In Syria, more than 13.5 million people are still caught in the midst of conflict. One family shared their story of survival and resilience. Two U.S. student supporters listened, and this is what they learned.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.
He spoke with a sheer determination and willpower.
He spoke of the horrors he had seen, the prices he'd had to pay, with an acceptance that what was done was done. All that was left was to move on. This was a man who did not want to cause anybody harm. He did not want what had happened to him. But he knew that he would fight tooth and nail to make sure that his family was okay. This is the Syrian refugee.
What comes to your mind when you see “Syrian refugee crisis?”
What feelings do those words inspire? For some, they inspire action, while for others they mean nothing. The unfortunate reality is that, for lots of people, this issue has been dehumanized. Did those words bring to mind the faces of thousands of families displaced by conflict, or did they just remind you of the vague notion of a war going on “somewhere else”? We watch flashy news reports on a war in Syria, read the body counts, see the explosions, but do we ever stop to think about the people who are still living there? As we sit comfortably in our homes, thousands have been forced out of theirs because of a war they did not ask for. Of course, just like them, we did not choose our status of safety. However, what we do about the situation is our choice.
We are Melanie Ortiz and Henry Goldberg, and, as previous High School National Council members at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, we recently spoke with a Syrian family that had taken refuge in Germany. When approached with the opportunity to have their story told, they instantly agreed. It was an honor to be trusted with this family’s tale and at the very least, we hope to do them justice. As youth advocates here in the U.S. we had different responsibilities in our year working as National Council members, but the amount of trust that this family was placing in our hands was something entirely new. We recognized what it meant for this family to share their story and it brought a whole new set of responsibilities upon our shoulders.
The Amal* family was just like any other.
With a husband, wife, and four children, they lived a happy (though hectic) life in Aleppo, Syria. Then everything changed. War broke out in their homeland. Even after the attacks started, the Amals stayed in Aleppo for two years, not because they wanted to but instead because moving out of town was simply not possible. At that point, the world was not yet paying attention to their and their country’s plight. There were daily bomb strikes, and danger lurked in every corner. Each day, they witnessed people around them dying. Even in their own home, the Amals did not feel safe.
We knew we would die there. We accepted it. That's why we slept in the same room, so we would die together.
Every day at noon, the loud noise of helicopters rang through their neighborhood, soon followed by distant explosions resonating in the building. Their home was constantly surrounded by threats, so they moved around the city in order to survive. When they abandoned their original apartment, they were forced to leave behind all of their belongings, regardless of emotional or economic value. Mr. Amal was forced to work odd jobs, doing anything to sustain his family. During this time, the war caused a shortage of supplies all over Syria, which meant that the few resources available became extremely expensive. They would have to wait in long lines just to receive their rations of bread and other necessities, as well as any medical attention.
“There were times when the danger seemed less, sometimes it seemed more,” Mr. Amal explained. With time, large gatherings of people became the focus of bombings. The civilians in the bread lines, the sick and injured in the hospital, they all became targets. The Amals avoided these gatherings. But, despite doing so and despite having moved, the family was still not safe, even at home. In particular, being near their windows was a potential threat, forcing them to crowd into the innermost room of their apartment at all times. “We knew we would die there. We accepted it. That’s why we slept in the same room, so we would die together,” Mr. Amal said, visibly shaken by the truth of the statement.
One morning in late 2013, at exactly 7:00 AM, the apartment building next to theirs was bombed, reducing it to rubble.
There were nearly no survivors. Though the Amals had witnessed other attacks nearby before, this was the first in which any friends or family had perished. After the explosion, Mr. Amal got up to check on his family and noticed that his youngest son, Sami, was not in the room with the rest of them. Fearing the worst, the anxious father found him on the kitchen floor, severe burns covering his body and especially his legs and stomach. Because hospitals were so frequently targeted, taking Sami to the emergency room was not an option. The boy’s parents were forced to try to save their child with the scarce resources they had on hand. Utilizing a rug to put out the still-burning flames, Mr. Amal then used toothpaste to try to clean Sami’s wounds. However, Sami still needed anti-inflammation cream, antibiotics, and painkillers to fully recover. Because of the war, almost no medical supplies were available in Aleppo, let alone the specific ones they needed.Thus, Mr. Amal had take the dangerous trip to a nearby city in hopes of finding those materials.
The civilians in the bread lines, the sick and injured in the hospital, they all became targets.
Throughout all this time, they had been working on getting their passports so that they could escape Syria. As soon as they received their documents, they left for Turkey, just as the bombings in their neighborhood began increasing. They made it to Babal Salama, right on the border between Syria and Turkey, before continuing on to Istanbul, where they stayed for twenty-one months, working hard to save enough money to finance the move to Europe. Every member of the family had to work so that they could all survive.
In Turkey, many people took advantage of their desperate situation.
As Mr. Amal put it, “If there was an apartment for rent available for one amount of money, it would cost twice as much for a refugee, even though we were paid less.” This exploitation forced Mr. and Mrs. Amal to make their children work with them instead of attending school. As time went on, it began to seem that the dream of appropriate schooling for their children was just that: a dream.
