Two Syrians: Same Name, Different Journeys One Goal
“Ever Put Yourself in a Refugee’s Shoes?”
We see them on the news nearly on a daily basis – refugees fleeing their homes, leaving everything behind in search of safety. But how many of us have really ever stopped to think what we would do if we were in their shoes? What tough decisions would we be forced to make if we were in their place?
Abdellatif had to make such tough decisions for himself and his family.
He had lived a typically comfortable life with his wife and children before the war erupted in Syria. Every morning he would wake up, eat breakfast and go to work. After putting in a full day at the office, he would return home for some family time or watch a little television. This was his daily routine. He was a typical civil servant in a comfortable government job.
Five years ago, that typical normality was lost as Abdellatif’s life veered in a different direction beyond his control. The conflict in Syria changed everything. His once comfortable life became a struggle. Little things that most of us take for granted, like water and electricity, were no longer available. How do you cook dinner for your family in an apartment with no water or electricity? But, lack of basic services was just the tip of the iceberg. Bombardments rocked the neighborhood. Favorite restaurants or local markets became a pile of rubble. Basic food items were difficult to find and when they could – prohibitively expensive.
After surviving like this for two years, Abdellatif was forced to make one of the most difficult decisions in his life. Returning home from work one day, he found his apartment destroyed. Frantically, he searched for his family. After a nerve wracking search, a neighbour eventually told him where to find his family and thankfully they were all safe.
Terrified for the safety of his family, afraid for their future, Abdellatif decided his family’s only chance was to flee. For them, that meant Turkey. However, Abdellatif was a government employee. If he left, he would be considered a defector. His presence could therefore endanger the lives of his whole family. It is with this knowledge that Abdellatif weighed the risks and decided to send his family ahead of him to Turkey, with the help of smugglers – never knowing for sure if he would ever see them again. For weeks, he waited anxiously for the news that his family made it safely to Turkey. Finally, that news came. Now it was his turn.
“As I was waiting for word of my family’s safe arrival in Turkey, fighting broke out in my neighborhood. I was wounded by a stray bullet, that only reinforced my resolve,” Abdellatif recalls. “The risks were high. When I didn’t show up for work, I became a defector. The punishment, well, I don’t want to think about what would have happened. By myself, I made the slow, long journey hiding from authorities.”
Once in Turkey, Abdellatif had a joyous reunion with his family. For over two years, he lived in Turkey’s relative safety. Life was not easy, but it was better than in conflict stricken Syria. However Abdellatif – only 47 years old – still felt he had work left to do. He didn’t want to live like a refugee. He wanted to work and provide for his family himself. After years of living day-to-day, working irregularly when he could, Abdellatif was informed his family had been selected for resettlement.
“I’ve never been as happy as when I heard we had been selected for resettlement to Canada,” he says. “I know some Syrian families who have already been resettled there. They told me about Canada and about what is expected. I think we can happily live there.”
Abdellatif and his family were part of the 8,500 refugees that IOM Turkey helped to resettle so far in 2016. There are currently 2.7 million registered Syrians living in Turkey. It’s anyone’s guess how many of them will have the chance to be resettled?
April 2016 Abdel studies Turkish at a community center in Istanbul. Photo: IOM
“I Want to Build Again”
“I’ve built schools, banks, power stations and roads,” says Abdel. For 28 years, he worked as a civil engineer building the infrastructure in what was once considered one of the most beautiful countries in the world. “But the thing I’m most proud of: I’ve build some of the highest buildings and towers in Syria. Before the war, of course,” he says.
“How much of what I have built has been destroyed?,” he asks ruefully. “I may never know. Each building, each structure was a part of me. How much of me still survives in Syria?”
In 2013, a year into the conflict in Syria, Abdellatif (his first name in full) fled to Egypt where he lived for nearly two years. Like millions of people fleeing violence and conflict, he dreamed of a better life and of reuniting with his family.
“When I saw the thousands of migrants and refugees safely arriving in Europe, I thought maybe I too can see my daughter and my brother again. They live in Sweden.” With little more than hope, Abdel journeyed to Turkey, expecting to then cross into Europe.
But once in Turkey, his plans changed, but not his dreams. “The most important thing to me is my children’s future. Did you know that I have nine children? Seven girls and two boys. I want them all to be happy, to be safe and to get an education. Modern society requires education. One of my children is a doctor, another is a dentist and two are still in university.”
It was at one of his children’s school in Istanbul that Abdel first heard of a community center supported by IOM. “One day a teacher mentioned to me that this community center has Turkish lessons. The first and the most difficult problem of living in Turkey is that I don’t speak the language. Culturally, Turkish and Syrian people are close, but the language barrier makes it difficult to do the everyday tasks and to find work.”
“I want to build things again. One of the scariest things I face now is that I have no idea what the future will bring. There is no stability. But with my Turkish lessons and the legal advice here at the community center, I’m beginning to set up life here in Turkey.”
Abdel is one of several Syrians attending an IOM-supported community centre in Istanbul providing language courses, legal assistance, vocational training, conflict management and socio-cultural activities. Here Abdel is learning Turkish to help him get through every day interactions here in Turkey.
The community center is funded by the European Union.