Hanging onto hope

Torn apart by the Syrian Civil War, siblings seek a better life around the world

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Susan France

Salam hasn’t seen anyone in his family since December 2014 when he left Turkey to attend graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder. Originally from southern Aleppo, his family is now spread across the globe as a result of the Syrian Civil War, and with a pending asylum case in the U.S., he doesn’t know the next time he’ll be able to see anyone in his family face to face.

His older sister Amira has residency in Istanbul. His younger brother Besher is in a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, hoping to join his youngest brother Amro in Berlin soon. Salam’s parents are both still in Syria, unable to leave behind their family property and government pension. His father was just released after more than two months in prison, while his mother continued working, keeping up the family’s assets.

Growing up, Salam says, the family was close and has grown even closer as the conflict has dispersed them throughout the world. But he does hope to one day be reunited with them all, although he doesn’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

“All I have are hopes, I don’t have any expectations,” he says. “Our expectations failed us many times since the beginning of the conflict. We expected the war to be over in a year or so and we would gain our freedom. But we failed in that. We expected Assad to be overthrown by the opposition forces but we again failed at that.”

But as Syrian President Bahar al-Assad’s regime gains ground, retaking Aleppo in December amidst accusations of grave human rights abuses, and Russia attempts to broker peace talks, Salam and his siblings have resigned themselves to start their lives over elsewhere.

“We all know that the Syrian regime is really bad; that’s the basic level of agreement between us as family members,” Salam says. “We all agree on that, and we all want Assad to go.”

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Amira, the oldest, was the first to leave, five years ago.

“My life was just perfect,” she says. “Successful in my career, already finished my study, social life, hiking, camping, clubbing and also I was a volunteer in the Red Cross.”

Before the war, she was a manager at an international tourism company and speaks with pride about both her home city of Aleppo and her country.

“My mission was showing the tourists the beauty, the history, the music, the cuisine and the culture of Syria,” she says. “That’s why I know Syria like the back of my hand.”

But she wasn’t politically involved and didn’t have a problem with the Assad regime, until she started hearing reports from other cities around the country. Then her humanitarian work caught up with her and intelligence agencies asked to bring her in for investigation.

“I didn’t respond, and after two months of maneuvering I decided to flee to Turkey,” she says. “I am realistic person and I understand that sometimes you relocate to another country either for work or marriage or whatever, but that would be your choice.”

But her decision to leave Syria was different, a necessary step to continue both her life and her career in relative peace.

“It’s a test for your strength, for your patience, for your manners and principles,” she says. “Many others failed in this test and I saw them falling down, while I continue my path.”

Amira first went to Turkish relatives in Hatay Province, west of Aleppo, before moving to Istanbul where it was easier to find a job. The first year was like “living in hell,” she says, as she struggled to adapt to the new place and often encountered people looking to profit off the vulnerable refugees. But she stood her ground and has since worked in multiple fields, from tourism to real estate, even acting in some commercials and in a movie with a Turkish director.

“I guess I teached them how to deal with me as human being, not as a Syrian refugee,” she says.

Now she loves living in Istanbul, comparing it to busy metropolitan cities like New York or London, aware of the beauty diversity brings, something she learned as a young girl in Aleppo.

“I remember that in my grandmother’s building there were four religions, every neighbour is different of the other. On Fridays sometimes they go up to the roof to make BBQ together,” she says. “I can keep the memories from my childhood in my heart, understanding that it was such beautiful days.”

In Turkey, she continues with her humanitarian work, helping Syrian women find jobs and Syrian children gain access to education. And she’s become part of an expat community, helping to organize dinners, parties and lectures. On weekends she enjoys gardening and cooking for friends. “I am trying hard to live as a normal human,” she says. But everywhere she turns, on TV, the radio, in conversation, she sees Syria. “Even when I go dating, the basic topic will be Syria while we should [be getting to] know each other.”

Amira worked tirelessly to gain residency and work authorization. It was a hard fight, she says, and now she wants to help other people achieve the same.

But while her brothers eventually followed her to Turkey, they all found it much more difficult to settle down and build a life there.

CU graduate student Salam proudly wears a Syrian flag at a demonstration in Turkey in 2013.
CU graduate student Salam proudly wears a Syrian flag at a demonstration in Turkey in 2013. Courtesy of Salam

Salam was fulfilling mandatory military service as the conflict began in 2011. But as the fighting increased and he witnessed many atrocities committed by the Assad regime, he defected, fleeing to Turkey in 2012.

“It’s a pretty decisive decision when a refugee makes it to leave,” Salam says. “For me, I made the right decision in the right moment and luck was on my side. Many refugees faced even more dangerous situations than mine, I’m very sure of that.”

For Salam, specifically defecting from the military also exiled him from Syria as long as Assad remains in power.

