Two Voices from Aleppo University

Aleppo University after the bombings January 2013

I was able to talk with two persons from Aleppo University in Syria, that shared what they had been going through.

Here are their stories:

I was offered a job at Aleppo university after my studies. When the revolution started we as employees in a governmental institution were made to cooperate with shabiha (a feared subgroup within the Syrian intelligence/military, some claim they are criminals that the government recruits to terrorize civilians, a strategy to stop the revolution). We had to assist them in their fights against the protests. I tried to act as if I assisted them, then I was able to escape the country.

My home in Syria is all destroyed, my street is in ruins. No food is available and when going to search for food to buy people are being killed by snipers. Why are the government and the Free Syrian Army taking it out on us? We are only citizens.I  didn’t think the revolution would go this bad, and I blame both sides now. They have both helped in destroying my city.”

I was a student in Aleppo university. In January 2012 students were gathering in front of the cafeteria, holding a protest. They were protesting peacefully, shouting for freedom, protesting against the war and demanding the release of political prisoners. Security guards inside the university called shabiha without the students knowing. They came directly and started arresting students on spot and hit them with electrical batons. Another time they gassed the university with teargas.

Then on January 15 2013, it was first day of the examinations, the government bombed the university, many people saw the attack and that it was carried out by a warplane. Still when I see a plane or helicopter in the sky I get an awful feeling. One missile hit the entrance of the faculty of architecture; the other one hit the student dorm that had been evacuated to host refugees from other areas of Aleppo, people that had have to flee their homes. Dead people were littering the streets all around.

I can’t forget the barbarity of Shabiha and the security forces, the way I saw them attack the students or the sounds of clashes and missiles around us. I still have nightmares and then I wake up sometimes and I have to say to myself: ‘It’s ok, I’m out of Syria,I’m safe now’. But now a year after my departure, the situation is more much worse. There are inner borders and snipers in everywhere and there isn’t any safe place left in Aleppo.

Photo credit: New York Times

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Crossing the Syrian Border

In a time of peace and normality, the border between Syria and Lebanon is like any other border: queues are busy, rules are neglected, bored military officials are stamping passports in between smoking and drinking endless cups of tea. Now everything is different. And as the road to the airport is not safe, crossing the Lebanese border by land is the only safe alternative for leaving the country, making an otherwise sheltered humanitarian aid worker like me left to mingle with the Syrians that are trying to get out.

The border on the road between Damascus and Beirut is still controlled, heavily controlled, with new checkpoints every few minutes before reaching the border office. Outside the office cars are parked everywhere and masses of people are moving with their plastic bags and children, the chaos mirroring the domestic collapse. Many internal refugees are now dirt-poor, without money for bus or shared taxi, leaving the country by foot.

I was holding on to my passport and documents, trying to make my way in through the crowd and into the office. It was steaming hot and people were pushing and shoving each other, small children were crying. The lines leading up to the cashiers where the necessary stamps were given to the lucky ones that were able to reach there, was swamped. The driver that had taken me was not allowed to do the documents for me, and without stamp you couldn’t cross the border. I was able to make my way a few meters in to the crowd before I got stuck. People were so tightly packed it was impossible for a short woman like me to advance forward, and the crowd was turning aggressive. Even if I wouldn’t be squeezed, would I be saved from being assaulted? A man that was trying to make his way back through the crowd was being squeezed and received help from his wife and another man that pulled him out. The officers behind the counters shouted out, telling people to stop, and some shouted back: “How can we do it?” “We’re stuck!” “Help us instead!”

A military man passed by and people flipped their papers to him, begging for help: “My husband is sick, please help us!”, “Ammo, we need to get out, please stamp our passports!” The man ignored them, but I took my chance and pulled out my humanitarian worker’s ID:

“I’m a foreigner, I work for the Red Cross! Or something like the Red Cross!”

He glanced at me.

“Ok, come here.”

He let me go before him through the door he was entering and shoved away the others that tried to follow. A big metal tool was placed against the door to prevent it from opening again and the desperate bangs from the outside followed immediately. In the small room aside of the counters a few other people, a man on crutches and some lone women like me, were waiting hopefully, squeezed together in the small window facing the officers. Maybe we would be able to leave the country today? But we were being ignored.

“Go stand in line!” an officer yelled.

“We can’t stand in line, they’ll squeeze us! We’ll die there!” a woman replied.

Through an open window some young men climbed in. From all ways everyone was desperately trying to reach the officers, the stamps. The room was filling up with people and was becoming unpleasantly crowded as well. A girl who was pressed next to me laid her head on my shoulder, seizing the opportunity of the closeness to rest. She was maybe 10 years old.

“Are you tired?” I asked her.

Eh.” Her voice was just a whisper.

The girl drifted off to sleep as we waited, her head staying on my shoulder, her body leaning on me. The pressure from other people kept her upright.

After maybe an hour an officer appeared and suddenly lost his temper when seeing the amount of people that had materialized in the back room:

”Get out, all of you!”

The protests made him furious, he violently pushed us out:

“Go! I said go!”

No one wants to unfold an argument with an armed military. We stumbled upon each other as we hurriedly left the room. I was being pushed to the right and lost my balance, quickly catching it before falling face down. The driver that had been waiting for me in the back of the main room saw me from a distance and shouted: “Someone help her at least, she’s small, she can’t make it there! She’s afraid of all you men!”

A man suddenly gave in, reached out for me through the forest of people, took my passport and papers and sent them through the crowd.  “A small girl” I heard him mumbling to the others protesting. A few minutes later the papers came back, sent from hand to hand, with the proper stamps, nothing missing. I advanced backwards through the masses and was able to press through the door. Before reaching the relief of the fresh air I saw the little girl that had slept on my shoulder, now slumping alone on the floor. Her mother probably had left her there while trying to make it on her own. She was also a small girl, but no one took notice of her.

