Ibrahim and his siblings crouched together in the bathroom, the safest room corner in the house. They asked their father why the ground was shaking. Outside their affluent Aleppo home in the al-Zebdiah neighborhood, exploding mortar shells had already begun to level houses. Rebel forces swept in just days earlier. It was summer of 2012, the start of the war.
“They are just filming a movie,” Ibrahim recounted his father saying, “You like Ben 10 cartoon, don’t you?” he asked, holding his youngest children. As the oldest sibling, Ibrahim looked at his father and understood, for the first time, how difficult it must be to be a parent. War was the backdrop of Ibrahim’s ascent into manhood.
Days of machine gun showers finally convinced Ibrahim’s parents to abandon their house and flee to Turkey, twenty-eight miles north from Aleppo, to wait out the end of what they hoped to be a short period of military unrest.
Ibrahim and his younger brother worked a low-paid job in construction to make ends meet, a sharp contrast to their days in Syria as students. Twelve to fourteen hour days became the norm, and one month of waiting out the war turned to three.
Ibrahim’s parents returned to Aleppo to check on their house, and to retrieve whatever remained intact. When they returned, the news was abysmal.
The house was burglarized, and even family photos were taken. The front door was completely destroyed. With nothing left behind, the family finally realized that returning Aleppo was no longer an option.
Snipers for Education
In Turkey, Ibrahim’s family relied on his daily wage, so he couldn’t take time off to return to Syria for his college exam as a third year mechatronics student. Bureaucratic restrictions prevented Ibrahim from transferring his credits to a Turkish institution. He received a failing grade.
After a long argument with his parents, the three agreed to go back together so he could take the exam.
Aleppo was unrecognizable.
The city’s governorate was divided into two main regions. Assad’s army held the west and rebel forces held the east. In order to reach the university, which was in the regime-controlled zone, Ibrahim and his parents crossed the sniper-ridden Karaj-al-Hajez crossing.
Ibrahim passed the exam. For the next year, he shuttled back and forth from Turkey to Syria to take exams, enlisting the help of Syrian friends in Turkey to tutor him on the lectures that he missed. He financed his informal education through his construction salary.
A year after initially leaving Syria, Ibrahim fell from the second floor of a building and broke his foot. It took three months for him to transition from the bed to crutches.
On his plaster cast, he wrote: “I will reach my goals, no matter what.”
Ibrahim went back to Syria for the last leg of his studies, this time planning to stay longer. He realized he could not cross Karaj-al-Hajez’s sniper-ridden street with his crutches. Around him, everyone was running with guns. He paid money to get carried on a cart.
Ibrahim spent his days building a quadcopter with his two classmates, and began walking without crutches after two months.
“We got used to living without electricity and Internet access but we could never get used to the severe water shortage. Ironically, although I was in my home country, I felt homesick,” says Ibrahim. “Taking a bath or washing anything became a dream. I had to go out every day seeking some water and wait with others in queue to reach the water well, as the sun beat down on us.”
Children and elders surrounded the water well, carrying heavy containers for hours Ibrahim often stayed behind to help the children.
His parents sporadically visited him in Aleppo, until it became too dangerous for them to make the crossing.
“Every time my parents came, they looked as if it had been one year since I last saw them,” Ibrahim recalls.
His parents brought drawings from his younger brother, portraits of Ibrahim as a hero, made out of spinach leaves. These drawings encouraged him to stay strong.
Ten Attempts to Cross
By mid-April 2014, the Karaj-al-Hajz crossing was permanently closed, forcing anyone in Aleppo to travel around the city to reach the rebel-held zone to get to Turkey.
Ibrahim graduated, and had to “choose between two evils: whether to stay and be conscripted to the Syrian army, where I would be forced to fight and kill my friends and brothers, or leave when traveling had become extremely dangerous. I chose the latter.”
Ibrahim’s aunt joined him on this journey. She drugged her two cats to placate them, and after about twelve hours of traveling, they reached the border. When they arrived, they saw crossing there was no longer an option. They paid money to three different smugglers, to help them across a man-made route through a forested mountain in Khirbat-al-Jouz.
With a backpack and a cat in each arm, Ibrahim stumbled across this path.
After about an hour, the Syrians ducked into a trench, only to find Turkish border guards waiting to question the Syrians about the smugglers’ identities. The border patrolmen pointed their guns at the cats, threatening to kill them if Ibrahim’s aunt did not confess.
