Syria’s five year anniversary: voices from the displaced

Five years of war in Syria and what do we have now ? A broken country, a broken population, resentment towards people who deserve only compassion, a slipslide between dictators and extremists in what was one of the most beautiful countries on earth, and a tangle that will take decades to untie.

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Nearly five million Syrians have been registered as refugees abroad, according to the latest UNHCR figures. Experiences of displaced people range from the just-about-tolerable to the truly appalling, and sometimes fatal.

The response to a humanitarian crisis like the one we are currently seeing often forgets the lives people led before the circumstances that led them to flee their country. Europe has, largely, erased how Syrians were people living lives as sophisticated as could be when hamstrung by a dictatorship that poured money into everything but provision for the population. They had hobbies, educations, businesses, families and fun.

Three Syrians who have now left the country share their experiences of life before and after the conflict.

Mohamad Taha is from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, and now lives in south Turkey

2011
I was born in Deir Ezzor in 1995. I loved my city, the way of life, and the existence I had there. I had a lot of friends whom I cherished and I could not have lived or done anything without them.
It was my dream to learn and study journalism but I could not because the revolution broke out and I joined it. At the start of this peaceful movement I was in secondary school and all I could do was scream and fight against injustice, and ask for dignity and dignity for myself and my friends. I engaged in the peaceful movement and my friends and I organised peaceful demonstrations calling for the fall of the regime. That was in the first month of the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution and after that Fridays in April became historical moments. My job was shooting photography and video and sending it to satellite channels to tell the world what was happening in Syria. Groups  of young intellectuals were able to continue and supplied the satellite channels with video that we were filming.
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Mohamad filmed the airstrikes on Deir Ezzor

I was a co-ordinating member of the Deir Ezzor demonstrations and I recorded everything.
June 2012 saw the start of the armed conflict in the city. The Free Syrian Army was able to take the city from the regime and meanwhile I was forced to flee my city because of heavy shelling from regime forces. A large proportion of the civilian population fled to other cities in Syria, to find a safe place. It was not long before my family left my city to find a place safer than Deir Ezzor; they could not stay in that fearsome city which was filled with the sounds of missiles and grievance. But I returned as part of the coordination efforts. We had a small office there and a small amount of equipment – cameras, Internet, lighting – and after a short break I returned to filming again. There were only a few of my friends from the coordinating group left.
I buried many of my friends and all I have remaining of them are memorial gardens, in the grounds of the city
Every day my faith in the revolution and my strength increased, after I lost numerous friends to the violence that the regime used against us. I carried many of them and buried many of them and all I have remaining of them are memorial gardens, in the grounds of the city.  I went to them each day and talked to them. And then I cried a bit and went to my former house which was caught by artillery fire, when we would wait, frightened in the darkness, for calm and the morning, to be able to leave.
I would go to take photos and try to convey the message of the revolution and everything that the regime had just committed.
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Mohamad was badly wounded in an airstrike and fled to Turkey

I would climb up towers to be able to take photos of the regime that no decision maker wants to see, because they have common interests. By February 2014 I would be kept awake all night by various types of missile strikes. I went to take photos and it was the most frightening time of all – I did not know where the strikes were coming from, I could only hear them and a few seconds later one fell behind me and I was wounded in the groin, stomach and legs. The streets were almost empty and there was no body there to take me to the field hospital. Out of the middle of the white haze came a car which took me to a field hospital where I was put under anaesthetic. I underwent surgery but the wounds were bad because of my fall and there was not enough time to take the shrapnel out from my right leg. It is now stable and it has become part of me and I see in it a part of the way to freedom and Syria’s democratic future of pluralism.
About a week later I left the area around the city to go to my family somewhere that would be a little safer. After 20 days, when I could stand up again, we headed to Turkey to complete my treatment.
A small part of me hoped I could return to Deir Ezzor. But Daesh was faster than me
Daesh were controlling 20 per cent of Deir Ezzor governate and I took a dirt track with no traffic. Getting to Turkey was tough and a small part of me hoped I could return to Deir Ezzor. But Daesh were faster than me and a month later they took control of the governate and the activists started leaving the city. I did not leave the work that I had started and I still follow the regime and Daesh, and wait for the difficult victory, and a life with dignity and free from all forms of injustice.
I do not intend to migrate or leave for a European country, but I hope to return to a Syria without the criminal Assad regime and with freedom and justice. We don’t want much: just the right to live in dignity, and freedom for all.

