Three stories from Syrians outside Syria
A decade of conflict has brought countless stories of terror, loss and grief for the people of Syria. But there are also stories of hope. Three young Syrians share theirs with us.
Last month marked 10 years since the beginning of the Syrian uprising when protesters took to the streets across the country demanding freedom from President Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian regime. The ensuing conflict has displaced over half of Syria's population - some 12 million people - around five million of whom were forced to leave the country. The majority of displaced Syrians live in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, and around one million have sought asylum in Europe.
For the millions of Syrians forced to flee their homes and try to build new lives elsewhere, the past decade has brought unimaginable grief and hardship. The millions displaced to neighbouring countries wracked by political instability and economic pressures have escaped war only to face poor living conditions, poverty, and a lack of access to basic services. For those who travel to Europe, they are typically met with lengthy asylum processes, and often hostility and discrimination.
But despite the myriad of difficulties, there are many stories of hope. Here, three young Syrians living in countries around the world share their stories from Syria and how they began to rebuild their lives away from home after fleeing the conflict.
John, 27, Zug, Switzerland. When the first protesters took to the streets of Syria in March 2011, John was in the final year of his electrical engineering degree at university in Aleppo. Reluctant to leave their home, his family remained in the city for a further three years, hopeful that the violence that had erupted in their city would soon stop. “For my mother it was difficult,” he says. “She said it will get better, let’s wait another year... but it never got better, it only got worse.”
As daily life became more dangerous in Syria and the two sons faced the prospect of mandatory military service, the family realised they had no choice but to leave their home. With relatives already living in Switzerland, they travelled to the country on a family visa in 2014.
“For my mother it was difficult. She said it will get better, let’s wait another year... but it never got better, it only got worse.”
“At that time it was quite difficult because all my friends, colleagues, and family were there,” says John. “It was emotional and difficult when you have the feeling that everyone is still there but you are the only one who is leaving. But after that, two years later, all of them were gone.”
The family applied for asylum - a process which took nearly two years. Unable to work while his asylum application was being processed, John turned his attention to getting to know the country and learning German until he had the language level required to attend a Swiss university. Having missed the last year of his degree due to the conflict in Syria, he then restarted his studies at the University of Lucerne, going on to complete a four-year degree in applied sciences.
He now works as a software engineer in the city of Zug and volunteers as a mentor with the Swiss Red Cross helping other refugees who have just arrived in Switzerland find their feet. He says he has almost no friends or family left in Syria, with nearly everyone he knows now scattered in countries across the world. In his home city of Aleppo, which was home to nearly six million people in 2011, only around 1.6 million people remain.
“These 10 years have gone by very fast, and no one realises what has happened,” he says. “For a few months at the beginning it was a revolution asking for freedom and democracy, and after that it was totally something different. I saw people shouting against the regime, asking for their freedom, for their democracy, and then a couple of months later there were jets in the air bombing the city.”
“The rest of the world in my opinion is not really interested in the human catastrophe which is happening [in Syria] right now. They were more interested during the war. But with time, it's being forgotten.”
Although he misses his country, he has no plans to try to return soon. Indeed, he says that the prospect of Syrians being able to return home at present is unthinkable - despite recent claims by countries such as Denmark, which has sparked international outrage for stripping nearly 200 Syrian refugees of their residency and insisting that some parts of the country are safe to return to. This ignores the ongoing political instability, the absence of basic infrastructure in many cities including Aleppo, and the deteriorating economic situation in the country. “You cannot ask anybody to go back because the people are suffering, but in a different way right now,” says John. “If it's not war, it's not the bombs, it's no electricity.”
“The rest of the world in my opinion is not really interested in the human catastrophe which is happening [in Syria] right now,” he adds. “They were more interested during the war. But with time, it's being forgotten.”
But for the millions of people housed in refugee camps on the country’s borders, or facing poverty in neighbouring countries, he hopes there will soon be a solution that allows them to return to Syria one day: “Peace really starts when those millions come back home.”
Nuraa, 20, Izmir, Turkey. Nuraa has many happy memories of her childhood in the city of Aleppo. “We were very happy in our country and our life was beautiful and easy,” she says. “My life had been all about playing, going to school, and going to the [neighbouring countryside] in the summer. It was a perfect life for a small child. But after 2011, our life changed.”
Life in Aleppo became increasingly difficult for Nuraa’s family over the next few years, but they were reluctant to leave their home. That was until one day in 2014, when a bomb was dropped on Nuraa’s school while she was sitting an exam. “I can remember that moment clearly,” she says. “I was so scared, my heart was beating so fast. We could have died on that day - not only me, but all the students in our school.”
