Survival Stories: Fight or flight?
In early 2015 Bassam folded himself into a crate on the back of a lorry in Athens and 36 hours later he was unloaded in Italy. "I am glad I had bought a change of clothes with me“, he told me whilst laughing at the expression on my face as I realised what he meant. He then made his way towards the Netherlands but got stopped by the police in Germany where he was strongly advised to apply for asylum. After one year his wife and two children joined him and they now all live together in Germany. He tells me about why he made the dangerous journey to Europe.
We are sitting with Bassam, Amena and their two children around our dining room table eating croissants and drinking tea. We have been friends since Amena attended one of my cycling lesson for ladies and since then we have often visited each other’s homes. At their flat we enjoy many dishes of delicious Syrian delicacies but when they visit us they must suffer my dreadful cooking! While the kids are drawing, the topic of discussion moves on to why they left Syria. Just like many Syrians we know, Bassam received a warning telling him to leave the country. These warnings are taken very seriously and people often leave the very same day because they fear they might disappear without trace, as has happened to one of their friends who has not been seen for four years.
As Bassam continues talking I get the chills because the situation he describes sounds like something that should have been confined to history books long ago. Just reading the wrong book or wearing the wrong clothes can get you arrested. At election time you let the electoral officer cross the “Assad” box for you, or you risk getting into trouble. At Bassam’s place of work all employees were expected to display photos of Assad as well as actively participate in supporter demonstrations. Any lack of enthusiasm, perceived or real, was reported to the secret police via informers, who are everywhere.
Bassam managed to keep his head down as best as possible until a good friend of his was killed whilst sleeping, by a government barrel bomb. Later that day Bassam read comments on Facebook that his friend had been a terrorist and deserved to die. Through his tears he wrote an angry reply stating that the real terrorists were the government because they killed his friend, a peaceful family man whose house happened to be in the wrong area. Soon after, Bassam was called to his manager‘s office and strongly encouraged to make a public apology with all sorts of good excuses about why he wrote that statement. He did this but was concerned that he still might end up in one of the secret police prisons so he decided to leave Syria with his family, escaping over the border to Turkey.
I ask him a question I often hear from people, "Why didn’t you all just stay in Turkey?“. He told me, "Everything I do now is for my children. We left everything and everyone behind and have to start again somewhere. In Turkey our status is very unclear, many Syrians live in massive camps where there are no schools or jobs. Others are 'lucky' enough to be allowed to work and I know people – highly skilled and qualified people - who are working 18 hour days in factories and cafes under terrible conditions with no chance of a better life for them or their children. Of course I want my family to be safe but I don’t want them just to survive, I want to give my children the best possible chance in life“.
Another question people ask me is, “how come young men don’t stay in Syria and fight?”. Bassam’s only experience of firing a gun is similar to most people I know – a gun with paint in it - and whenever he played in Syria he tells me he always got shot straight away. “If my paintball experience was anything to go by I would be no good with a real gun, even if I did find a ‘good’ army to fight with”. He goes on to explain, “The war began because people wanted freedom from the Assad family, who are evil enough to drop chemical weapons on their own people, so of course I would fight against Assad, but does that mean I should join IS? No way! My other option would be the Free Syrian Army who are against IS and Assad, but they also fight with the Kurdish people and I don’t want to fight with them”. He sighs whilst finishing his last mouthful of croissant and tells me he doesn’t actually think he could kill anyone anyway, even if they were his worst enemy.
Thankfully, he didn’t have to kill or get killed, instead we are enjoying a normal afternoon together. In just a year the entire family are speaking fluent German, Bassam is a respected manager in a well-known global organisaton and Amena is going to complete her social work qualification as soon as she has finished an internship in a Kindergarten and her German studies. The children have made friends and are settled into their new school. They all dream of seeing their parents and grandparents again someday and are hopeful of returning to Syria, once the war is over, so that they can help rebuild their country. Until then, they are doing the best they can to make the most of their new life.