Rawan*, 24, lives in a town in eastern Germany

2011

Before the revolution I was in my first year of university. I was excited about college and living in the capital of Syria [Damascus].

My family had enough money to live a very good life and we used to travel every week and go to restaurants and on holidays. I have one sister, who is younger than me.

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Rawan lived in the Syrian capital Damascus for her studies before the conflict. Photo: Lizzie Porter

I had the freedom to do what I wanted, but no political freedom because I had previous problems with the authorities, particularly in 2009, when the military intelligence services summoned me to answer questions about my political activities on the internet. I used to read articles criticising the government and comment on them with an alias name. I also used to read some magazines and newspapers that were against the Syrian regime, which were obtained secretly : it was a crime to even think about politics. Most members of my family were also prisoners of the regime for political reasons.

I also used to read some magazines and newspapers that were against the Syrian regime, which were obtained secretly : it was a crime to even think about politics

My hobbies included sports and I was in one of the handball teams. I used to attend classes to learn how to play the guitar, but after I was summoned by the security services I couldn’t go anymore because the teacher was afraid of me.

I used to write articles and put my thoughts on paper, and keep them to myself.

I had a few friends because I preferred to stay alone.

Video footage from protests in Damascus, 2011

I got involved in the revolution from the beginning, because when they started in both Egypt and Tunisia, I hoped that the same would happen in Syria too. I had been waiting for that moment for many years. First, I started writing news and articles on the Internet and Facebook, and then I was involved in protests and strikes in Damascus .

Most of the protests in Damascus were met by the regime forces. They used to hit people and arrest them. Sometimes they shot at us.

I helped families who were fleeing from the regime troops, and also those who had prisoners, by collecting food and medicine for them as a humanitarian activist. Really, though, I was a media activist: I used to record what happened at protests on video and publish it.

Most of the protests in Damascus were met by the regime forces. They used to hit people and arrest them. Sometimes they shot at us.

During the revolution, I was summoned for investigation many times by the military intelligence services. I was arrested for two months because of my activities against the government. I saw horrible things in prison and witnessed torture at every turn.

I tried to leave Syria so many times but I couldn’t because I was banned from travelling by the regime. They used to summon me, bother me in my life, and humiliate me at regime check points on the roads every time I moved from city to city. They shot at my parent’s house one time, and broke into the house I rented in Damascus, where I was living and trying to complete my studies.

Finally, when I was able to leave, I went to Lebanon, then Turkey, then by a rubber boat to Greece. I crossed through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria by foot and train, heading to Germany.

2016

Life here is better than Syria because it’s safe and there is always electricity and water. I have more freedom in my life than back in my country.

But I have had lots of difficulties too. My husband and I have had lots of problems, from the people who hate refugees, to the people who are responsible for us. They promise us a lot of good things but they lie.

When I had just arrived in Germany, they told me they would take my fingerprint just for “security reasons”. But afterwards, they told me that was an asylum fingerprint and I could not leave Germany any more. They promised me that in three weeks my asylum case would be finished, and I would be given residence. But here I am after four months and I have nothing.

We arrived with no clothes but those we had been wearing since Syria and when we asked the social worker in the camp that we needed a change of clothes she yelled at us awfully.

They sent us to a camp but the security officers there said that there were no places, so we were told to leave and find somewhere else. We did not know anything about Germany or the language or how to do things. Then my husband and I went to a camp in Hamburg that some people had told us about. We slept on shoes for three days. There was no place to stay in, no beds – only one blanket and we slept in corridors on the floor. We received no food or money, nothing. We ran away to another camp, where they told us that we had to sleep on floor, without a single blanket. So we left again. We went to a camp near Berlin. First they put us in a good place when we had beds. The food was terrible but they gave us money so we bought things to eat. We arrived with no clothes but those we had been wearing since Syria and when we asked the social worker in the camp that we needed a change of clothes she yelled at us awfully.

After that they transferred us to another place. They said it would be better and made us sign papers written in German, which we could not understand. The social worker said it that was for transferring between camps.

They sent us to a horrible place where we live now. It is a converted school where three families sleep to a room. There are camp beds that are unsuitable for sleeping on. It was really horrible, and told us it was only an emergency camp and we would stay there for two weeks maximum. They gave us a small amount of money: they said we had taken a lot previously and had agreed to the deal in the last camp. That’s when we felt cheated. We tried to tell them that we had received none of the money detailed in the papers but they did not listen and treated us badly, as if we were trying to steal from them.

