Stay? Or Leave?

airport

 

 

 

Stay? Or leave? It’s a question that Syrians have been trying to answeranas for three years. It’s one question, two options, and in between many calculations in terms of children, family, history, culture, and future. The answer is very complicated and a controversial issue.

I asked two different persons: Asaad, 31, single, and Nadia, 30, married.

Asaad und NadiaNadia: “Of course I will stay. Syria is where I was born, have friends and memories, received an education, and have a job. I have three children and they still have to go to school even though the quality of education has decreased dramatically. If I leave, who will rebuild the country?

I do not claim that the idea of leaving the country never came to my mind; I lost my house and now live by my mother-in-law’s house. But when I hear the tragic stories that Syrians face Nadias Erinnerungenoutside the country, I say to myself: If you were to go, then where? When? How? All the neighboring countries are treating the Syrians with disrespect, putting them in camps. They are fed up with them. They force them to work for lower wages because they know they can’t go back home. And the cost of living in Amman is as high as in Munich. One of my friends went there for three months in order to work for an international organisation and had to spend half of her salary only on rent. With all due respect, I can’t imagine myself being called a ‘refugee’; I’d rather die here. I think that after the crisis the land will be promising in terms of business and job opportunities. There will be a lot of investment to re-build the country. I am optimistic about the future, but at the same time I totally understand people who choose to leave the country. Some people have no choices.”

assad

Asaad: “Nadia is too much of an idealist. People need to think more realistically about the future. I do love my country and I am proud of being born here, but the country has been destroyed. I lost my house, my neighborhood,and my memories. I can’t complete my studies and was fired from work because of my opinion about the crisis. Some close members of my family have passed away. So why would I stay? What for? Of course it isn’t worth it to stay here, and I will leave the country whenever I have the chance.

I am 31 years old, not married. I am really disappointed and tired of having to live here and I see no future for Syria anymore. Maybe the next generation will have the chance to enjoy the Syria that we were used to.

I asked Asaad if he was fully aware of the difficulties he would face outside Syria.

Asaad im FlugzeugAsaad: “For me it’s as if I am in a new place now. I must start looking for a new job, and even if I find one I am sure the salary won’t even be enough to rent a house in order to get married. If I have kids, they wouldn’t be able to receive a good education and I will have to worry about them every time they go to school. I’d rather emigrate to Europe, the USA, or even Australia. It’s my chance right now, and if don’t use it I am afraid that I will regret it for the rest of my life.”

 

I asked him how he viewed the people who tried to illegally immigrate and the potentially deadly risks they take to reach Europe.

Asaad: “I wouldn’t mind taking those risks for the sake of a better future. I know many of my friends who have arrived in Sweden and they are very happy. Now they can guarantee a great future for their kids, and that’s exactly my point: Syria is no longer a place for children.”

I asked Asaad what he thought about those who had the chance to apply for asylum in Western countries but chose to come back.diskussion

Asaad: “I don’t agree with them. Well, they must have their reasons. However, I think some of them live in relatively secure areas. I am sure that they either have a second nationality, so they can travel whenever they want to, or they have left their children and families outside Syria and have come back to follow up on their businesses. There are people who want to retain their interests and their network of power which they have built up over the years. They are not ready to give it up easily like this, to move to another place where they have no power or will need to establish a new network of interests. It’s not about me … it’s about our children. According to UNICEF Syria is now one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child.”

Nadia (countering): “According to Oxfam ‘more than 65 percent of Syrian refugees surveyed fear they may not be able to go back to Syria.”

This type of discussion, with starkly differing views, can be heard every day in Syria.

For whom are we dying?

I can never forget my mother’s voice coming through the walls from the Rasha-Syrialiving room, screaming his name: “Ehab … what?!! He’s been shot …,” crying loudly and trying desperately to hear something else through the telephone line coming from his office at the central police station in Damascus. In seconds we were all there, trying to dial the hospital’s number to hear that he was still alive.

It was Friday, 16 March, 2012. The best thing about Fridays is the late family breakfast, or ‘brunch’ in European culture. My father would make the best breakfast ever and we would all sit there eating and chatting.

That day felt good. There was nothing suspicious about it. My sister was describing the day before, with the big march in Damascus supporting President Assad on the same date as the anniversary of the Syrian revolution, 15 March.

Anti and pro-government demonstrators were marching, demonstrating their stands and supporting their sides – of course each limited to their own area, either government-held or opposition-held. I didn’t go. I decided not to get involved in politics but to stay focused on what I believe in. I care for the well-being of people and not of opportunist leaders.