“I thought, in a year or so, the war would be over, Assad would be overthrown and we could move on,” Salam says. “I was wrong.”

Salam says the West often oversimplifies the conflict, pitting the government against ISIS and other terrorists, when in reality it’s much more complicated. What started as a citizens’ movement to gain basic rights and freedoms has dissolved into a messy civil war with numerous factions vying for power.

“You have the government, with all its affiliated militias from Iraq, Iran and other places. You have the Free Syrian Army, which is a big umbrella of small groups, sometimes fighting each other, sometimes uniting together; some of them are affiliated with Al Qaeda, some of them are not; some of them are anti-America, some of them are not,” he says. “You have ISIS as well, and you have the Kurds who want autonomy.”

When Salam first arrived in Turkey, he says he had “second thoughts” about leaving his home, and even considered returning to fight with the opposition. But he decided to stay in Turkey, learn the language and settle down.

However, he became increasingly afraid of the building anti-refugee sentiment, even changing the Arabic license plate on his car to blend in with Turkish cars, which use Latin numbers.

“It’s a kind of camouflage because with the Arabic numerical system, an angry mob could see the car and just smash it,” he says.

While Salam and Amira struggled to begin a new life, they were soon joined by their youngest brother Amro, although he stayed in Hatay Province with relatives.

“I finally accepted the ugly truth and cried and cried like never before,” Amro says about deciding to leave his home. He was just 18 when the revolution started in 2011.

“It was my final year in high school, the year that defines my fate,” he says. “I was so active with the opposition because as any other honored Syrian, I couldn’t bear the injustice.”

He was accepted to the economics department at the University of Aleppo, but as the conflict increased, he decided to delay his studies and instead work with the opposition, traveling throughout the country as a translator for foreign journalists and working with humanitarian efforts.

“In that time, I was deluded that this crisis was going to end very soon,” he says. “So I held my camera instead of my study books.”

In less than a year, Amro was arrested twice. Both times he was held in what he calls “concentration camps” before being sent to prison. He describes living with up to 70 other men in a room, eating out of communal “buckets,” sometimes hardly having sufficient air to breathe. “It is just amazing how the human nature adapts to the bad conditions for the sake of survival,” he says.

After paying a bribe, he was released for the second time, which is when he decided to join his siblings in Turkey.

He spent a year learning Turkish and applying to universities, while also working up to 12 hours a day. Although he was accepted into a civil engineering program, the workload in a foreign language while trying to make ends meet was too much for him to bear.   

Hoping his chances would be better in Germany, he joined his best friend on the journey from Turkey to Germany, traveling through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Austria on the way.

“Today I am very proud of my choice after one year living in Germany,” he says. “I learned a lot from the Germans, although they are barely social.”

He says that for the most part, the Germans he’s encountered are friendly and welcoming, but hesitant to become friends after learning he’s a refugee from Syria. And although he saw “Nazis’ demonstrating against refugees” every few weeks while living in Western Germany, he hasn’t experienced much resentment in his new home of Berlin.

“I think Germany will adapt soon to the idea of hosting refugees at the same time refugees adapt in their new temporary home,” Amro says.

Amro applied for asylum and was granted a three-year residency permit before the immigration laws changed in Germany. Now, he says, refugees must stay in the same state for three years before being granted temporary protection for one year.

He immediately began learning German, translating for friends after a month and finishing the nine month mandatory integration language course in two and a half months. But starting school has proved difficult, and he recently moved from Dortmund to Berlin, hoping his chances will be better.

“I got a lot of depression due to it because no one helped me or guided me and in the end no one understood my circumstances,” he says.

It’s been five years since he graduated high school, a significant delay in his studies, but he’s “still happy and dedicated to learn and work more than ever,” he says.

“I cry sometimes when I watch the news, especially in my home city Aleppo,” Amro says. “But I still feel optimistic to the future of Syria.”

And living in Berlin has actually given him even more hope for eventual recovery in Syria, comparing Aleppo today to the Berlin of World War II: “The amount of killing and the same bad conditions innocent people had to live,” he says, believing that his city will be able to recover after the war, like Berlin has.

“I lately realised that [to fix] an unstable house, a man have to destroy it and rebuild it from the beginning,” he says. “I also realised that people don’t learn how to change themselves and love each other except when their life is on the line.”

Amro hopes to soon be joined by his brother Besher, who is trying to make his way from refugee camps in Lesbos, Greece, to join him. Besher was the last of Salam’s siblings to leave Syria and in many ways has had the most difficult time trying to build a new life. Left with a minor disability in his arm and prone to epileptic seizures after being struck by a car while walking in 2012, Besher is exempt from Syria’s mandatory military conscription. Yet he became increasingly aware that there was no future for him in Aleppo as the war wages on.

Leaving home in 2014 and following his siblings’ path to Turkey, Besher has always dreamed of becoming a successful painter and he hopes to one day make it to Germany in order to attend art school.