I did not ask for money; I only wanted to help but I can’t work in snow with no warm clothes. When I work and miss one of the meals in the camp I get no food in work. How can I work under those circumstances?

Life in this camp is very hard. They try to humiliate you in every way. They do not give us enough food and they always promise to send us to a flat but nothing happens. They said that we should learn German but they don’t sign us on for lessons. They tell us that we should go and find them, but if we ask people from this town to help, they don’t help us at all. Some treat us so badly, as if we came from an uncivilised country.

I asked to do voluntary work because I don’t have anything to do so they made a contract for me to work for a month and a half. When I went to work it was five hours of hard labour in snow and cold weather. I was made to carry heavy things and work like other employees but for nothing – not even a paper that I could add to my CV. I did not ask for money; I only wanted to help but I can’t work in snow with no warm clothes. When I work and miss one of the meals in the camp I get no food in work. How can I work under those circumstances?

A month ago a man in a nearby room with whom we share a bathroom sexually harassed me. When I told the social worker at the camp and asked for another room on another floor, she did nothing and refused to move us. But when a German employee in the camp’s kitchen told the social worker that the same thing happened to her, from the same man, they told the police about him.

When we first arrived in Germany, we were so excited and we wanted to learn German, help, integrate into this community. But now we don’t want to do any of those things. We feel so much despair and we lost our hope in the human beings in this country. We are afraid that we will remain as refugees forever, no matter we do and no matter what we try.

I’m trying to learn German so I can attend a college and continue studying. I am just waiting to get accepted as a refugee. Then I will be able to do what I want, or leave for a place where I might have better chances.

* Rawan is a pseudonym

****

Karam*, 23, is Rawan’s husband and lives with her in Germany

2011

Before the revolution, I was studying at high school in Salamiyeh [a city in central Syria]. I had two brothers and one sister, and we lived a quiet life. We had enough money to live to a good standard. Most of the time, I was with my friends or studying. My hobbies were hanging out with my friends and playing video games. I always enjoyed reading English or other foreign novels. In my life I had the freedom to do what I wanted, except anything to do with politics. It was a red line that we could not pass. I was not involved in it but some of my family members were: one of my uncles was in prison for five years and my other uncle from my mother’s side was in prison too. I used to hear stories and sat in on secret conversations with members of my family in which they talked about politics, and what happened, and was happening in our country.

In my life I had the freedom to do what I wanted, except anything to do with politics. It was a red line that we could not pass.

I got involved in protests and strikes at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. I remember one protest in my city, one month after the start on March 15. It was the first protest with a large number of people and most of them were students at universities, and educated people. It was such a beautiful, peaceful protest, with only roses and Syria’s flags. We were just calling for freedom and justice.

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Rawan and Karam lived in Salamiyeh before the war Photo: Bertramz/Wiki

I remember another protest that took place at the funeral of a man called Jamal who was killed in Damascus by a sniper from the regime. It was at the grave yard which is located outside the city between the mountains. The bullets started to fall on us like rain from a nearby military base located on a mountain; there was nowhere to hide except between the headstones , and we were of course not armed at that time.

One man died and there were a lot of wounded people. All I could think was, “Really ! Those people who were shooting on us are people of my country too!“

The Al-Assad forces always had one method – extreme violence and brutality – to deal with the protests.

I decided to leave Syria after four years of war. The indirect reason was that the other forces who were against the Syrian regime turned into extremists and I couldn’t see a place for myself anywhere among any of them.

The direct reason was one incident in particular. I was sitting in my house and some of the regime forces from my city came and threatened and humiliated me, so my family decided to send me to safety.

I left Syria via Lebanon and then went to Turkey. I stayed there for a week and then went to Greece in a rubber boat . I stayed in Athens for three months, working anywhere I could to save some money to complete my trip. When I was ready I joined a group of other Syrians and we started our journey. We walked through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, where I got caught by the police who put me in jail for one week for illegally passing the borders. Then they sent me back to Serbia to try again. I went through Hungary again, to Austria, and from there I took a train to Germany.

 

When I try to go outside of the school I get insulted in the streets, and I go back disappointed.

 

2016

Now I’m living in an old school, waiting to be accepted in Germany as a refugee. I have been here already for four months and I keep waiting. I do some German language classes and have asked for anything to do as a volunteer. But I receive no answer, so basically I’m doing nothing.

I am just sitting there, and when I try to go outside of the school I get insulted in the streets, and I go back disappointed.

*Karam is a pseudonym

*****

 

 

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