Munich – I wake up early and look towards the large window in my room from my bed. All I can see is the grey blur of rain. I still can’t get used to it – constant rain and wind, even in July. Back home in Deir ez-Zor it would be hot. We’d probably be going to swim in a pool on the bank of the Euphrates, just underneath the Jesr al Moalk – our treasured and historic suspension bridge which most summer evenings would be packed with families taking a stroll. Despite the heat of the sun hanging limp in the sky above us, we would be sheltered by lush greenery leaning down towards the river. It was my oasis.
It haunts me to think of it now. My city and my afternoons beside the languidly flowing river with family and friends. Today, I live in my room sheltered from the rain in Germany, but my soul is still on the banks of the Euphrates in a city which is being wiped from the map.
Our suspension bridge is destroyed – pummelled into the Euphrates’ flowing waters in May 2013, its long history at the centre of my city now simply floating away with the rivers’ gentle current. My family house near the middle of the city, which my father had worked so hard to buy, has been damaged by shelling. Friends’ houses are gone. My school is flattened. There’s simply nothing there for me any more.
I’d been looking forward to my future in Syria. I had no worries or concerns other than those related to my education – the usual fears of exams that all of us have. I studied hard – English Literature, as I’d always been obsessed with the English language — and it felt like my life was complete, one headed towards an exciting destination. But now, living in a dislocated existence far from my home, even getting up is difficult. Every day, I need some form of encouragement just to continue the daily grind of life in exile – learning a brand new language, understanding an entire new system. It feels like I have lost control of my own life.
The war in Syria has taken me to an unknown point. It has wiped my life of everything I knew and understood, and taken me to a new world of uncertainty with nothing recognisable in its future, and nothing to hold on to.
Sipping coffee, I open my laptop and begin to scroll through the news to read and watch what has being going on at home. Facebook is always full of updates – news of battles, reports of missing friends or relatives, and of hunger, illness, and fear. Each status I read, each image I view, takes me further away from my treasured childhood memories. Now, they are simply a wisp of smoke I struggle to hold onto.
Today, my home city is at the centre of this savage war. Some neighbourhoods are controlled by IS (‘Islamic State’), whilst others are controlled by the regime, but encircled by an impenetrable IS siege. Basic human rights have all but disappeared – innocent civilians are forced to queue for scrapings of food, death falls from the skies, children’s education is being torn to pieces. You can’t even call it an existence. All are prisoners, trapped in a city being suffocated by two evils.
It is hard to think of the city’s perpetual hunger. Growing up, food was never short in Deir ez-Zor, and my childhood was a happy blur of going to school, playing with friends, and returning home to feasts prepared by my mother. Okra with fresh tomatoes and succulent lamb; small hand-made kebabs cooked over fires and served in warm and chewy Iraqi-style flat bread; sweet date Al-Kilijih biscuits which my mother always prepared and served fresh from the oven during Eid.
To think of family and friends, now living with only the most limited access to food, is impossible to bear. I rarely have contact with most of them now – I haven’t been able to reach some of them for months – but thinking of their growling stomachs from my home in Germany where I can find everything I want in the supermarket next door, my stomach twists into painful knots. Is it guilt? Is it solidarity? I don’t know, but it’s impossible to eat when I know they are struggling to even find bread.
I had never imagined my country being overtaken by war. It’s not a thought people living in ‘peace’ would ever likely have. But when protests started in Dera’a, I know that soon, the waves of revolution would reach my city. I remember meeting with university friends just a few days after news spread from Dera’a. There was so much optimism. Never, in our worst nightmares, did we think we would see our country consumed by such a terrible war. We simply – and naively – hoped that spring was on its way.
Soon, I was taking part in demonstrations. Despite the fact that security forces were regularly firing on us, I didn’t think about the dangers involved in taking part. The only fear going through my mind was how my father would respond if he found out about my involvement. He had always warned me to stay well away from political matters, but everything was changing – there was a role for my generation, and it was no longer the time to fear your parents.
On that first Friday, I stood outside the mosque with everyone. There was silence for five minutes as we stood there, waiting for something to happen. Then, from somewhere near the front, a man shouted “Syria wants freedom!”. I suppose that’s when everything changed. My old life of certainty stopped, and new one of confusion and disorder began.
Violence began to take over.
“This is going to destroy our country,” I remember exclaiming one evening as a group of us gathered at our friend Abdulaziz Sheikh’s house in the city to discuss the revolution. (Abdulaziz had become one of the most renowned activists in the city and was at the centre of our group of friends until he tragically died in a bomb attack in September 2012.) “We’ve got to continue being peaceful, and to work for political solutions”.
