her mother’s mother, and on and on for generations.  On the other hand, my father’s mother was raised to believe in the superiority of her Tuscan bloodline. And yet she did everything to not be seen as an outsider in America, even if that meant giving up her past.
 
My parents were visual artists. When I was born, they moved into a loft in New York City, which became their live/workspace. I grew up surrounded by the stuff of art and life. While this may sound romantic, it was easy to feel smothered. Perhaps this is why I am a minimalist. It’s also just a product of living in New York City, where space is so limited. 
 
My mother gave me the family heirlooms, the china, the silver, and the pearls. I know these things hold sentimental and monetary value, but none of them mean anything to me. Truthfully, if forced to flee, I would bring whatever would help me survive, and in today’s world, that is my phone and a charger. The phone has all my family photos, and it has every critical contact, which makes it a lifeline—that is, if cell phone towers are still standing….

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