“The first time I stepped outside Syria, I knew that if I did, it means I will never go back,” Besher says. “Until 2011, I never would imagine something would happen to my country like what happened.”

But Turkey wasn’t easy for Besher, as increasing anti-refugee sentiments have led to more hate crimes, violence and uncertainty.

“It was a strange country. I don’t know anything about its culture and the life over there is too hard,” he says. Syrians are treated like second-class citizens, he says, taken advantage of in their desperation, often being offered lower wages than Turkish citizens.

So he decided to join Amro in Germany, hoping for more opportunity. He traveled by boat from Turkey to Lesbos, and is now stuck in a refugee camp on the island as he waits for his paperwork to go through. The journey is much more difficult now than when Amro traveled it, and Besher has no idea how much longer he will be in Greece. In the refugee camps, where fires have become increasingly more common, he’s witnessed fights between Afghans and Syrians and he recently spent some time in a hospital following a seizure.

But he just has to keep moving forward, he says, knowing that even though his parents remain in Aleppo, there’s no point in thinking about going back.

“For me and most of Syrians, we expect to get better future outside of Syria,” Besher says. “It’s impossible to go back just for our parents, for our mom and dad.”

Salam hugs his mother goodbye in Istanbul for the last time in 2014.
Salam hugs his mother goodbye in Istanbul for the last time in 2014. Courtesy of Salam

Back in southern Aleppo, their parents have watched as their neighborhood has been bombed by opposition forces and entire families have been killed. They haven’t had consistent water for months, relying on storage receptacles to function. Nor have they had access to any formal electricity. “The neighborhood [is] set up that each family pays a subscription fee informally,” Salam says. “They just extend one cable or wire and connect it to the house. They have enough to power their refrigerator and TV. The voltage is not that high, the voltage or that wattage I’m not sure. I’m not an electrician.”

Both their parents are state employees — their father, a retired state journalist, still depends on his government pension despite continued currency devaluation. Their mother still works for a state pharmaceutical company but hasn’t been to her office in years, Salam says. Rather, she logs in remotely from an office building near their home. Although they may not agree with the Assad regime, they depend on it for their survival. Plus, they still manage family lands in Idlib Province, roughly 40 miles south of the city.

As a boy, Salam remembers going out to the village during olive harvesting in October, helping his father take the produce to the factory to make oil.

“I come from a rural background, my father and grandfather were all peasants. We have olive trees, grapes, peaches… ” he says. “My dad is attached to this land, he still cultivates it, so they can’t just turn their backs on it and get out of the country.”

Their mom hid the news of their dad’s imprisonment for a couple months, Salam says, and the siblings only found out a week before his release. Apparently someone, it’s still unclear to the family who, wrote a negative report about their dad.

“In Syria, since the 1980s, if anyone writes a report on you they come and arrest you, [even] torture you if it’s really bad, and they don’t really investigate into the matter,” Salam says. “If someone does it for spite it doesn’t matter, it’s just a report.”

His dad wasn’t tortured he says, and his mom was able to visit him twice. This is the second time his dad had been imprisoned, the first time for a month after Salam left. He wasn’t tortured that time either, although he went through several rounds of interrogation as the authorities asked him where Salam had gone.

“All they want is the war to be over, that’s their most desired wish,” Salam says of his parents.

Talking about Aleppo saddens Salam. He knows its deep history, its rich culture.

“It was a really beautiful city,” he says, referring to it as “Aleppo the White” due to the glistening marble that made up the old part of the city. He says he often cries looking at videos and images of the destruction. But in the end, the buildings aren’t what really concerns him. “What’s more important than rebuilding those edifices in Aleppo is rebuilding the social makeup between people,” Salam says. “We don’t trust each other anymore. Syria, in its multi-ethnic and religious makeup, has fallen apart.”

In the midst of finishing his graduate degree at CU Boulder, Salam is also waiting to be interviewed for his asylum case. While the application is pending, he can’t leave the country, even to visit his family. And as long as Assad remains in power, he can’t go back to Syria.

But he has a temporary protective status in the U.S., while waiting for a green card. He has work authorization and he’s started to build his new life in Boulder, working, buying a car and saving money.

He’s able to keep in touch with his family using WhatsApp or social media, contacting them pretty much anytime he wants to. But it’s not the same.

Despite everything the family has faced and continues to walk through, he does believe he’ll be reunited with them again, and maybe even, one day,  in Aleppo.

“Without hope, life makes no sense,” Salam concludes. “I have hopes in all directions, but the hard part is separating your hopes from your expectations. I don’t have really great expectations for the future, but I have hopes.”

Editor’s note: Amira’s name has been changed for her safety. For the family’s safety, we’ve withheld their surname. Given the circumstances, interviews with Amira, Amro and Besher were conducted via email and their British English was left as written.