Anyone who has ever worked with refugees and heard their stories has at least one sentence, that will be engraved in his or her heart and soul until the last day they live.
One of my sentences is “Don’t be sad mom”
“Mom” in this case is Fatima.
Fatima like thousands of refugees who fled Syria to Lebanon, had a registration interview a few months ago at a UNHCR registration center. Everyday a few hundred individuals await their turn in a restless waiting area. Each family or individual is designated a number and registration assistants like myself call up the cases by number in order to interview the families or individuals, assess their cases and refer them to the right type of help and support they might need.
I always like to pay attention at the way the numbers turn into people’s faces after they get called. You can tell a lot from the first glimpse, you get to a point where you can tell, from the look in the eyes of the person standing up and coming your way, that you are about to hear a story that will never leave you.
Fatima was alone, small, with a tiny nose, a tired face and restless hazel eyes. Eyes so deep and empty, eyes that no longer wanted to see.
I guide her to my office with a feeling of shame. I cannot explain it but sometimes, you get the sense that the person hates you. Not you personally but that they hate that they have to talk to you, they hate that they are here, they hate that they lost everything, they hate that they need help, they hate what you represent.
It makes me feel so small.
I explained to Fatima what the purpose of the interview was and tried as much as I can to let her know that it is safe to speak here.
She slowly took me inside her story.
It was a nice Syrian summer night in 2011. Fatima was preparing dinner and tea for herself and her son Aala’. Fatima used to be married to a man who left her at a very early age with her then newborn son Aala’. A single mother in Syria is no easy task. But Fatima is strong. She raises a nice boy, puts him through school; he loves her and takes care of her. They always had dinner at their small balcony on the fifth floor of a humble building. All the neighbors would be at their balconies.
“We will be back in 30 minutes mom, I promise”
Aala’ had just turned 17 and the Syrian crisis was still in its early stages. Demonstrations were starting to swoop across the country; the demonstrations were still peaceful back then. That night, thousands of people were gathering in a well-known square that had a big clock in the middle. People had organized a sit in, they were selling sweets, chanting songs, clapping and holding up slogans, a site that was unseen in the history of modern Syria. Fatima’s next door neighbors were also at the balcony with their children, they had two sons Baha’ and Khaled close in age to Aala’, they were his friends. The neighbors started talking about the demonstration taking place and Baha’ and Khaled kept saying “let’s go watch!”. There was a sense of curiosity and excitement; “We will be back in 30 minutes mom, I promise” said Aala’, Fatima told him he could go.
A little before the 30 minutes were up, Fatima and her neighbors started hearing heavy gun fire going off and they could see the chaos unraveling in the streets bellow as people came running into their neighborhood. Fatima and her neighbors rushed into the chaos towards the square to find their children. Everything was turned upside down, dead bodies lay on the ground, gun fire was still going off and the screams and shouts of men women and children as they ran for their lives made it impossible to grasp the reality of the situation.
Live ammunition rounds were fired at the thousands of demonstrators, injuring and killing more than a hundred people. People began rushing the wounded to the hospitals as a heavy crackdown lead to the random arrest of hundreds of people attending the sit in.
There was no sign of the boys.
“30 minutes turned into hours, hours turned into days, days turned into months and months turned into a year. I became a crazy person”
That night, Khaled and Baha’ eventually made it back home, they had managed to escape being shot or arrested. They remember seeing Aala’ bleeding on the ground, but they did not know what had happened to him. Their instinct to survive took over and they were not able to help him.
For a year Fatima searched every hospital, every government building, every prison with no result.
She sometimes stormed out in the middle of the night screaming his name in the streets but no one answered, she held his picture and asked random people on the streets if they had seen him. “30 minutes turned into hours, hours turned into days, days turned into months and months turned into a year. I became a crazy person” said Fatima with eyes filling up with tears.
Aala’ is on the phone!
A year and two months went by, Fatima wanted an answer, hope, ironically was her biggest curse, it was eating her alive, until a frantic knock on the door. It was Khaled the neighbor’s son “Alaa’ is on the phone!” he screamed.
For some reason Aala’ could only remember his neighbor’s phone number and not his own house. He had just been released from prison.
When Aala’ was shot, some people had managed to take him to a hospital. He was shot in the thigh and was rushed to the emergency room. Two hours later, the hospital was raided and all the wounded men were taken from the hospital to a detention facility.
Aala’ was not the same anymore. He was tortured for over a year, his back was broken from the beatings. He never left the house, he was no longer the sweet boy he once was, he was lifeless. But Fatima did not care.
He was back.
As the protests turned violent, the situation started deteriorating. Their area went under siege, food and water were scarce and Fatima and Aala’ began discussing fleeing to Lebanon, Aala’ had been back home for almost a year now.
It was a nice 2013 Syrian summer night. Fatima was at the balcony. Neighbors were rarely out on the balcony now, most of them had fled, most of those remaining had already been visited by death, loss and fear. The sounds of bombings and clashes were now constant background noise, the streets are always empty.
The emptiness was suddenly disturbed by three military vehicles. They park violently under Fatima’s building, armed men storm inside.Fatima runs to Aala’s room, they both know what is happening.
Please don’t be sad mom!”
It is a random house raid. All the men in the building will be taken away tonight. Fatima and Aala’ stand terrified in front of the door. They hear the echoes and the screams coming up the stairs. First floor, second floor, third floor… Aala’ looks at his mother “I cannot go back to prison again mom, I cannot go through it again, when they come in I will fight them until they shoot me, I would rather die than go back”. Fatima is now in an hysteric state, screaming, crying, pleading for Aala’, to God. No one answers.
Aala’ shakes her “Please don’t be sad mom! Don’t be sad!”. They can now hear Khaled and Baha’s mother screaming across the hall from their door, her husband and children are being taken away.
A bang on Fatima’s door now. They hear shouting. Fatima is crying standing in the way between Aala’ and whatever is coming through that door.
The door is kicked open.
Aala’ pushes his mother out-of-the-way and hails towards the men storming in.
“Don’t be sad mom!”
The names of the people mentioned in this article have been changed for confidentiality and protection reasons.