October 16, 2015

Syrians Talk Honestly About Their Life

Syrian refugees believe that Estonia should receive families because they integrate the best.

The whole world is talking about Syria, but Syrians themselves hardly ever get to speak out in the media. I decided to talk to Syrian war refugees in Istanbul because their voices are heard too little in discussion about Syria’s present and future. During our meeting in Istanbul I found some truly open people. Their backgrounds are very different but they are united by the desire to speak about their country and share with the world what they have been through. As they fear for their safety, they asked me to use aliases.

Please meet “Fuad” (from Aleppo, Sunni, 40, escaped in 2012), “Nadia” (from Damascus, Druze, 39, escaped in 2012), “Amena” (from Aleppo, Sunni, 27, last in Syria in September 2015), and “Maya” (from Aleppo, agnostic, 29, escaped in 2012)—all of them Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Please tell me about your life in Syria before the war.

Fuad: I imported Turkish products to Syria. I was successful. Most people are regular employees but life is cheap in Syria. People always found the time to have fun at the weekends, go on picnics, enjoy smoking hookahs, spend time with their friends. The simple life was valued. Aleppo was the second-largest city after Damascus, and the largest industrial city. People invested in industry to expand and grow their businesses. In the last ten years, the business sector grew, and the new generation of managers was more innovation-minded and bought new technology. Companies cultivated cotton, and the textiles and pharmaceuticals industries were especially successful. The banking sector grew. After the attempt on [Lebanese prime minister] Hariri’s life in Lebanon [in 2005], Syria ended its occupation of Lebanon; the economy started doing better from that time. Aleppo is historically important. History is everywhere. Aleppo is famous: the ancient Greeks, the Romans and many other cultures left their mark. I had many Christian, Kurdish and Caucasian friends. No one asked whether you were Christian or Muslim. We lived according to the same principles: work and enjoy life.
Nadia: I was born in the As-Suwayda province, near Damascus. Many Druze people live there. As is the case with other minorities in Syria, our life was rather restricted. Like the Sunnis, people of Druze origin could not, for example, hold high military positions. Due to the limited possibilities, most Druze families have some members who have gone abroad, to a Persian Gulf state, Africa or South America. Several revolutions that took place before the current president, Bashar al-Assad’s, rule started in a Druze region. In recent times, Druze leaders have been killed because they did not agree to fight for the regime and families refused to send their sons to join the army. Because of this, many young Druze men have fled Syria.
Amena: I taught English courses, including private lessons. Life was good. My mother had a beauty salon and my father was a businessman. My brother, who is 17 now, was a student.
Maya: I studied in London to become a teacher. When the war started, I went to work in Erbil in Iraq. But it was not safe there anymore, either. I came to Turkey from there.

According to its constitution, Syria is a secular country. President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, and they constitute about 10% of the population. What is the general religious profile of Syria?

Fuad: It depends on the region. There are more religious people in Aleppo, but as it is an industrial city people used to focus more on making money and doing business. All denominations lived together: Christians, Muslims, and Syria’s largest community of Armenians. This type of coexistence creates tolerance. Several regions are dominated by Assyrians, who are more liberal. Sunnis make up the majority in Syria. But there was no reading the Koran in the bus, like they do in Egypt. People practised their faith at home.
Nadia: In addition to faith, tribes also play an important role in Syria. It has to be noted that while people could be more liberal in recent years, others started to cover themselves up in public. Both extremes emerged. But faith did not dominate people’s everyday lives. If a woman wears a headscarf, it may be her choice since she is educated. Burkas are not worn at all in Syria.

So the minorities were pushed out of power and public life in Syria?

Fuad: Bashar al-Assad’s father was more cunning. He had the Sunnis’ support, he gave them businesses and knew how to win their loyalty. Some of the Druze were also close to power and they convinced others to be loyal to it. It was the same with Armenians and Christians. But the hatred that the rulers were spreading was always there—for instance, they warned the Christians that the Sunnis wanted to get back at them. This confrontation supported his regime. There was no Internet, no one knew what was happening. Muslims were slandered and we can see the results today. ISIS is helping Assad in the sense that he can say “I told you so”. The constant confrontation has served its purpose.
Nadia: The Druze were also scared into believing that the Sunnis were dangerous. All parties were played off against one another.
Maya: I am a Sunni according to my passport but I went to a Christian school. Now they tell us to kill each other.
Amena: Daesh [Islamic State] is not the Sunnis! Daesh are monsters! Now Assad will never give up his position. He will defend his cities, including Latakia. For example, people from Aleppo are not allowed into Latakia, even if they want to stay in Syria.

