Aliaa is now living in sanctuary after a brutal journey that nearly killed her.
We sat outside of Aliaa’s small house, flicking through the pictures on my laptop, pointing at faces, exchanging gossip about friends – something we had done many times before. Normally, it would have been on a patio or terrace in Damascus, with the sound of the Muezzin in the distance, but these days it is in a quiet town in southern Germany. Aliaa has lived quite a life since we last met.
The photos always showed us smiling – at a party, a wedding, or at someone’s house watching a World Cup game while cooking kebabs on a barbecue. There are images of us sitting at desks covered with Arabic textbooks, and even one where we are on a rickety bus with friends heading through the desert to Palmyra. The pictures of that trip produced most laughter – especially one mutual friend who, not for the first time, climbed onto the roof of our fast-moving bus. We had only got him back inside the bus when we spotted a Syrian police checkpoint ahead. Those were innocent days.
“Remember that? Seven years ago now . . . Raya is in Sweden these days, Abed lives in London, George has stayed there.” There was an air of sadness, too. I was just a visitor who had lived in Syria for a year and half, and these were places that held great memories for me. For Aliaa and her husband, Mohammed, it was home. Now living in sanctuary after a brutal journey that nearly killed them, they looked back to a homeland that they may never see again.
I went to Damascus in 2009 to learn Arabic, taking a sabbatical from my job at the BBC in London. Having learned to speak Spanish relatively well in recent years, I knew Arabic was much tougher and would take far longer, so I had given myself a year at least. Like many before, I had no idea how difficult it was, or how rewarding it might be.
I had made prior contact with the University of Damascus, which offered courses “from zero” as they told me, for people with no knowledge of the language. However, after finding somewhere in Damascus to live, with a family in the backstreets of the old city, I soon realised the university course was not going to work out after all. I was in a class with people who had studied the language before and it was not remotely tailored to a starter like myself, so I started looking around for another solution.
A friend who had a berth in another house knew of a private teacher and she made the connection. Over coffee, after about thirty minutes, Aliaa had explained more to me about the rudiments of the language than I had gained in two weeks in the classroom. I learned about the root structure, how the baffling letters changed shape depending on where they were in a word, but Aliaa also imbued a love of the language.
She showed me the beauty of the writing and had me scribble the letters and words. As a right-handed journalist whose once-neat script had been reduced to an impenetrable scrawl after many years of fast-paced work, I was creating beautiful shapes and writing in the opposite direction, from the right side of the page heading left. It felt easy and fluid. What is more, I liked Aliaa.
I had found my teacher, but what I did not realise at the time was that I had gained a true friend.
Each morning I would wake up early and read through the two-hour lessons we had the day before. Aliaa would arrive, make tea, and smoke her incessant cigarettes while banished to a far corner of the terrace, and then we would sit down and plough through vocabulary and grammar.
“Today we are studying politics,” she would announce, and then we would lower our voices as we discussed terms like government, democracy, dictatorship, and whisper the words “Israel,” or, as we called it, “Disneyland.”
I reciprocated the teaching with an hour or so of English study, although she already spoke it surprisingly well, having been mainly self-taught. More than verbs and vocabulary, Aliaa introduced me to a life that I may never have seen, to the ways and mores of a kind and generous people. How to make sense of the baffling mini-bus service that ran irregular routes all over Damascus. What was the best food to order and where? Even how to haggle in the Souk Al-Hamidiyah. “Walk away, walk away,” she would whisper. “He will follow.”
It was all one large field trip, often taking the Arabic out of the classroom and onto the old streets of Damascus. We were at weddings in Yarmouk (later to become a Daesh stronghold), parties in Mezzeh, and we had our lessons everywhere. So difficult was the language, and yet so much fun was the life there, that I extended my time. But in my second year, life started to change around us. It was a gradual build-up to war, beginning with the police brutalising teenagers who had spray-painted a wall with anti-government graffiti in De’raa, in the south of the country.
Then the police began to shoot at protestors. Like all governments who shoot unarmed people, they claimed they had been attacked by “terrorists,” but it was a display of ruthlessness that was very concerning. De’raa seemed like a terrible incident, a period of tension that would be quashed as others had been before. We never imagined quite how evil it would become.
Gradually the neighbourhood where I was living became less friendly. Quiet, somewhat sullen men in leather jackets occupied street corners and would stare as you passed. “Who are they?” I would ask shopkeepers I knew well and often chatted with. “Police,” I was told, very quietly.