Two White Women Buying a Table from an Iraqi Family

On a rainy November evening a few years ago, me and my flatmate took a bus to the other end of our city to buy a second hand couch table we had seen an ad for online. We were scraping together to buy things to furnish our flat going all over the city to collect second hand furniture from richer people that traded off their old stuff, and we were happy to finally afford a table for our living room. It was a long way to go to this neighborhood, where small houses replaced the rental flats in our area, and we searched for a while before finding the house. A pretty little brick house with an accompanying garden, was supposedly the correct place according to the address we had been provided with.

As we rang the doorbell a small boy opened. “My mom is coming” he said, then adding, unasked: “She only speaks little Swedish.”

A woman dressed in a black abaya appeared in the doorway, introducing herself in broken Swedish. We realized it was an Iraqi family that we had come across. It was obviously not one of the Baghdadi families, liberal in the urban kind of way – it was a conservative, religious family we could tell from the woman’s appearance and the religious scripts on the wall. We were surprised, then felt stupid being surprised. Why couldn’t a conservative Iraqi family stay in this upper middle class area? Here we were: two white women still buying second hand furniture because we couldn’t afford the new things, still sharing a flat in what someone could have called a “socially deprived area” where water leaks in the house made our flat smell of mold, and shootings was such a regular happening it hardly made headlines. Your own prejudices can have a way of coming back and slap you in the face sometimes.

The woman introduced us to the tables they were selling off and we chatted a bit. It turned out they were from Diwaniya, a city in Southern Iraq, and had arrived to Sweden a few years before. Selling all they had in Iraq before fleeing the escalating violence, and her husband starting to work as soon as they had arrived, after a while buying a small candy shop, had made them being able to buy themselves the house and put their children in nearby reputable schools.

Her husband and his brother came home, we agreed on a table on a price, then it was time for us to go. The woman started to propose that we had to drink tea first, we must be tired from the long bus ride. Or maybe eat something before leaving? We explained we were in a hurry and that we had to call a taxi to transport the heavy table to our place.

“Taxi?” the man asked. “You don’t have a car?”

“No.”

None of us actually even had a driving license, but we withheld that so as not having to lower ourselves even more in the eyes of the sellers – we had already told them the area we lived in. Without further discussion the man and his brother carried the table to their car, announcing they would bring us home.The woman kissed us both goodbye and, when we declined tea or dinner a second time, welcomed us back anytime. None of the people we had bought our furniture from had been that nice.

We squeezed into the car (damn, it was even a Volvo) with the brother of the husband and the big table, and at our house he helped us to carry the table into our living room. When he had left we looked at each other, baffled. It had been a trip of surprises, not only over who stayed in the house, but over the ride. None of our fellow Swedish countrymen would ever have done us that favour.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

The Syrian Children Sleeping in the Park

In the park outside our house in Damascus, Syria, new families regularly come to sleep for a couple nights before being escorted away. The few belongings they keep themselves with; blankets, clothes and plastic cups, are being hauled away at the same time. Where do they go? To the temporary camps in schools or mosques? Will they be one of the families living in unfinished buildings, without electricity or water, with no protection from strangers?

One afternoon when I was meeting up with a friend, a teenage girl saw us walking on the street. She came up, asking for money.

”No, habibti.”

After a couple of weeks here I have improved my skills in saying no. And if I gave to someone living close to me, I might be harassed every day.

“Ahmed!” the girl called out and a little boy, maybe 5 years old, ran between us. He didn’t look like the kids I usually saw sleeping in the parks, he was different: even though being barefoot he easily crossed the pebbly street, and no adults were to be seen around. When being approached by kids in other cities, I sometimes ask: “Why are you on the street like this? Why are you not with your mom?” That usually makes them back off, feeling a bit ashamed of their parents sending them out to beg. But I had a feeling that wouldn’t take effect here.

“Please khala, we’re hungry.”

No.

The girl was dressed like an adult even though she recently must have entered her teens. Her long dress was ripped, her black scarf hung loosely around her head, displaying her hair, as if she didn’t care anymore.

“They have been in our house too, banging the doors, screaming for money,” my friend told me.

The little boy pulled my blouse, aggressively: “Please!”

I freed myself from his grip and turned around. We tried to speed up the pace to get away. After a few steps, stones and other small things started falling down on us.

Khallas!” (Stop it!) I yelled to the one closest to me, it was the girl that had ran up behind us.

“No, I won’t stop!”

More stones came swirling through the air, the boy had catched up with my friend and suddenly struck her in the back.

Hey!” she turned around and raised her hand, appearing a bit stronger than I had.

First then the kids slowed down, but they didn’t stop. It wasn’t until then that I realized they were not afraid of being hit. The girl already had traces of a black eye and scratches in her face. After a while the children seemed to lose the energy to harass us. They stopped, only throwing some small sticks at us as we left the park.

Later that day I saw them again, this time accompanied by two other children. The little group followed people on the street, pulled their clothes, pulled an old woman’s long robe. They received nothing from no one. In a state of conflict, no one is willing to give up whatever little they could spare. One of the boys was now being dragged along the sideway by an older girl, she half carried him. He was beyond tired; exhausted. Another boy, maybe 11 or 12, carried a long stick, violently swinging it back and forth. One man yelled at them, others got scared by the boy and his stick, and crossed the street.

I caught myself thinking, as if I wanted to tell them: “We can’t blame you, you’re just ordinary children. It’s not your fault that you had to become like this.”