My sister told us about Ehab, my cousin, how he was standing there in his long black coat, with red cheeks, his hazel eyes covered with dark black sunglasses and his easily recognisable loud smile. He looked great and in a good health, she said. He was no longer the young boy from the hilly little village on the Mediterranean. He had become a lawyer and a police officer at the central police station, and he had a high rank and a good reputation in “modern city society”. I found it amazing how ideology-driven societies are very similar, like a ‘copy – paste’. George Orwell wrote about ‘Big Brother’. Children chant for a leader while others are condemned as ‘thought criminals’.

Ehab

Ehab with the lights of Damascus city at night

All these thoughts were wandering through my mind while my sister was describing the pro-Assad march. Why did we have to go through all of this? At that time big cities like Damascus and Aleppo were still untouched and life felt more than normal. We simply couldn’t see what was happening in other cities like Homs and Daraa. We didn’t see it coming. Maybe we didn’t want to see it coming.

There was discussion about the new government, about changes in the constitution and the introduction of new articles giving more rights to the people and showing democracy in the liberal state of the Syrian Arab Republic.

As they say, you only understand someone’s tragedy if you face a similar one, and unfortunately we did. We all got ready in a minute, squeezed into one car. My father didn’t allow me to drive. I wasn’t in the right state of mind. I was so unfocused, between trying to face the tragic reality and convincing myself that he was doing fine, that he might be injured and at the emergency room, but not dead. My mother didn’t stop crying all the way there. It felt like hours. Time was passing by so slowly, and the road was endless. I was hoping not to get to the hospital. I didn’t want to face it. Yet, I was the first one to run out of the car, leaving everyone in the parking lot and running to the emergency room.

Tens of men were standing outside with indescribable faces. A few had on long dark coats, and were smoking cigarettes passionately as if they were their last ones. Others were putting on military uniforms and holding old rifles. They looked tired, as if all the energy had been sucked out of their bodies. Their rifles were as powerless as they were and I was saying to myself: no wonder soldiers get killed on the battle field.

Inside was his elder sister, weeping and crying like a little baby. I knew then that was gone, that there was no chance of seeing him alive again. God had taken his final decision. Everything was so tragic after that single moment, with mixed feelings of sadness, love, hatred, and blame for those who had led us into all of this. Everyone in the family loved him so much. He was the one to bring everyone together and make us all laugh. We didn’t know how to inform his mother, who was sitting there in the little village, feeling proud of the children she had raised and what they had become.

They were eight children. Their father passed away when the youngest was one-and-a-half years old and the eldest was nearly 19. Their mother raised them on her own; they all went to school and received higher education. Education is the only means for poor people to become respected in their societies. They grew up, got married and had children of their own. They received their degrees and made her proud. She finally started to relax and enjoy being the beautiful woman, the mother of eight successful children.

Beerdigung

The funeral

We had to drive a long way to Lattakia the next day, to the funeral. He was lying in the ambulance driving ahead of us. We were in a convoy of about 50 cars driving from Damascus, between cautious and fast. Everyone was trying to be as careful as possible since there had been reports of ambulances being hijacked. The rebels needed them to transport and treat their wounded. If they took them to city hospitals, they got arrested.

After four hours’ drive we arrived at the hilly village. His pictures decorated the narrow mountain road from the main entrance to the village to his family house. The village was proudly wedding the groom; but this groom was a martyr. He was carried on shoulders all the way to his mother’s house. She didn’t have the chance to see his face before he was gone for good. The last time she had visited him in Damascus was two months before. The coffin was closed and wrapped in the Syrian flag. This is how they honor martyrs. The ceremony was over. He was back to earth now. She got to keep the flag, handed over to her by a high-ranking police officer. These are the rules. Even though these were the most painful moments in my life, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: why did we have to go through this? For whom are we dying and losing our beloved ones? What is the cause we are fighting for? I felt so lost in my thoughts.

That evening, after the prayers and all the ceremonies were over, women started to come, gathering in a separate section from the men. At night, all the relatives and close friends met for dinner to support the close family. Everyone was so mired in grief, with rivers of tears running down their faces. My aunt, his mother, was inviting us to the dinner table, saying: you came a long way today; come and eat something. You need your energy for the coming few days.”

She was the grieving mother, yet she was standing there so strong, trying to hide her pain. She would let it out when she was alone in her room holding his passport-size picture tight to her chest and smelling the scarf he left at home when he was there last time for the funeral of our grandmother three months before.

I can never forget her face, red cheeks and deep blue eye. She has the genes of my grandfather. She’s hurt, she lost her closest son but she had to stay strong for the rest of her children, as she did before when their father passed away. She had faith and believed in destiny. “This is God’s will and we all have to trust that God is choosing the best for us”.

We were talking and trying to recall the events. How did this whole thing happen? Many reasons and stories made the rounds. Everyone was contributing to the conversation, which kept getting louder and louder.