Ibrahim was pushed to the ground with a gun pointed at his head.
“I was not afraid, even though I was certain this was the end. A guard started shouting in Turkish and then opened fire next to my head which impaired my hearing for some time,” says Ibrahim.
His aunt told the guards that they were innocent, and the two were taken, along with the smuggler, to an open-air prison. They spent the night shivering in the cold.
The next day, they were transferred to another prison, where three hundred Syrians shared a space a small yard without food or water for over twelve hours. The prisoners were all returned to the Syrian side of the border.
Ibrahim and his aunt spent two nights with relatives in the Kafer Shalaya village. She refused to face humiliation and torturous fear again, but Ibrahim was determined to avoid certain death by staying in Syria. As before, he paid smugglers to take him across Khirbat-al-Jouz, which involved climbing two barbed wire fences.
He ran across the concrete open-air border with other refugees. In six hundred meters, a guard shouting in Turkish came running towards them, firing with his rifle as the refugees scattered in all directions.
Ibrahim was caught, kicked in the stomach, and fell to the ground.
“It was humiliating and extremely painful,” Ibrahim says, recounting how several Syrians were hit across their backs with wooden rods and belts.
Some yelled; others cried. Ibrahim lost his glasses.
Ibrahim received a torturous beating with a leather belt. He was told, “You are not allowed to come to Turkey. Do not come again.”
Ibrahim tried to cross into Turkey six more times that day. He witnessed the brutal shooting of a Syrian family by Turkey’s border patrol. After the Turkish guards told him that the same fate would befall him, Ibrahim spent the night in the forest with dogs barking all around him.
The next morning, strangers helped him charge his phone. He called his mother and relayed what had happened. She told him to rest, and then try again, but the crossing was Ibrahim’s tipping point. He cried nonstop on the phone.
“Mom, I’m sorry. If you love me, please stop asking me to come,” he told her.
Helpless, Ibrahim’s mother told him to do whatever was best for him.
After a week of resting with relatives, Ibrahim was emboldened to cross again when his cousin decided to accompany him. They arrived at the border at 3 a.m. They met two smugglers, led the way as they sprinted through the mountain, out of breath, expecting to faint and fail.
On this final attempt, Ibrahim made it to Güveççi, a Turkish border town. On the other side, men specializing in transporting illegal immigrants were waiting for the newly arrived Syrians. The cars moved quickly to lose chasing border police. After several detours, Ibrahim realized he was in his parent’s newly adopted village.
“Our tears dropped like rain that day. I hugged my mother, kissing her hands and feet. I was surrounded by my beloved family members. It was worth going through all of that to finally be with them, to see their smiles and tears of happiness.”
It took several months for Ibrahim to receive his graduate diploma from the University of Aleppo. His mother began working with Syrian children in schools, and his brothers and sister are currently enrolled as students. He began taking classes to improve his English and Turkish.
He confesses, “At the sight of any grass, forest, guards, weapons or anything related to what I experienced, my heart gets weak. I feel like if I begin to cry, I would not stop. I am unsure if I should let go and cry it all out or just bury it and let it go. This is the daily struggle that I have to fight in order to become the person I dream of.”
Ibrahim’s experience has taught him empathy and responsibility. He says, “Nobody has the right to take away a child’s happiness. I do not care whether our house was destroyed or not, not anymore. My only concern is [for] the people who [still] live in Syria. In my opinion, ignorance and totalitarianism are the root cause of this war… only knowledge can bring peace to our home.”
Today, Ibrahim works with a European humanitarian organization, helping other Syrians resettle after leaving Aleppo.
Unlike Ibrahim, Abdul was looking for a one-way ticket out.
He had just finished his degree. He knew if he stayed, he would have to fight for Assad’s army, or risk getting caught and being forced to fight for ISIS. Either way, staying could provoke the death of innocents. Syrian refugees who leave from Aleppo, instead of Damascus, are subjected to over twenty-eight checkpoints, four of them more official and dangerous than the others.
Abdul left alone.
The Karaj-al-Hajz crossing that Ibrahim and his parents traversed was already closed in April 2014. Abdul, who crossed in April 2015, did not have access to it so he had to find alternatives that took him through several additional checkpoints.
