Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A million invisible Syrian refugees

Pieter Stockmanstakes a look at the daily life of two families from Aleppo, now living in Istanbul, both struggling and worried about their futures

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The city is expanding and apartment buildings and mosques are gobbling up space. Many Syrian refugees live alongside poor Turks on the hillside west of old Istanbul. I spent one week with two families, the Nasro and Ibesh. Both families fled Aleppo and now live as refugees in a working-class area of Istanbul.

The siege: Roshin used to be a cleaning lady in Aleppo. “I had to pass through dozens of checkpoints on my way to work,” she says. “Once I saw a woman collapse in front of me. Snipers had shot her in the leg.” For one year, her friend Nacah lived in her basement after rubble landed in her five-year-old daughter Jin’s room.

Her husband, Imad Ibesh, used to distribute food in besieged neighbourhoods. Jin only saw her father when he brought leftovers down to the basement. She heard the adults talk about the dead, the wounded, torn off limbs and weapons. “In the dark I would teach her Kurdish freedom songs,” Nacah says. “Today she knows them word by word.”

A sinister thunder, the sound of buildings collapsing. On 27 March 2013, they were chased out of the basement like rats. They saw thousands of people in the dusty streets, running, screaming. It was an apocalyptical scene. “In five minutes’ time a neighbourhood with tens of thousands of inhabitants was empty,” Nacah says. “Jin was laughing and crying at the same time. ‘Mother, it’s okay, we are not dead,’ she said.”

Roshin had to flee as well. She and her husband, Mohamed Nasro, spent years working to buy the house that was about to be destroyed. “It was night. I was wearing my pajamas. When I saw the planes flying over our neighbourhood, I was frightened,” she recounts. She put on her headscarf and started to pray for her life. They fled to the town of Kurdan, but their savings ran out quickly, so they moved on to Istanbul.

Imad Ibesh wanted to return to Aleppo to distribute food. Jin saw her father disappear again. “My family said that I should divorce him, but I didn’t want to,” Nacah says. “When I got pregnant with our second child, he agreed to go to Istanbul.” Imad remained loyal to activism. He and his brother worked as political analysts for a Kurdish radio station in Istanbul. Together they earn 1,000 euros a month, an income that should feed six people.

The new life: Jewan Nasro, 11, is running through the streets of the working-class neighbourhood Sahintepe with Syrian and Turkish children. Chickens, goats and cows graze on the grass down the road. People from the neighbourhood bring their waste to a public dumpster, where it is burned. On the horizon, office buildings rise up and cars rush along the beltway. Seven-year-old Rojda Nasro sits next to her mother in the living room, playing games on a cell phone.

In Aleppo, Jewan and Rojda went through hell, but here they glow with life. It took a while to get their lives back on track. “My brothers had left for Germany with smugglers, but I had to make Jewan and Rojda work,” their father, Mohamed, says bitterly.

After a day of work in the sewing studio, in the basement of the apartment, he plops down on the couch. Luckily, Roshin’s cousin in Belgium was able to transfer some money to stop the children from joining the army of illiterates. Roshin works in a supermarket, earning seven euros a day.

Back to school: Rojda is an enthusiastic student in one of the Syria Can Schools. She gets a nine or a ten-out-of-ten in all of her subjects. “One 7/10 was enough to get a grumpy face in all of her graduation pictures,” Roshin laughs.

“With the right support, this child will have a bright future,” the school principal wrote on Rojda’s report card. Many children of Syrian refugees have no passport and cannot enrol in Turkish schools, because they are “illegal”. Since 2012, the Can Schools have been organising classes for 1,500 students in Istanbul.

Roshin wants to provide this support for her children, no matter what. She tries to make sure they do not fall behind in school. “When we left Aleppo, Rojda was not going to school yet and Jewan could barely read and write,” she says. “That is why I send them to a Turkish mosque during the summer vacation. There they learn how to read, for free, by reading the Quran.” Jewan kisses the Quran and starts reading with a hoarse voice. He stutters, but is proud of everything he has learned at the mosque.

A born leader: Rojda is seven years old and has started to learn how to read. She already knows words such as “sniper”, “Free Syrian Army” and the names of different kinds of weapons. Proudly, she begins to explain: “Once I was walking with mom and Jewan when I heard a bullet from a sniper barely missing Jewan. I also found a bullet on our balcony once and when I picked it up, it was still warm.”

We visit the Turkish mosque. The boys are sitting on the carpet downstairs, while the girls are upstairs. Every child has a copy of the Quran. One third of these children are originally from Syria. Rojda, a born leader, clearly has a hard time not being able to use her leadership abilities around the Turkish children, who do not understand her. Later on she tells us that they bully her. “If I become the president, I will allow Europeans to come to Syria, but not the Turks,” she says. “But I will become an engineer so that I can rebuild our house.”

Emotional bombs: The war has destroyed more than just buildings. The bombs that were dropped on Aleppo have unchained an emotional bomb that is making its way towards the family. Mohamed cannot accept the fact that Syria has changed forever. His heart is deeply connected with the olive trees, the fruit, the goats and the air of the countryside.

Every morning when sees the sun rise over the city of Istanbul, rather than the hills of Kurdan, he thinks about Europe. His village is not even a dream. There is no electricity, no schools. And education is the electricity that lights up Rojda.

That night the apartment in Istanbul is filled with guests from Kurdan. The power outage reminds them of their life in Kurdan. Jewan brings out the candles and Rojda sings “Happy Birthday.” Everyone laughs. In the candlelight, the men discuss politics while the women tell each other secrets.

Roshin knows that only in Europe can her children become the person she never became. She gets teary-eyed when talking about how she dropped out of school: “To go to school, I had to move from Kurdan to Aleppo when I was six, but I cried myself to sleep every night, because I missed the village. When I was 12, I dropped out of school and returned to the village.”

History is about to repeat itself: Jewan and Rojda have come to the city — Istanbul — to go to school, but this time it’s Mohamed’s detachment that might bring them back to the village. “I would even go to Europe alone with the kids,” Roshin whispers under a full moon.

“If Roshin does that, then I will join a militia. I can’t accept my children becoming children of Europe instead of Syria,” Mohamed says when we talk to him separately. Rojda and Jewan are trapped between their parents’ conflicting visions of their future.

Imad and Nacah are also growing apart. Nacah often reminisces about the past. Imad’s brother and mother are living in the family’s small apartment and there is no privacy. Jin, however, did find the space for quiet in her head.

“When we got to Turkey, Jin directed a barrage of questions at me: ‘Who destroyed our streets?’ She was furious. Ever since that day she has been behaving aggressively towards other children,” Nacah says. Jin is running around in the apartment, screaming, laughing, sometimes hitting her mother and sulking.


The writer is a Belgian journalist. He has travelled throughout North Africa and the Middle East for the past decade, producing in-depth reports on the impact of socioeconomic, political and religious developments on the lives of ordinary people.

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