Her voice came calmly in the middle of everything and suddenly everyone was quiet: “He’s gone; blaming others won’t bring him back. It has happened and we have to live with it now. We can’t keep killing each other. We don’t do revenge, this is not our culture”.

Blick

My morning view from the balcony overlooking the graveyard covered by trees

I always remember him with a big smile on his face, so I smile back. I wanted to visit him at the family graveyard, but I couldn’t. I still refuse this idea maybe, and I like the picture I always visualise in my head. I can overlook the graveyard from the balcony of our house there. It is a beautiful view. It brings comfort and peace of mind. He is in a better place, they say. The last time I saw him was 16 days before. We had family dinner for my 30th birthday. I was back from a business trip and brought lots of cheese from Paris airport. I wanted to invite him for dinner at home on Thursday the 15th but I didn’t. I wish I had.

This is not just my story, it is the story of every house in Syria now; every wall holds a portrait of a family member with a black ribbon in the top corner. Every destroyed house tells stories of the last joyful moments under their roofs, of the loud laughter and of tender mothers putting their children to bed. The war is bad; it takes away people we love, so it must stop.

I’m writing this on the third anniversary of the death of my beloved and closest cousin at the age of 32. He was my childhood friend and the elder brother whom I never had. This day is also the third anniversary of the start of the uprising in Syria, the revolution, the war. Since then more than 150,000 people have been killed, kidnapped, arrested, tortured to death, slaughtered. Nine million have lost their homes, between the refugees and the displaced. There has been the wholesale destruction of human heritage going back thousands of years, of human history, of infrastructure and of people’s souls. Humanity has lost its humanity in the Syria War.

Hunger takes the dignity away

In times of war, the media, people, and the international community only talk about battle in terms of Rasha-Syriaresults: who’s winning and which party has lost the most. Each promotes the party they are supporting and cheers for their achievements, and totally ignores any signs that they may be losing. Reports on the death toll are compiled to support their cases. We exchange these numbers as well, use them in our reports, in daily conversations and discussions, subconsciously ignoring the fact that behind these numbers are families and beloved ones left behind to deal with their own sorrows and losses. They had their dreams as well, just like any one of us. They wanted to have a decent job, get married and have a baby. Some of them already had a baby. One new-born baby, three months old, came to this life to learn his father had gone away.

Strange post on facebook

Strange post on facebook

I can’t forget the moment when I saw this post on Facebook: a strange photo collage under the title “collective family funeral” – four children and their father killed by a grenade in their car as the father drove his children to school. I didn’t know the family or anyone close to them, but just the idea of connecting their pictures to the horrific event made my tears flow unendingly. They were a happy family, all together, trying to live normal lives because they had no other choice: they couldn’t leave.

Trying to survive and maintain a certain level of dignity is the concern of millions of Syrians. The refugee camp is simply not an option.

We talk about explosions and bombings. We forget to mention the amount of suffering in places under siege. I never imagined in my life that the day would come to talk about people dying from hunger in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people in different cities and villages in Syria are living in very difficult and inhuman conditions in their sealed-off villages. If the area is held by the rebel forces then it is besieged by the government, and vice versa. They get no food, no drinking water, no medicine, and no nothing. In Moukhayyam Yarmouk, known as the Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus, thousands of people were under siege for more than five months (there are different reports about the exact time frame, and no one has been able to confirm the duration).

car bombing in Damascus

A street in Damascus after a car bombing

I heard stories from people who have contacts there or from those who managed to escape somehow that people are dying of hunger. A 50-year-old father was found dead in his house. He had starved to death. According to witness’ statements, the number has exceeded 50 people now. Mothers are trying anything possible to feed their children, boiling water with spices they find here and there, adding some taste without any nutritional impact. Others are collecting different kinds of grass from the public gardens, boiling or grilling it just to fill their stomachs with something. Such stories are repeated across Syria.

Syrian Arab Red Crescent

Volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent carrying elderly lady from the besieged Palestinian Refugee Camp

When speaking of people who were poor in Syria before the conflict, we would say: “They are so poor they can’t afford to provide bread for their families” yet this was considered an exaggeration. Everyone was able to have bread and eat something before going to bed. Poverty existed in Syria before the war but never on the level of making one lose one’s dignity. Neighbours and relatives always supported each other. If you cooked something you would think of offering your neighbor a small portion, and they would never return the plate empty. They would wait till they also cooked something interesting and then bring

Palestinian Refugee camp

Under siege, people from the Palestinian Refugee camp queuing up and waiting for their food baskets

you back the dish with some nice food in it. They would even apologise for not returning the empty plate and probably wait for a couple of weeks till they found something suitable. Food is very important in our culture and if you are visiting during any time of the day you will be offered food. “Stay for lunch, you must eat something with us … we will prepare a quick dinner now and you must stay.” It doesn’t matter if you are poor, rich, or middle class. Syrians have always found ways to be good hosts. There is always enough food to offer our guests. Food is always present, at weddings, at funerals, at birthdays and at any other simple form of social gathering.