The Regime’s Checkpoint
Assad’s soldiers manned the first checkpoint Abdul encountered. The soldiers stopped Abdul’s bus and arbitrarily chose three young men to take off the bus. The guards spoke to each of the boys, and let others go. Abdul was asked to stay. He was given the ultimatum: “If you have money, dollars in particular, you ought to give it to me right now, and if you do not, I’ll take you behind the sun.” (This phrase is usually employed in Arabic to imply someone will never return to civilization).
Abdul told the soldiers he had nothing to give, but they searched through his belongings, found the money, took it, threatened to kill him, but then let him go. He managed to get away with $200 in pocket, all the money he would have to build a new life as a refugee.
Al-Nusra Front’s Checkpoint
The rebel guard in charge asked Abdul for his military notebook, the official document for all Syrian men listed for military service. The military notebook designates when they have to report for duty to fight for the regime, or why they are absolved of duty. In Abdul’s case, he was scheduled to report in a month. But he knew he had to hold on to the notebook. If he couldn’t leave the country, he’d have to present himself to the authorities for active military duty. If he showed up without this notebook, there would be suspicions that he fought for rebels, because it was a common practice for rebels to destroy military notebooks of their recruits to ensure loyalty and set them on a point of no return.
The rebel guard inspected Abdul’s military notebook and told Abdul he wouldn’t need the notebook anymore, since he was leaving the regime side. But after a moment of seemingly arbitrary hesitation, the guard returned the book with a smirk and a nod.
Abdul was free to proceed.
The Kurdish Checkpoint
The checkpoint itself was fine, but because Abdul had no money at this point, he had no idea how to proceed to Turkey. He found his way to a small village. He had no way of calling anyone back home for help; there is no cell phone service or Internet service available in any zone outside the regime-controlled zone.
A villager offered Abdul a place to stay for free, and told him he would assist him to get into Turkey the next day. The villager brought Abdul to the border and instructed him to run, not to stop, and to ignore the bullets.
Abdul followed the man’s instructions. As soon as he reached the border, he started to run, alongside dozens of other Syrians.
The Turkish Checkpoint
Turkish military bullets whizzed around Abdul. The scorching mid-afternoon sun depleted Abdul’s energy. Thirsty and hungry, he dropped to the ground from exhaustion.
The bullets finally ceased and the Turkish military guards approached him. The guards asked Abdul where he was going. They told him what he was doing was illegal and he wouldn’t be allowed to enter Turkey. He answered that all he needed was water.
The guards commanded Abdul to get up.
Six other Syrians stood with the guards. Abdul repeated his request for water. He was told that if he didn’t get up and move, the guards would kill him. Exhausted, Abdul said, “Then kill me, I don’t care.”
The guard ordered Abdul to close his eyes and face the ground.
‘Tshahed!’ the guard yelled. (“Say your prayers!”)
The guard lifted his rifle to Abdul’s head. Abdul could hear the guard cocking and pulling the trigger. Abdul knew he was about to die, but he did not wonder whether there would be an angel or a light to guide him to heaven.
The questions in Abdul’s mind were, “Who will tell my parents that I am dead? How will they survive without me, their oldest child?”
The lingering sounds of bullets faded, as Abdul realized he was not bleeding.
“Could death be this simple?” he wondered. He was breathing, but his ears were numb. The soldier had intentionally shot right next to Abdul’s had. The guards commanded Abdul to get up.
They were laughing. Abdul was shocked; he was alive.
The guards gave him water. They searched through his things, but found nothing of value. The guards wanted to take his phone but Abdul was emboldened by his narrow escape.
“My phone is the only thing of value I still have. If you want to take my phone, you better just kill me,” Abdul argued.
The Turkish guards compromised, and took Abdul’s phone battery instead. They searched his belongings and found some socks and a T-shirt that they liked. They took these too.
After this, Abdul was free to start the twelve-hour journey to Istanbul that reunited him with friends.
Last year, the Turkish military shot bullets into the air to discourage Syrians from crossing, but Turkish guards were keen to make the Syrians suffer if they wanted to cross. “The guards were instructed that they could do anything to Syrians, as long as they didn’t kill them,” says Moulham, Abdul’s friend.
This year, at the Turkish border, the shootings are no longer arbitrary, but targeted.
Today, Abdul is applying for asylum after traveling by foot into the European continent, and is keen to put the experience of leaving Syria behind him.
Few try to cross from Aleppo into Turkey anymore.