Why couldn’t Bashar al-Assad hold the country together?

Nadia: Suppressing people became tougher. The mukhabarat [military intelligence] became stronger. However, people had the Internet and smartphones, and although some channels were closed, you could go on Facebook or YouTube via VPN. It was even prohibited to own a satellite dish, but in the end there were too many to do anything about it. People no longer followed only the Syrian media, and information spread. But before the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and Egypt the situation was suffocating for people in Syria.
Fuad: After Hariri was assassinated there were times when the West was not happy with the Assads. Bashar was cocky, especially with the leaders of Arab states. He provoked the King of Saudi Arabia and others, but praised the leaders of Russia and Iran. Bashar wanted to appear youthful among the old Arab leaders and he explained that he used the freedom of speech to be an example to his country’s citizens, although the freedom of speech was not in fact available to them. Other mistakes were also made; people from Damascus lost their homes and land because of large developments, but received nothing in return. Corruption was overflowing. There was unrest, primarily in the poor districts of Damascus.

In your opinion, what is the identity of Syrians in general, leaving aside religion and nationality?

Fuad: I’d say it is an entirely Mediterranean culture. It is oriented towards enjoying life and making money. People liked to earn and spend.
Maya: Mediterranean, but also Oriental.
Nadia: It disturbs me when the Middle Eastern states are compared to the Persian Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. It upsets me and I always say that we are not similar. Syrians do not consider themselves to be Arabs. Women have more freedom; even if they wear headscarves they go to work, make money, and spend time outside the home. Syria is authentic.

What stereotypes or misunderstandings about Syrians have you encountered?

Fuad: We do not have four wives, we do not live in tents, and we do not have camels. Globalisation has reached Syria too. Our form of Islam is moderate, but unfortunately it is not always depicted that way.
Nadia: The infrastructure is relatively good—even distant villages had electricity and children went to school. We are not like eastern Turkey, either. Syrians are open-minded, and in many families both the husband and wife work. The culture was changing as well, but the government stayed the same.

What is happening in your homes today? What is the situation there?

Fuad: Aleppo was an important industrial centre and I feel it is the industry they are trying to destroy completely. Successful businesspeople have moved to Turkey or Egypt, and several of them have been successful there. They know how to do business and organise work, they know how to set up factories and now buy cotton from places other than Syria. But one also hears about the deaths of businessmen every day; very expensive factories equipped with good technology have been burnt down. Historic buildings and the 14-km long al-Madina Souq bazaar—the world’s longest, and a UNESCO world heritage site—have been destroyed; the minaret of the historically important Umayyad mosque was reduced to rubble. I blame the Syrian government for this. The borders were guarded by Assad’s corrupt generals; such a quantity of weapons was unheard of in Syria in the past. If a certain sum was paid, the border would be left unguarded in the necessary places and all kinds of things could be transported over the border. Assad did not focus on this and that is one of the causes of current events.
Nadia: Smuggling things in and out was common and people who wanted a lot of money tried to get employed by the customs. Assad must have known that. I, too, blame the actions of the Syrian government. When caricatures were drawn in Daraa, no one demanded that Assad resign.
Amena: Aleppo is bombed every day nowadays. We are bombed both by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and by government forces. They are fighting each other, but civilians are caught in the crossfire. We could not sleep, and hid in cellars. You never knew when an explosion was going to happen; the windows of our house were shattered and some of the streets were monitored by snipers. For a whole year, when I went to teach private lessons I had to take cover on the street, run across, then take cover again. I have heard bullets whizz past close by several times. Most of the time you sit in a house with no electricity and water. The last year was the worst.
The dead are taken away after large explosions—people start cleaning up right away, they are so accustomed to the war. You cannot stop living, people want to work. Schools were closed for several years but parents wanted their children to learn. There have been very many accidents, and schools have been hit. Several hundred people were killed in the Aleppo university on an examination day. A missile was fired from a plane, the university was hit and it caught fire. The university’s student residences are now used by families whose houses have been destroyed; several families live in a small room with curtains for partitions. When I was teaching at the institute there was an explosion, followed by many more. Everyone ran around in panic; it was so bad I finally decided to leave. I have not yet overcome that feeling.
Maya: Now the FSA has its own district in Aleppo with its own schools, shops and everything. They do not want to use Syrian money because the picture of the president is on it. They use Turkish liras in their regions. Other regions hire so-called security guards to protect them. Everyone is afraid of these “security units” since anything can be expected of them. Kidnappings, murder, robbery, poisoning, all of this is part of everyday life. Merchants cheat, pharmaceuticals and milk are diluted, industry has been completely destroyed, there is a lack of everything. Inflation has been enormous, no one sells fuel, and the price of domestic gas is so high that no one can afford it. It is wonderful how resourceful the Syrians are. They can get by with only a candle.
Maya: I was so afraid of the bombs and shooting that I did not dare to go back again. I hid in a wardrobe when they were shooting. My sister had a nervous breakdown. Once, I was in a taxi and the police started shooting at us to make us get out of the way.
Fuad: I lost my brother in the war in 2012. He was a war photographer with the FSA, which initially consisted only of Syrians. One day when he was filming the Syrian forces, he was hit in the head and died. I was asked about why he had to go there; he had everything, why meddle in it? But he had his reasons—he did not condone Assad’s many killings. He did not listen to others’ advice and went to document it all.