After Nuraa miraculously survived the blast unharmed, her parents decided they had no choice but to flee Syria and seek safety in a neighbouring country for themselves and their five daughters. They sought refuge in Turkey, which now hosts over 3.4 million refugees from Syria, but where at the time there was very little support for Syrians who arrived in the country.
At just 13 years old, Nuraa had to go to work to earn money for her family. “When I saw students going to school, I cried and felt very bad because I wanted to complete my education but I couldn't,” she says. “But I didn't give up.”
Although she admits the two years she spent working in Turkey were extremely difficult, she was determined to use them to learn the language in order to communicate with fellow students when she was able to return to school. “Working at a young age is very difficult. I was a child, I wanted to go to a park or go to a garden or play with friends, but I didn't have any friends here, and we needed money,” she says. “But the great thing about doing work was learning the language.”
Nuraa learned both Turkish and Kurdish to add to her English and Arabic. Not only could she communicate easily when she eventually enrolled in a local school and make new friends, but it also allowed her to volunteer as an interpreter for the Turkish Red Crescent at her local community centre.
“If the war finishes, I'm sure all Syrian people will go back home, and I’ll be the first one.”
Now at university in Izmir studying international relations, she hopes her language skills will help her pursue a career in the humanitarian field. She is particularly passionate about women’s issues and hopes to one day return to Syria to set up an organisation to support Syrian women. “When I help one woman I’ll make a difference in the world,” she says.
Despite the hardships she and her family face in Turkey, where the pandemic has had a particularly devastating impact on Syrian refugee families, Nuraa joins John in her concern for millions of people internally displaced in the country, housed in refugee camps. “These people need our help,” she says. “They don't need food or clothes or tents, they just need a peaceful place and they need a good life.”
Although she and her family have built a life for themselves in Turkey, she says she too will always dream of one day returning home. “Going back to Syria is all Syrian people’s dream,” she says. “We all need to go back to our country, but after the war has finished because going back now is too dangerous. I miss my city, my home and my bedroom. I miss my childhood friends, my aunties and my uncles in Syria. So, if the war finishes, I'm sure all Syrian people will go back home, and I’ll be the first one.”
Ashraf, 30, Harderwijk, the Netherlands. When the conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, Ashraf was volunteering with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the city of Salamiyah. A trained pharmacist, his days consisted of distributing medicine and other items to people impacted by the fighting and delivering first aid to the wounded. He later went on to work with the United Nations in Aleppo. But as the conflict intensified and the situation in the city deteriorated, Ashraf was left with no choice but to flee the country and travelled to the Netherlands where he sought asylum in 2019.
Soon after he arrived in the Netherlands, the Covid-19 pandemic struck Europe. Ashraf was staying in an asylum centre in Rotterdam when the local Red Cross organisation put out a call for volunteers with a medical background to help the nearby hospital cope with the high numbers of patients.
He noticed certain similarities working during the pandemic and his earlier work during the war in Syria. “People were reacting in the same way - with fear, because they don’t know what is going on,” he says. “But there are also very different aspects of dealing with the crisis in Syria and the crisis in the Netherlands. In Syria, you know where the front line is and where the danger is coming from, but with coronavirus in the Netherlands you don’t have that - you should always be prepared.”
“I stayed for a long time in the Netherlands, with no work and no responsibility, so it was good to do something meaningful again.“
Not allowed to work while his application for refugee status was being processed, Ashraf says his volunteering gave him a new purpose, and helped him start to build a new life in the Netherlands. “You have this feeling that you are doing something right and you’re on the right track,” he says. “I stayed for a long time in the Netherlands, with no work and no responsibility, so it was good to do something meaningful again. You are making your life meaningful after months of doing nothing. The biggest thing is the pleasure of seeing the smile of another person. That’s very rewarding, because those smiles and looks and gratitude are worth something.”
Like many Syrian refugees who seek asylum in Europe, the process took a number of years. Away from his wife and family, who remain in Syria, Ashraf found the long wait frustrating. “A lot of time has been wasted,” he says. “Two years of my twenties were wasted with no work, with no aspiration, with nothing to do in my professional life, and away from my family.”
However, he used those two years to learn Dutch alongside his volunteering, later enrolling in a data engineering course. Now his refugee status has been granted, Ashraf hopes to restart his life pursuing a career in the humanitarian field, helping others affected by crises such as the conflict in Syria.
“I can understand that the world might perceive Syria as a violent, third-world-country or maybe even Syrians as victims,” he says. “But I want the people around the world to know that Syrians, despite media reports and politics, are one of the most diverse, inclusive, adaptive and resilient populations to have ever lived. They just were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”