In Turkey, Abdul befriended Molhaum, and to this day, even though they’ve gone their separate ways, they continue to tell each other’s stories.
Today, Moulham is making up for deliberately failing his exams twice in Aleppo. Failing exams bought Moulham time from being conscripted into the Assad army. He is doubling his efforts to finish his graduate degree in Paris, while simultaneously learning the language. He left Syria for a chance to pursue his studies in mechanical enginering, with a focus on the study of prosthetics, something he hopes to be valuable to Syria’s future.
Moulham describes Al-Hajz’s importance as the easiest separation between the regime and the rebel checkpoints. Moulham recalls how the Karaj-al-Hajz crossing in Aleppo was known during the pre-war area as “a garage crossing, where towed and broken cars would be stored before the war.”
“During the war, Karaj al-Hajz served as the only crossing point between the Eastern and the Western section of Aleppo for over a year. For around two months the western part of Aleppo was completely surrounded by fighting troops, and there wasn’t any way to get food, especially fruits and vegetables, other than crossing it.
The daily death toll was between five and fifty people. Thousands would cross it everyday before it was permanently closed in April 2014,” says Moulham.
When Moulham left in February 2015, this crossing’s closure meant he had to take a taxi to reach the other side of Aleppo to get to Turkey. The journey took twelve hours in a taxi and a five-minute walk across the border.
Moulham still has family in Aleppo—he hasn’t heard from his sister in several weeks, and the last time he spoke with his sister was four months ago.
Moulham has been forced to control his emotions. As the son of a local doctor and teacher, he is ideologically opposed to violence. “I don’t see myself as a refugee, but rather as an expat and a student. I want to go back and rebuild Syria when the war is over. The best way for me to do that is educate myself outside.”
Unlike Moulham, his friends Abdul and Ibrahim are so disturbed by their experiences that they plan to do everything in their power never to return.
“During the latest period of chaos in Syria, people became mean-spirited. When there’s war, the only sound that really rings is that of weapons. Only people with money and weapons matter. Everyone else feels like nobody. Feeling lost in a prehistoric jungle of chaos; a jungle in which lives no longer matter… That is not a normal way to feel. Drop by drop, it can eat your soul and make you lose all hope in humanity as a whole,” says Moulham.
“No one wants to be a refugee. They become one when there is no other option left for them to take in order to survive,” he adds.
Khadija was an aerobics teacher in Aleppo when the thought of being brutalized by the Assad or ISIS fighters challenged her reality of what it meant to be an independent Muslim woman. At twenty-six, she grew fearful of the daily mortar and grenade strikes.
Khadija is a staunch advocate of her independence. For her, this includes rejecting the burqa, which she sees as an unnecessary assertion of her Muslim faith. Khadija felt her independence was at risk by remaining in a country adamant to repress females during the war, with fundamentalist rebels on one hand, and a murderous regime on the other.
No one else in Khadija’s immediate family wanted to leave and make the journey with her, citing dignity being stripped on the road as a reason to remain. Khadija made the trek across the infamous checkpoints alone.
Khadija crossed over into Turkey when the borders were still open in early 2013. Over the next months, Khadija’s notion of her Syrian identity was challenged by the growing intolerance in the international sphere toward the country of her birth. She worked for eight months at odd jobs, and then walked across the Beşparmak mountains from Turkey to the border of Greece.
She was turned away from this border three times.
Khadija realized then that she would have to face her fear of water.
Khadija spent much of her savings arranging for a seat on a cramped boat. Her feet were blistered, her shoes were worn and had started to tear, but she was adamant that neither of these would get in the way of the task at hand.
On the boat, she noticed a man with his head down, apparently seasick. He did not notice her. Wincing in her orange life jacket, Khadija focused on floating when the boat capsized in international waters.
A “short swim” after the boat capsized turned out to be an hour-long traversal of the few short meters in darkness in the stormy sea.
Khadija was taken to the island of Samos in Greece, where she realized she was one of the few women traveling alone. She was placed with other refugee women in a tent. After a week, she received the paperwork that allowed her access into Europe for six months. But while waiting for the ferry one night, unknown men entered her tent.
One of the Arab men—Kamal, the same man who she had seen crouched on the boat—rescued her from being violated.
“You’re very brave,” he told her. “But stay with me if you want to be safe.”