Many people in Europe wonder why Syrian refugees move on from Turkey since the two countries are thought to have similar cultures. Why aren’t the refugees happy here in Turkey?

Nadia: It is not a matter of culture. The refugees received here are not allowed to work. People do not want to sit around and do nothing, even if everyone helped and the government and non-governmental organisations gave them money.
Maya: They do not want Syrian teachers in Turkey, and I was employed on condition that I do not say I am from Syria. Everyone knows me as British and they love me. If they knew the truth, parents would start complaining. I cannot lose my job. Syrian families with children have a hard time schooling their children here. First, there is the language issue, and second, the education that carries on in the local schools here is not acknowledged. They do not lease apartments to us; my lease agreement was concluded in someone else’s name. Once I was on the school bus and others were talking about refugees when they saw Romas begging on the street. Everyone looked out of the windows, pointed and said “Suriyeli-suriyeli!” (“Syrian-Syrian” in Turkish). I wanted to scream that those people were not Syrians but I could not say anything. I felt really bad. I worked hard to get this education and now I am here in Turkey where no one wants us.
Amena: I came here with a tourist visa; I cannot afford to be a refugee. Refugee status cannot be used to get a work or residence permit. As refugees, we have to stay in Turkey, but people in tent cities are dying, they are very poor and it is unsafe to live there. You cannot open a bank account in most of the banks to pay for something in instalments. “Suriyeli” sounds like a swear word.
Fuad: Syrians are different. They want to work until they achieve the same standard of living they had before. For example, if I had a factory, I want a new factory; if I had a shop, I want to own a shop again. The language issue is the main worry here. Likewise, the regulations that change every couple of months; we cannot move freely, and have no clear future. You cannot work with a refugee ID. One needs to find a balance between a tourist visa and refugee status; both come with restrictions. The people who go to Europe know that in five years they will have a new citizenship, civil rights, jobs or education. If we knew that we would have Turkish citizenship in five years, many of us would not move on from here. We do need an identity—we already lost our Syrian identity. For instance, if our passport expires, there is a chance that it will not be renewed. What do we do then?
Nadia: You can live a worthy life in Turkey, if you have the money. But most people have nothing left and can at best afford somewhere to stay or a place worth living in a camp. You cannot presume that people who have no future, no tomorrow, will do nothing about it. The refugees who have temporary protection in Turkey also have the right to send their children to school in Turkey. The reality is different. They do not want to allow Syrian children to go to school, and say that classes are full or that Turkish children are the priority. Persecution also occurs. For instance, rents are much higher for Syrians because they have no choice but to pay.

What do the Syrians who have reached Europe expect? People like your acquaintances?

Fuad: Several of my acquaintances are already there: one went by boat, another walked through Bulgaria. The main hopes of people with families are for safety and a place to live.
Amena: They are asked what they want to do, learn, or how they want to earn a living. Thanks to the Internet it is easy to communicate, there are web pages where refugees share experiences: what cities are worth going to, where it is best to stay away from. My friends have been inviting me to follow them for a long time. But I did not have the money to go, as I was supporting my entire family.
Maya: I would certainly start working if I went to Europe. It is known that there are better chances to make it in Europe owing to the social security system; many people have children. There certainly are those who abuse others’ hospitality but, as a rule, Syrians are hard-working. But I have heard people saying that you should use everything that is available free of charge.
Fuad: Believe me, work is sacred for Syrians. We have been taught since we were little that when you do not want to study, you have to start working at once.