 

Now they can’t do it anymore. They have to economise. They have to save to ensure their children always have something to eat. The reserves are gone and there is nothing left to feed their children now. They are deprived.

Recently the Syrian official media was full of reports on delivering food and trying to get the people out, to give them shelter elsewhere. People were happy to leave, to receive a piece of bread. The question is: Why were they made to wait and live in these horrible conditions for all this time? Every side claims that they are doing their best, but where is the truth? In the Syrian official media one can hear about how the rebels are shooting at aid workers and preventing the aid materials from reaching people in need and about how they sell things and control prices on the black market – that one kilo of rice is equal to the price of one gram of gold! Then on the other hand you hear stories about people who tried to leave the area to get food for their children or to escape, and then they got caught and arrested at a Syrian military check point. It is again this circle of blaming and pushing back the wheel to the beginning of the uprising in Syria and trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong and how it is going to end and if Assad will hang on for longer.

I always wonder if the situation would become different if everyone stopped thinking of their own interest for a while and focused on reducing the humanitarian suffering. One of the first things we learn at school is about basic human need, which starts with shelter and then food. Now we are in the 21st century and we have people dying of hunger and without shelter. Now, in Syria.

Hungry kids don’t make snow men

For the third time last Christmas, Father Christmas forgot to pass by.Rasha-Syria Now, children no longer wait for their gifts; they have bigger fears to deal with. They need to find shelter and food, and they need to keep warm to survive winter. They are grownups now.

When it snows in Syria, children and adults consider it a festive time. They put on all kinds of warm clothes they can find at home – scarfs, gloves, boots, everything – and go out in the streets or to the nearby parks to play with the snow and make a snow man. You could hear their laughter from far away in the street.

Damaskus im Dezember

Damascus old city on a December day

Now, everything has gone. It’s been three years now: No more Christmas warmth in the cold snow. Distractions are everywhere, and every house has a sad story to tell: women in endless mourning, children asking “when is Dad coming back home? Why has he stayed away for so long this time? Can’t he at least speak to us on the phone?!”

Street lights are dark, Christmas trees have been replaced by flowers on graves. The church bells sing in a low sound, trying to spread a message of peace and happiness in the land of war.

Farah was a music teacher at a kindergarten in Damascus; she passed away at the age of 25 after being hit by a mortar on her way back from school in late November. She had a sweet voice and used to sing in the church choir. She was engaged and planning her wedding soon after Christmas. I can’t even imagine how hard it is for her fiancé to survive with this horrible incident. Just like many others, they had dreams and a life to live, but unfortunately they shared their destiny with a mortar.

Wetter in Damaskus

Weather forecast

In Syria today, there are more than 6.52 million internally displaced people and 9.35 million affected people – more than half of the country’s population. Most of them are facing the most difficult living circumstances they ever had to deal with. They are living on construction sites, with no doors, or windows to protect against the chilly wind. The roofs leak rain water. There is no fuel or electricity for hot water for a shower. Back to the old times: They are burning everything they find in fires so that they can warm up their tired hands.

When I started the needs assessment to analyse the most important needs for displaced people in Syria and how we can meet these needs as a humanitarian organisation, I was wandering if providing a blanket or a jacket would be sufficient. Is it enough? At the same time, I can’t provide everything; we have limited resources.

Time passed and we started the distribution targeting 100,000 displaced and affected people in Syria. It was then that my question was loudly answered by young Ahmad, 7, standing in front of me in the courtyard of a Damascene house in the old city of Damascus, with the rain water gathered in the corner, contributing to the wet wind blowing and running through the broken windows.

Der 8-jährige Ahmad

Ahmad gave me hope

He looked at me with sad wide eyes full of stories to tell, and said with a shy smile, “Thank you very much Rasha. I like the jacket. At least I can be warm on my way to school now.” He was wearing sandals, with no socks. His toes were blue-red, yet his hands were as warm as the tears in his eyes. He felt grateful, he had hope again. Ahmad gave me hope despite the situation he’s currently living in. He made me trust that I am doing the right thing, even if it is small or maybe not enough or not reaching each and every one in need. It is still contributing to bringing back hope to a child.

It’s three years on. The war in Syria started as a revolution, was then misused by several parties and took the shape of an armed conflict, which then escalated into a sectarian war till it finally took shape in the last couple of months as a war against terrorism and “the Islamic war in the Holly Land of Syria” as the extremist Islamite militias claim. The death toll has now reached 150,000, children, women and men. Families are left behind without any source of livelihood.