The demonstrations I saw in Damascus were pro-regime. More than once I was caught up a vast throng of people shouting: “Allah, Sou’reeah, Bashar ou bas” – God, Syria, and Bashar al Assad is all we need. It reminded me of being on football terraces in the north of England in the 1980s, but I knew these were dangerous times.
Ghosts and Shadows
I left Syria very reluctantly. Back in London at my job at the BBC, Aliaa and I spoke often on Skype or by phone as things worsened. Neighbourhoods I had known well, like Yarmouk, were devastated. Masakan Barzeh, where I had lived for awhile, was attacked by tanks. Day by day, familiar towns and cities were succumbing to the horror of brutality against anti-regime protesters, with the constant refrain from the regime of “terrorists.” So-called political extremists who had been jailed by Assad in the years before, were released, allowing the regime to justify their claims.
Aliaa was at first reluctant to leave. Syria was her home, she was originally from the north, but Damascus was her place. “I’m staying here,” she would say, and more than once she said quietly, “Once this is all over it will be great, there will be a hafleh" using the Arabic word for party. I kept telling her she should leave, that there would not be a party, and that if the Assad regime fell, as we expected then, there would be fearsome bloodletting.
She kept me informed of the growing influence of the Shabihah, meaning ghosts or shadows; the government-linked militias that now controlled the streets in certain areas. How dark it was all becoming. The one thing that really struck a chord for me was some time in 2013, when Aliaa said that the cats were quiet, she rarely heard them. The famous Damascus street cats who would keep you awake with their yowling, were now subdued and mostly silent.
Eventually Aliaa, like so many others, would leave. First to Beirut to work as a journalist, and then to Istanbul as a refugee. She became one of the many – one of the 5.6 million Syrians exiled overseas, over 3.5 million in Turkey alone. And that is not counting the 6.6 million people displaced within Syria, according to the UNHCR. This is the tragedy of our times, one that made people like Aliaa and Mohammed risk their lives to escape.
More than once Aliaa spoke of heading to Europe, knowing that life as a refugee in Turkey, while safe, was not legal and they would not have much of a future there. One day she mentioned in passing they may have found a possible way, but she was economical with the details, telling me that if it happened, they had an “official boat,” but it was “nothing to worry about.” I was not the only one that she did not tell when she took the boat; her family had no idea either.
Across the Aegean
Two years later we sat outside of her home in Germany as she took me through the details. We watched the footage that she had filmed of Mohammed and their friend Tarek, happily walking the streets of Izmir in the south of Turkey, laughing and shouting. They were heading towards what would be an overcrowded boat that would take them across the Aegean to Europe. As we watched, the video became more harrowing.
These were pictures that by then were familiar to me, to the world, of desperate men, women, and children clinging to rubber dinghies that sat low in the water. Except in this case they were friends of mine, reduced to a desperate gamble. “You don’t think about the risk you are taking,” Aliaa told me as we drank tea. “But the moment the smugglers said, ‘To the boats,’ is where the drama started.” One hundred and fifty metres offshore, the smuggler steering the packed boat drove overboard and left them alone at sea in the dark. Shortly thereafter, the engine failed and it seemed very bad. The video shows flickering lights, and you can hear panic rising in Aliaa’s voice shouting in English. “Hello!” she shouts as another boat approaches. “We need some help here!”
As I sat and interviewed her for a TRT World report about the journey, she spoke emotively of the experience she thought they might not survive. “I was thinking of all you guys, my friends and family. I was saying if I had done something wrong to someone I hope they will forgive me. I was just cleaning my heart,” she said.
By chance they were spotted and rescued by the Greek coastguards. The pictures show beaming faces, out of relief more than anything. The next two weeks I did not hear anything from her, no one had. We had heard they had made it to Europe, but no more. I was annoyed she had not been honest about the dangers, but I realised she was just trying, as ever, not to worry anyone. We hoped all was well, but nothing about what has happened to Syria – to places we loved, or to friends – was really surprising anymore. The Syria of smiles and laughter we knew before the war was now a mirage, it no longer existed.
Aliaa, Mohammed, and Tarek landed in Athens and then managed to make their way slowly through southern Europe. They paid smugglers to take them on a tortuous overnight hike across the mountains from Albania to Kosovo while keeping a lookout for bears – the journey took over ten hours. The rucksacks they had brought from Turkey were slowly shed of their weight and items deemed unnecessary. Carefully, they made their way across borders by foot, car, and train, avoiding the police as they went, or anyone who would turn them back. Germany was the goal, and it was once they were in Munich that they resurfaced to let us know that they were fine, if exhausted.
