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Dublin: 14 °C Saturday 23 August, 2014

Column: Leaving it all behind – a Syrian family’s journey to safety

“I did not say a proper goodbye to my father and did not even bury him. I don’t know who did and where,” said Ahmed, whose family has been forced to move around – inside and outside Syria – for more than a year after a shell destroyed their home.

Cilina Nasser

“I’M NOT THINKING about the future… I’m thinking about what we have left behind. I did not say a proper goodbye to my father and did not even bury him. I don’t know who did and where.”

Ahmed’s desperate reflection gives a small sense of the fear and upheaval that have gripped him and his young family for more than a year now. Syria’s ongoing armed conflict has forced them to move again and again in search of somewhere they can be safe and meet their basic needs.

The 27-year-old menial worker, his wife Mariam, 23, and their two little children have spent months moving around inside Syria as internally displaced persons (IDPs), and have become refugees twice within a period of just seven months – first when they crossed to Lebanon, and then to Turkey, where they are now.

It was in Turkey’s largest city Istanbul where I met them in their latest place of shelter. For the past six weeks they have been living in a tent on the grounds of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cemevi, an Alawite Muslim house of worship in Sultangazi, a poor neighbourhood.

We sat atop a carpet inside their tent, where Ahmed recounted what seemed to be a never-ending story of upheaval. As he spoke, he stretched his left leg, which had been badly injured more than two years ago, on the last day he saw his home.

Mariam would interrupt occasionally to provide a detail that Ahmed had forgotten to mention, gesturing with her hands to make sure I understood her broken Arabic. Both she and Ahmed are Syrian citizens of Turkish descent. Their ancestors have been living in Syria since before the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution following World War I. They are also Alawite, a sect of Islam to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

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Syrian refugees wait for their turn to receive mattresses, blankets and other supplies, and to be assigned to tents, at the Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, near the Syrian border with Jordan. (Jan. 28, 2013/AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

A never-ending story of upheaval

More than two years ago, Ahmed and his family were at their house in the al-Masaken neighbourhood of Aleppo in northern Syria when it was hit by a shell. The impact caused the ceiling to collapse, after which Ahmed’s father lay motionless amidst the rubble. “I could see my father’s bones through the wound under his armpit… and I could tell that I was injured because both my legs were bleeding heavily,” said Ahmed.

Ahmed and his family had to leave his father behind as Ahmed was rushed to al-Razi Hospital, where he underwent surgery that involved attaching metal rods to a bone in his left leg. The family pleaded with the doctors to sleep at the hospital because they had no other place to go. They stayed there for a week before seeking shelter in a public garden in Aleppo’s Kurdish-majority Sheikh Maqsood district.

A day after arriving there, nearby clashes between fighters from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and another armed group left hundreds of internally displaced people in the garden exposed. Gripped with fear, people who had sought safety in the garden started running towards Sheikh Maqsoud’s residential area. Ahmed told his family to take the children and run for their lives.

“I had just come out of surgery. I couldn’t run.” His wife refused, saying she wouldn’t go without him. Along with Ahmed’s mother and brother, she helped him to walk. Then the family’s cousin, who was among those fleeing, was shot in the back. The bullet passed right through him, leaving a big hole in his chest and killing him on the spot. The scene was chaotic – terrified, men, women and children were screaming. Some women were beating themselves out of fear. Others shouted out the names of children lost in the crowds.

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Syrian refugees work in the gravel yard, which is used to support their shelters to prevent the ingress of rainwater, at Zaatari Refugee Camp, in Mafraq, Jordan. (Nov. 6, 2013/AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Trampled by a crowd of terrified people

Ahmed and his family continued walking until they finally reached Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsood neighbourhood. Unable to walk anymore, Ahmed lay down on the pavement to rest while his family sought safety inside a building. But another crowd of terrified people ran into the area, and Ahmed was trampled all over his body, including his wounded leg. “One shoe after another was stepping on my face so that I couldn’t see anything else other than shoes.” He was left bruised and bleeding from the mouth and legs.

