We met Rafiq from Syria, in Athens at the end of last year (his name has been changed to protect his identity), and he told us his story. Author of the newly published book “A Human Love Story- Journeys to the Heart”, Matthew Hopwood, has helped us put Rafiq’s story together.
Life before the war:
I was a student, I studied engineering. I finished my studies in 2015 during the war. All my university life was during the war. I had to stay at home when there was fighting in the streets. All we could do was stay inside and pray. There were friends and relatives dying. You couldn’t go out when they were fighting. The first time there was fighting in our street was September 2011. From the beginning it was a battlefield.
My family and I left the house & moved to the countryside, to relatives, where things were calmer. We had some peace there. We stayed there for two months and then moved back home. However it became more complicated again, the city became divided. Things became dangerous so we left again; four siblings and mum and dad.
After a year the regime took control of our home area again. Life became a little better. There is no place like home – which is why we returned. We stayed until 2015.
Our city became under siege in 2015. We were seven months under siege. It was so difficult. No electricity, lack of food and water. The queue for bread was seven hours long. Food was dropped in by planes. A six to seven hour queue for food was normal. There were more than 400,000 of us under siege in the city at that time. There was not enough food for everyone. All the people wanted to leave. To ease the pressure some people were allowed to leave during this time. Many people including me and my family left. But my father stayed. We have two houses and a car, it was everything he had achieved in his life and we were scared it would be taken if we all left it. Now we wish he had left with us. The city is still under siege, for three years now, and the situation is more dangerous.
I went alone to Damascus by plane as it was almost impossible by bus. I went to continue my studies further as a post graduate. I applied to Damascus University and was accepted.
During that time I decided to go to Europe because I knew that when my studies finished I would be called to join the army and I didn’t want to join the war, or kill anyone, or protect any oppressors. I told my family by phone. My mother encouraged me because she knew if I stayed my future would be so uncertain, so it was better to go. My father didn’t accept it at first, he wanted the family close and not to be separated. But later he accepted that I made the right decision.
In the beginning of 2016 I went from Damascus in the North of Syria and crossed into Turkey. I spent the night walking in the mountains, with many people and families I didn’t know. There was a family from Aleppo with two small daughters. They couldn’t carry everything in the mountains so I carried their baby for them. We are still in contact. We arrived in Turkey in muddy clothes. Many families had dropped their bags on the way as they couldn’t carry them.
The 11th of February was my first time out of Syria. I had just a simple backpack with me as I knew the journey would be difficult. My brother in Lebanon borrowed some money from a friend for me to use to cross the sea to Greece. I went to Izmir in Turkey. I can’t say how many people were there but there were many. We were taken to an apartment and a truck was brought. We were all put inside the truck and taken to a point on the coast two hours from Izmir. Each point was different depending on the smuggler and what Greek Island you wanted to go to.
At night fifty people were put into a rubber boat. You could see the Greek Island on the other side. One of us was to drive the boat. Fifty-sixty people were put into the boat, if you were lucky there was only forty.
We started crossing the sea. In the middle of the crossing coastguards came. We were confused. Were they Greek or Turkish? If they were Greek they would take us to Greece, if Turkish they would take us back. One of the coastguards jumped onto our boat. We were happy but then he said ‘we are the Turkish Coastguards’. Spirits dropped and we were sent back.
This happened two more times. The 4th time I managed to arrive in Lesbos. The first three times the sea had been calm. The fourth time it was raining, in the middle of the sea it became rough. The children were crying, we could not return, only pray to God. The waves came into our boats and all our clothes were wet. After four hours on the boat the Greek coastguards took us.
We stayed with them for four hours and during that time they also took three more boats from the sea. I was thirsty and hungry and hadn’t eaten for more than 36 hours. I was exhausted.
I arrived in Lesbos and in three hours got my papers which allowed me to move in Greece. The borders were not completely closed, so in two days I managed to arrive at the Greek/Macedonian border. My aim was to get to Germany to my brother who had arrived there the year before. But the borders had started to close. There were about 5000 people waiting in a line. Everyday 100 -150 people were allowed to cross legally. After about 2 weeks, the borders closed completely. I stayed there for almost two months in a small tent. After two months I gave up and went to a different camp because I had a friend there that I knew from University. I stayed there two months until the police kicked us all out and we were moved to other camps. I stayed about three months there. We were living in an abandoned factory and were given food. There was nothing to do, we could do nothing, we were treated like animals!
After a year the relocation process started for me. I have been granted relocation to Switzerland. I was so happy to receive this as it’s close to my brother. I hope to find safety there and start my life again.
At home, my mum and siblings are now in Damascus. My father is still in his city, which is still under siege. My father and mother sometimes send me photos but I can’t look at the photo’s of my father. It’s not him with such a thin face, looking so old. He is amongst the 100,000 or so people who remain there, still having food dropped in by air. In Damascus things are a little better now but things are still not completely safe. I sell the art I make in Greece and send money to help my family.
Now we wait. We wait for a solution for Syria. If the war finishes, I will go back – and I want to go back to my home. There is no place like home.