Many rejected this view. Friends started to criticise me. They told me that I had ‘abandoned the blood of the martyrs’, that I was a coward, that I didn’t understand the country and that I had turned my back on Syria.
“But our martyrs’ blood was for change, and we do not have to work through revenge and retaliation to respect and honour the dead. We must strive to achieve that change whilst avoiding spilling more blood!” But it felt like I was alone in saying these things – like I was singing a completely different song to everyone else in the city.
It wasn’t long before I found myself working with relief workers. Forced from our family home in June 2013 by an escalation in fighting, my family and I joined the large wave of people fleeing the city for the Deir ez-Zor countryside. People had nothing, and continued to be caught up in regime air strikes. Those in control of the area (FSA rebels) were doing everything they could – setting up bakeries, medical clinics and schools to cater for everyone. It was amazing to see – it was like a new Syria was growing there despite the harsh surroundings; a small seeding cautiously poking out through infertile earth. I wanted to be involved.
Soon, I was sent to work from Turkey along with my brother – in the beautiful city of Urfa, famous for Balıklı Göl (Abraham’s pool)i where Abraham was supposedly thrown into the fire by Nimrod – overseeing and administering the aid effort. Every few days, we’d drive medical supplies across the border and over to the more hard to reach displaced from Deir ez-Zor. Whichever route we took, the journey would always take us past countless refugee and IDP camps – seas of tents in unforgiving landscapes. But somehow, seeing them there, gave me strength. They strengthened my belief that Syrians’ will for life is stronger than death, and I remained convinced that sooner or later, the international community would step in to end the killing.
As the years passed, all my optimism began to fade. Our tragedy was continuing. It was simply not ending. Peace negotiations would come and go, but Syrians continued to live in cramped camps, kids continued to be prevented from going to school, and the elderly continued to be prevented from ending their days in peace surrounded by their families. And as IS began to march across my country, seizing towns and villages wherever its heavy boots landed, killing journalists and anyone attempting to deliver aid, everything was extinguished inside of me.
I couldn’t return to Syria. As a known aid worker, I would be killed. (Two good friends suffered this fate – caught by IS whilst driving medical supplies towards Deir ez-Zor, they simply disappeared. It was only through scrolling through the gruesome images of IS’ victims that we were able to discover their horrific fate). So I simply waited in my flat in Turkey, watching the news and desperately hoping that IS would be defeated and that I would be able to return to my family. A month passed. Two months. Six months. It was like being under house arrest. I couldn’t do anything to contribute positively to my country, and I couldn’t even do anything to contribute towards myself.
What should a man do when confronted with this chaos? Should he stick with it? Should he stay put, close to his country? Or should he leave? Should he try to make a life for himself so that, when this is all over, he has something to contribute? These thoughts tormented me for months – questions of how to remain truly loyal to Syria, to my family, and to myself.
After months of indecision, my brother and I decided to travel to Germany – illegally, overland through southern and central Europe. And now we are here, torn between creating new lives for ourselves whilst desperately following the developments back home and the fate of our city. Our lives have become blurred and confused, as our bodies and minds have become split between two different worlds. But there is still one source of solidity. And that is our identity as Syrians.
Once, on a train journey in Germany, a man looked up from his copy of Der Spiegel. Sitting opposite him, I’d been trying to practice my German by attempting to read the front page.
“You’re not from here, are you?” he asked, looking across at me. I explained I was from Syria. “Which city are you from?” he continued.
“I am from a beautiful city called Deir ez-Zor,” I responded, smiling as I remembered racing my friends across the suspension bridge on warm summer evenings.
“Oh! You’re from the land of the Caliphate!” he laughed, and returned to reading his newspaper.
I was upset. To him, I was not Syrian. According to him, I was from IS territory – from a land ruled by men who manipulate our religion in their quest for power. My identity had been lost.
But I am a Syrian. I left Syria for Syria, so that one day I will return home and have something to contribute to the re-building of my country. As the rain batters against my windows in Munich, my mind is elsewhere. It is on the banks of the Euphrates; it is in our family kitchen, sitting down to one of my mother’s meals; it is in my university classroom.
I have no idea where my life will go tomorrow, or next week, or next month. But I will forever remain connected to my homeland. If I have children here in Germany, they too will be connected. We will transcend the ethnic and religious divisions which others have sown into our country, and we will always strive for peace – even if that keeps us away from our land of birth.
Syria is my past, and Syria will be my future.
i This literally translates as ‘Fishy Lake/lake with fish’, but is better known as Abraham’s pool.