What about relationships within the family, and gender equality?

Nadia: It is very important for a family to stay together and have a close relationship. I would compare Syrians with Italians in this respect. My sisters and our parents, we are very close.
Fuad: Since I was a child my family has visited my grandmother every Friday. Everyone was there—aunts, uncles, their children; we are very family-oriented.
Nadia: Naturally, families are different. Even if the woman decides everything, it is made to look like the man is the decision-maker. Syrian women are generally overbearing, and grandmothers are often the most important people in families.
Amena: There are also cases where the men control the decisions of the women in their families—what clothes the women should wear and so on. Sex education is unavailable; pregnancy prevention is not taught. If I see some of the families having one child after another nowadays, I cannot comprehend how they want to raise a family in such a situation! But they say that these things simply happen.
Fuad: If children put their grandparents into a nursing home, it brings shame upon the family and they are criticised. If a family’s elders cannot cope by themselves anymore, a family member must care for them.
Nadia: Women have four months of paid parental leave when they have a baby. Working women also send their children to kindergartens but family members, neighbours and other close acquaintances also look after the children.
Maya: I do think conservatism, in the Oriental sense, is quite widespread. There are strict rules, especially where women are concerned. I know families where the wife is not even allowed to cut her hair without the husband’s permission. Young couples do not live together without marrying. I lived with several relatives because my parents divorced. Some of the family members I lived with forced me to wear a headscarf; I had to cover myself and I hated it. I was a teenager and did not know how to stand up for myself. Then I realised that I was wearing a headscarf for their sake, not for my own. Studying in London made me stronger; I understood that I could make my own decisions. I gave up wearing a headscarf.
Amena: We are Sunni, but I do not cover myself, nor does my mother. I have been told it is a decision every person has to make on their own. There was a period in life when all religious rules made me angry. I was in love with a Christian but our marriage would have caused a lot of trouble for both families. We had to end our relationship.

Why are young men fleeing? People in Europe say that they should fight and put things right in their own land.

Nadia: Most of them are fleeing from the army. There are cases where several sons of one family are standing at different checkpoints with guns, only a hundred metres apart—one in Assad’s army, the other in the opposition. It has torn many families asunder. Many men served in the army but then had the chance to escape. Many 18-year-olds want to study, not go to war, but attending university is impossible for most of them now.
Fuad: Many men are married and they go to Europe so as not to risk the lives of their family, which is in some neighbouring country. They will try and apply for the family to be united in the future. The leaders of this country are killing their own people, so why should men want to join such an army? The choice is: kill, be killed or escape. Those that do not want blood on their hands escape. Even the Alawites, who are in the same religious group as Assad, are escaping. Their parents do not want to send their sons to fight for the regime and against other Syrians. Many are killed. But Assad has convinced them that if he no longer has power, all of them will be killed.
Nadia [starts crying]: Sometimes, when I think about beautiful places like Palmyra with its 3,000 years of history that has now been lost, I feel that people who have never seen it are better off. They do not understand the extent of the damage.
Fuad: The demographic situation in Syria will change due to this war. There will be many orphans; the Iranians and Lebanese are buying land from those who have left and the government is letting it happen.
Nadia: They want Hizbollah and the Iranians to gain more influence in the country. They are afraid that Saudi Arabia wants to make Syria a Sunni state … Our Sunnis are not like those in Saudi Arabia!
Fuad: Saudi Islam is Wahhabi, and it differs greatly from the Syrian Sunni faith. They have strange fatwa, and we are not a part of that Islam. In the past we never asked questions about one another’s faith; it was not an issue.

How do people feel about Russia’s actions in Syria?

Fuad: Our regime is similar to Russia. I do not know whether Assad’s regime is on its last legs or not. It does not matter how things will end—the Russians can still say “we are here and want a piece of the cake”. They need a passage to the Mediterranean. Russia wants to stay, whether or not Assad remains in power. The natural gas deposits near Latakia are very valuable. [The Russians] do not want Qatar’s oil and gas pipelines to pass through Syria to Europe either. There is talk of the country disintegrating. If the oil and gas deposits are indeed there, then a small state with access to the sea that stays in the sphere of influence of Iran, Assad and Russia could be very successful.