They considered trying to stay in Turkey, but they soon realized that was not an option: they were surviving, not living. With no official school to attend, the children’s best option for education came in the form of unorganized meetings, which themselves produced very little real learning. The lack of schooling was the last straw for Mr. Amal and led him to chance the precarious trip to Europe. Due to the dangerous nature of the journey, the fathers of refugee families typically go to Europe first, and, after arriving, they work to retrieve their family through legal means, thereby securing the much safer route for them.
Having the father go to Europe first is typical among refugee families.
This practice has been the object of criticism from people who accuse the men of leaving their families behind or of not taking responsibility for them. However, the first person to make the trek to Europe is actually taking by far the biggest risk. For a potential traveler to Europe, the journey ahead involves traveling with smugglers, across land and sea, in an environment that could be fatal for anyone, especially women and children. Mr. Amal made his way from Turkey to Greece, then Macedonia and eventually Germany. He said he was lucky to have made it, since many didn’t survive along the way. The smugglers he encountered rarely would do as promised, going as far as stealing a family’s money. After fitting fourteen people on boats meant for no more than ten people, the smugglers would force the travelers to destroy the boats as they approached the shore. Not everyone always knew how to swim, but if the passengers did not destroy the boat before landing, the local authorities would send them back. As a result, the refugees, many of whom often did not know how to swim, were forced to do just that in order to survive.
The men take this risk upon their shoulders to try and grant their family a safer life.
In Germany, there is a program that helps these men reunite with their families through legal and safer means. However, this process can take up to two and a half years for various reasons, including the different appointments with the German embassy that both the family and the father must attend (combined with their lack of availability) as well as the extensive screening process the family goes through upon arrival. Throughout the trip, Mr. Amal asked himself the questions that he says all Syrians have asked themselves at least once. Will I ever be able to go back home? Will I ever be able to live in peace again? What should I do?
We can never forget about those still stuck in Syria, we owe it to them to try and find help.
Mr. Amal was able to reunite with his family seven weeks ago.
The family is currently living in a refugee camp, slowly rebuilding the life they have lost, all with the eventual goal of integrating themselves back into society. Every day, the children and adults go to school for at least 4 hours a day, which is paid for by the government. They are all working on their German, though some refugees have even been able to continue their university studies or attend vocational trainings. Sometimes they also have social gatherings and go visit different parts of Germany to learn more about their new local culture. They explained that living in Germany would have be very difficult if not for the volunteers that helped make their life a little easier. These men and women help facilitate their integration into German society, allowing them to have a fresh start.
We also had the opportunity to ask Sami a couple further questions. Despite everything they have been through, Sami remains hopeful for the future. He shared his dream to be a professional football (soccer) player when he grows up. Having been in Germany for just seven weeks, he is looking forward to making friends as soon as he can to run around and play with outside. Somehow still smiling, still laughing, Sami is living proof of the indomitable spirit of children.
“We may have fear since we don’t know what to expect, but the only way to get over that fear is through communication.” says Mr. Latif, the kind man who acted as a translator during our conversation, who was also a refugee.
Both Mr. Amal and Mr. Latif emphasized that even though organizations around them are helping them adjust, there is still a long way for them to go. And while they are grateful for all the help they have received thus far, they still wish to give their feedback about where the refugee process can be improved. For example, there is still lots of work to be done trying to get the civilians out of Syria and into safety. As Mr. Amal put it, “Though we are safe here in Germany, we can never forget about those still stuck in Syria, we owe it to them to try and find help.
We are just looking to have a future for our families. We just want peace.We need peace, now.
Toward the end of our conversation, Melanie asked what they would like to say to those who read this article. They promptly responded, “We would say that we are peaceful people. We are just looking to have a future for our families. We just want peace. We need peace, now.”
Let us take a moment to consider the facts.
There are thousands of other families that have been through equally terrifying circumstances as the Amals’, many of whom are still living these terrors. The men, women, and children who make up these families deserve safety. We tend to focus only on the statistics and percentages of the situation, but often forget what all those numbers really represent. They represent mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, students, artists, engineers, children. Every refugee out there has a unique story to tell. They just require an audience that will listen. This lack of communication has caused the media to propagate many prejudices against refugees, a problem which creates an incorrect image of refugees as criminals, beggars or worse. In turn, this false portrayal of character creates obstacles that prevent refugees from moving forward with their lives. People judge these men, women, and children without knowing a single thing about them, only that they come from somewhere else.
Earlier, we asked you what came to mind when you saw the words “Syrian refugee crisis.” Has your answered changed? Has this family’s story shined a new light on your views? In our case, we can say it has. The Amal family’s story has truly struck a chord that still resonates within us. Their unparalleled bravery and resilience is one that we deeply admire for, not only do they have the will to survive, but they also have the courage to continue to hope, even in times of darkness. Despite the countless struggles that they have faced, they always kept moving, kept living, worked toward the prospect of a brighter future. In their story we found the truths that society often ignores, and the lies it always believes. We can learn a lot from the heroism of refugees. But they’re the heroes that we simply never get to see.