Soon after, I went to see them. They were in a quiet town, crammed into a room in a small block of flats that were reserved for refugees. The language spoken was Arabic, you left your shoes at the door, and the smells of Iraqi and Syrian food permeated the air. It was their first stop as they entered the refugee system the German government was establishing to help the new arrivals.
As we walked around the town one warm day, the calmness of the place struck me. I had not seen Aliaa in over three years. She was, on the outside, the same person, running and skipping towards the train station where I arrived, shouting “Merhabar” loudly from across the street. But the Damascus we had both loved was a heaving maelstrom of activity, noise, and chaos. Aliaa herself had the same characteristics at times. This place on a beautiful river, not far from Stuttgart, was the complete contrast. Quiet, reserved, and of course very Germanic. I wondered how they would fit in.
I was back a few months later when friends from all over convened for a boisterous and entirely typical Syrian wedding. Aliaa and Mohamed were then married, loud Arabic music pumped out all night long as once again the Syrians taught the ajanib (foreigners), myself included, how to dance the traditional Dabkeh, as we had done many times in Damascus, Homs, and Palmyra.
Except this time they were the foreigners – or as the Germans would call them, auslanders – making their way in a strange land, as we once did with their help.
What Germany has done for refugees warms me, but I also see it as a basic human obligation, to help others as they would help you. And I have rarely met more generous, open people than the Syrians. For many, my friends included, Germany became the sanctuary that America once was to previous generations of desperate people. Those close to me who have their family histories scarred by what Germany once was, of Nazism, concentration camps, and the Holocaust, now see Angela Merkel and the current Germany as a shining beacon.
Germany has created a system that will yield dividends. By nature, the Levantine people are hard working and innovative. The decisions of Merkel in giving over a million people a refuge, may yet prove to be far-sighted. As an Englishman , albeit it someone who has lived many years outside of Britain, I feel ashamed at the way my country treats refugees. The fifth-largest economy in the world has accepted a paltry number of Syrian refugees, barely 10,000. By comparison, Turkey has accepted over three million people.
The only thing I can offer to foreign friends who ask about this, is to remind them that Britain is an island, with an island mentality and a history of being invaded – and doing a heck of lot of invading themselves. Unlike in continental Europe, the borders were rarely fluid. I may be wrong, but despite immigration and a multicultural Britain, there seems to be a form of inbuilt xenophobia that is easily exploited by right-wing media and scare-mongering politicians.
I do not write this thinking everything has been wonderful for refugees once they have found a home in Germany and elsewhere. For every Aliaa, Mohammed, and Tarek, who are clever and worldly enough to assimilate and learn languages, there are others who will always struggle. Those who will not be accepted, who will always look back to a life before the war in Syria, and who will be called “auslander.” I do worry when I hear of attacks on refugees.
Frau Wolf is a social worker who has been looking after Aliaa and Mohammed since they arrived. They have thrived, and within two years they were speaking German at university level, but not everyone succeeds like this. As we spoke in her office, Frau Wolf explained the difficulties. “The expectations of the refugees who arrive in Germany are too high and unrealistic. They are expecting to get a private flat in a couple weeks and find a job quickly that they can lead in their home culture. This is the ideal vision they have, but this, of course, is very difficult.”
These are, after all, people who have had to leave everything behind. Jobs, families, homes, a culture, and all they have known. To arrive in an alien country, learn the language, fit in, and thrive is an immense challenge. It is one we all hope does not happen to us because of war. Both my parents lived through the Second World War as children, my grandfather fought through the First World War. I have a photo of him with three school friends who all signed up to fight on the same day in London. He was the only one of the group who survived and returned home. I am part of a blessed generation of Europeans who have not had to go to war or become refugees in a foreign land, and it is something I have taken for granted.
And yet my friendship with Syrians, who are now scattered, has taught me that there is no difference between the likes of myself and Aliaa, apart from my passport. My place of birth has given me chances and, ultimately, protection. She is from a country that has been essentially reduced to rubble, and which is still led by a brutal dictatorship that will readily kill its own people today, just as it did in De’raa early in 2011.
Aliaa and Mohammed are in a good place. They seem happy, and when I last visited the barbecue was fired up and the kebabs tasted just as good as the ones we used to cook. They miss home and their families, but recently they had their first child. Germany, a country that knows the pain of war and destruction, has allowed them to start again and have a future. It is also a place that will give their daughter a far better chance in life, and much more security than they could have in Syria today.
[NOTE: The narrative is an excerpt taken from The Refugee's Messenger Lost Stories Retold, published by TRT World Research Centre.]