A man helped Ahmed and his family to find a taxi and flee to the capital Damascus. Unable to stay at Tishreen Garden, where many other IDPs were sheltering in the capital, they joined other families to shelter in a disused police hospital for four months, before renting a flat for around a month. But Ahmed couldn’t provide for his family in Damascus, and they decided to move to neighbouring Lebanon after hearing that Hizbullah was helping refugees to seek shelter in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

They moved to Lebanon and stayed in a small flat in Beirut’s Hayy al-Sellum suburb. Ahmed started working as a shoe polisher in the street. He and Mariam said that Hizbullah provided them with basic necessities – a fridge, a gas cooker, cutlery, pots and other home essentials and gave them vouchers for 42,000 Lebanese pounds (US$28) per person per month to buy goods from a Hizbullah-affiliated supermarket. “The neighbours would send us the food they cooked every day… we were not deprived of anything there,” explained Mariam.

But Beirut was not the haven of calm they had hoped for. The nearby Hizbullah stronghold of Bir al-Abed was bombed on 9 July 2013, leaving more than 50 people wounded, and changing things for Ahmed and other Syrian men living there. The explosion was seen as linked to the ongoing conflict in Syria, particularly since Hizbullah had engaged in fighting in support of the Syrian regime. Five weeks later, another bombing ripped through Bir al-Abed, this time killing at least 20 people.

Hizbullah members began questioning Syrians living in the southern suburbs, including Ahmed, about their backgrounds. It did not seem to matter to them that Ahmed is an Alawite Muslim. His injuries raised suspicion – as they feared that he was an opposition fighter who had come to Beirut’s southern suburbs to spy on them.

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The Zaatari refugee camp, where about 100,000 displaced Syrians now live. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Hostility towards Syrian refugees

A more general sense of concern about and hostility towards Syrians who had moved to Beirut’s southern suburbs prevailed immediately after the explosions. Some young men from the neighbourhood would approach Ahmed in the mornings – after his neighbours who protected him had gone to work – and would shout at him to leave or slap him on the face.

After being assaulted in Hayy al-Sellum at least six times in the space of the six to eight weeks following the first explosion, Ahmed decided it was time to leave.

The family returned to Damascus and stayed in al-Marjeh Garden with many other IDPs for 10 days. Then they heard that refugees were being treated better in Turkey.

Once more, the family gathered their belongings and headed to Binnish in the northern Syrian governorate of Idlib. There, they joined other relatives in a van that dropped them close to the border with Turkey. As they walked towards a barrier in the middle of the night, they saw a laser light trained on them. Several armed men approached them, swore at them and made off with all of their money and belongings.

‘My children were crying from the cold’

Now penniless, Ahmed and his family crossed into Turkey and pleaded with a van driver to take them to Killis. He dropped them in an empty place. “It was so cold and misty and we had nothing with us. No blankets, no duvets, nothing. My children were crying from the cold,” Ahmed said as Mariam welled up with tears.

Gathering up some cardboard and nylon, Ahmed placed them on the ground for his wife and children to sleep on. “He stayed awake all night,” Mariam said.

In the morning, a local man saw them, and invited them to his home where he fed them and gave them some money. They went to Gaziantep and stayed with Mariam’s sister for one week in her family’s small one-room flat. After a week, they were again forced to move on – this time to Istanbul, where they are still living in a tent.

As an Alawite and supporter of the Syrian regime, Ahmed was uncomfortable about going to the Gaziantep refugee camp, which he perceived as overwhelmingly against the regime. “Now, Sunnis kill Alawites and Alawites kill Sunnis,” he said.

Cilina Nasser is a Syria researcher at Amnesty International, who is currently in Istanbul. She tweets at @CilinaNasser.

For security reasons all names have been changed.

This article originally appeared on Amnesty International’s Livewire blog.

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