A ferry ride into Athens later, Khadija stayed the night in an apartment with eight men, including Kamal. She had her own room and was given privacy and promised that she would not be harassed. The two said goodbye, sure that they would never see each other again.
Khadija went into Italy early the next morning, only to realize that Italy was unwelcoming. She ended up going to a small village on the German/French border. In her new village, a friend reintroduced her to Kamal. The two quickly fell in love.
Today, the two are married and plan to have three children. Kamal still harbors shrapnel from bullets from a sniper attack in Aleppo. Khadijah agrees with her husband’s decision to leave Syria.
“I wanted an extraordinary love,” says Khadija, looking over at Kamal. “And I found it.”
“She is my home,” he says.
In the backdrop of the couple’s living room, a painting of veiled Arabs serenade Kamal’s blond hair and Khadija’s lovely brown tresses as they stare into each other’s eyes.
Both are comfortable in their adopted home, and have found Germany to be welcoming. They host dinners for their new friends. They work to help new migrants integrate and assimilate. Khadijah is taking German classes while the two teach conversational Arabic through Natakallam, a site that pairs asylum seekers with Syrian Arabic learners.
Khadijah and Kamal’s stories display the humaneness of love. Khadijah is more patient. Her passionate individuality resonates when rejecting conservative stances about Islam. This has led to some jealousy from Kamal. Kamal remains protective of her safety. They have celebrated their wedding twice- once under Muslim law, and once under German traditions.
While the two are continually interrupted by upheavals in Aleppo, their main worry is about what it will mean to bring their future children into a world of growing Islamophobia in Europe.
The two stay in touch with family through Whatsapp and social media. It is difficult to communicate with the constant interruptions and power outages in their warring homeland.
Khadija’s family remains trapped in Aleppo.
Over the summer, the bloodied and stunned face of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh has shocked the world with regard to the growing horrors of war-torn Aleppo. Less is said about Omran’s ten-year-old brother, who died recently in an airstrike. Omran is one of the 2.5 million Aleppo residents whose world has been shaped by a singular reality: he could die at any time. According to the UNHCR, 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced, and 4.5 million are currently living as asylum seekers outside of Syria.
Syria’s war started with young children, aged nine to fifteen, wishing for the Assad regime to be toppled and writing such on their school walls. This resulted in protests after these children were illegally detained and eventually killed in February 2011. In April 2011, a thirteen-year-old boy was mutilated and tortured, and returned to his parents with his penis cut off by Assad’s soldiers, sparking widespread outrage.
Leaving it up to Syrians to handle the crisis is an inadequate global response, because Syrians remain unempowered with inadequate medical supplies and access to food and water. Honoring front-line defenders through lip service has become the international community’s insufficient response to the refugee crisis.
The Syrian White Helmets have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for saving thousands of Syrians, but in the meantime, fifteen of the thirty-five last remaining Syrian doctors have pleaded with President Obama to step in and help prevent war crimes, noting that a medical facility is attacked by Russian-backed Syrian air strikes every seventeen hours. There was a Russian ceasefire in August. However, even during the 48-hour supposed ceasefire, rebel, regime, and Russian forces continued to shower Aleppo’s streets with bombs.
On September 9, when John Kerry announced that the US would join hands with Russia in fighting the Al-Nusra front, he did not mention that Russia supports Assad’s regime-backed violence. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are the US and Russia’s common enemies, but defeating them would allow Syria to remain in Assad’s hands. The Al-Nusra front is now perceived to be an Al-Qaeda stronghold, ensuring that the US feels justified in its pledge to bomb Al-Nusra in Aleppo. But what about the civilians who will also die? Despite promises of demarcated zones, what about civilians who reside in war-torn zones, unable to escape, trapped by the fact that they want to die in dignity in their own homes? All the survivors suggested that blanket bombing is common, regardless of zonal demarcations.
On August 9, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, CNN’s war correspondent Clarissa Ward said, “There are no winners in Aleppo,” adding, “this is what hell feels like.”
After four years of ceaseless bombing and brutality, the security of life itself has been reduced in Aleppo to horror, terror, and scarcity of basic human resources. This is an affront to every nation that has failed to create clear-cut solutions for ending this war, or for rebuilding the lives of those who have been forced to leave their homes.
Today, September 19, the UN General Assembly is hosting a high-level meeting in New York “to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.”
Syrians can only wonder how this meeting will conclude, while millions remain at risk, and over 400,000 have already been killed over the last four years.