What would be the alternative to Assad’s government?

Fuad: Assad would have to go first. Then the activity of radicals would have to be restricted. All of them: al-Nusra, Daesh and al-Qaeda would all have to disappear. Extensive peacekeeping would be needed and then we would have to organise elections after a few years. We must build a new system.
Nadia: Assad should have resigned when the time was right. If he stays, he will become even more dangerous.
Fuad: Daesh is very negative, and everyone believes that all Sunnis are like that. Thus, people see the Alawites as the only alternative. But Syrians would no longer accept this. The outside world believes that the Sunnis are taking their revenge on the Alawites. But we know that there were a lot of poor Alawites who were not happy with the system and did not benefit from the regime. We need a policy of forgiveness to rebuild the state. Assad is weak, and controls only 30% of the country. We do not trust the warring groups. All of them are funded by some external force.
Fuad: Assad is happy that Daesh exists. People are now so exhausted that some of them are even claiming life was better during Assad’s rule; at least it was stable. That’s what he wanted to achieve.

Would you go back?

Amena: We want our country to be safe. I would return and would even agree to Assad continuing in office if he could guarantee peace.
Fuad: I do not want to return anymore. Everything has changed. I would not feel like I was living in the same country. My parents hope to go back—I hear them pray to God that they can return home one day. My father has worked his entire life; our house is still there. But I am blacklisted because of my brother’s activity, because he was against the government. If the government resigned, it would be safer to return. We cannot even go back to sell our house right now. I would probably be arrested on the border. The mukhabarat searches through phones and computers on the border, and I would live in constant fear.
Nadia: Older people hope to return, but the young get accustomed to life elsewhere and will not go back to Syria. People there are controlled by fear. The intelligence forces would not suddenly disappear. Their network has an immense amount of information, like the KGB used to have.

What would you like to say to Estonia, if it accepts refugees from Syria?

Maya: I hold the countries who accept people in high esteem.
Fuad: We do not want random immigrants to benefit from the situation in Syria. We were at a restaurant and started talking to a young man. He claimed to be a refugee from the Syrian city of Homs, which was badly damaged in battle. But he did not have a Homs accent and he did not behave like we do. We were certain that he was a North African, although he did not admit to it. There are people with Syrian IDs or passports elsewhere on the streets, as well. But everybody knows that you can buy a passport for US$1,000, and corruption is everywhere. For example, Turkish people from the Hatay region, where Arabic is spoken, are using this opportunity to get to Europe.
Nadia: Even the Lebanese envied us and said that we are lucky—this war allows you to get to Europe and you will be accepted. It is very sad that honest people, who are not frauds, are poor and beg on the streets of Istanbul, while frauds receive aid in Europe.
Nadia: Accept families. I do not believe that it would be hard for them to integrate. Language, work, and a safe place to live are the only things they need. When children go to school, it will help the parents to integrate. They may be in for a shock since many of them are not from cities. They need time, and there is no need to push them. But do not think that, if a woman is covered up, it means she does not want to nor cannot play a part in society.
Fuad: You need help from other Syrians to review asylum applications. They know the culture and will understand whether the applicants are who they claim to be. Actually, you should also find out who the applicant was in Syria; those loyal to Assad, who might be war criminals, are also leaving. Syrians are really willing to do volunteer work.

What do you miss the most?

Fuad: I am trapped in Turkey—we are no longer accepted, we cannot travel, we are not granted visas. I have been stuck here for three years already. We will not get Turkish citizenship. I miss freedom. I often go back to Syria in my thoughts and cry when I see refugees in the news or on the streets. They do not deserve this future.
Nadia: I feel guilty for being a survivor. People are dying in Syria but I am here, in Istanbul, safe and unharmed. And I feel guilty about it. This is why I blog and inform people of their rights, so that I can help. My heart breaks when I read the news and hear of people’s experiences.
Amena: People say, “end the war and we will not leave, we will stay in Syria or return there”. I earned well in Syria, I had no cause to leave whatsoever. We were not satisfied with life in Syria in several ways, but what has followed is much worse. Many people are willing to return on any conditions, as long as there is peace.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.