From 23rd-27th December 2019 I embarked on a journey to Reyhanli, a small town on the Syrian-Turkish border. During that week I visited the Medical Educational Council (MEC) premises and was able to meet and hear the stories of Syrian refugees, all of which have been both physically and emotionally victimised by the Syrian Civil War. Although my visit was short, each day I found myself experiencing a constant wave of shock, disbelief and sorrow at the unimaginable experiences of the people in this town, while also being overwhelmed with admiration at the courage which shone through every conversation I had.
The Medical Education Council: An Unwavering Commitment
On the first day, I was taken on a tour of the centre in order to see the work that the MEC carried out. Before arriving, I believed that I had mentally prepared myself for what I was about to experience. I knew that learning about the struggles and hardships of the Syrian refugees was going to be difficult, but it was something that I thought I was ready for. The ability to listen to these stories, to find out, even marginally, about the journeys of these innocent civilians who were involuntarily thrown into the midst of chaos and destruction was invaluable. I would soon find out, however, that all my attempts would be fruitless- there is nothing that could have prepared me for the stories that I was about to hear.
When I arrived to the MEC, the feeling resonating through me was strange. Despite being Syrian, I initially felt like a stranger as I met other Syrians who had experienced types of trauma which quite frankly, were so horrifying that they might have seemed like a bitter fabrication of the imagination had I not listened to the first-hand accounts of them. It almost felt like survivor’s guilt. But this feeling didn’t last long- as I walked around the centre, I was at awe with the work done to rehabilitate the victims of the Syrian War. This was done through physiotherapy and counselling, for example. I was impressed by the dedication of the volunteers and the personal investment they had made in each of the lives of the patients in the centre. Beyond that, however, I was struck by the smiles of every single person I crossed paths with. They weren’t normal smiles, however. They were a type of smile which I had never seen before. It was a timid smile which held the heavy brunt of betrayal but also clung onto small fragments of hope. This resonated with me. Despite the years of pain and difficulties, they were not broken in the full sense of the word. As the head nurse took me around the centre, she introduced me to the different patients as and when she could. She explained to me how the cases I was seeing now were incomparably better than when they had first arrived to Reyhanli. As I was taken around the centre, I realised that perhaps my expectations were nowhere close to what they should have been. I walked around the physiotherapy halls and educational centre where the men and women were given vocational training in fields such as computer science, coding, sewing and carpentry for example, in order to help them become self-sufficient.
At the end of the day, I briefly met four courageous women: Jahida Al Saeed, Noha Mansour, Hiam Ramadan and Fatima Khadija. Despite being cheated by both the Syrian government and the international system, these women were not silenced. They came out strong enough to tell the truth of their stories to the world and to demand to be heard.
“I lay there, helpless, like a lump of meat thrown onto the ground”
On the second day, I met Jahida from the Province of Idlib. Jahida’s story began when the attacks and situation in Idlib had gotten so severe that she fled to turkey with her husband, four children and pregnant sister. The first thing that Jahida told me was how grateful she was that in the chaos of war, she had been able to stay with her family at the very start at least. As Jahida told me the beginning of her story, her eyes sparkled at the memory of her family. She told me how despite her family’s excitement to return to their homeland after having lived in Turkish Exile, for some reason she didn’t feel the same. She had a sinking feeling in her gut.
When Jahida told her family how she thought that they should all stay in Turkey, they told her she was paranoid. She told me about how she gave her children their identity cards and told them to keep it with them at all times. She told them that if anything happens they should open the car door and run as far as they could until they found someone who could help. She told them not to worry or think about her or their dad, just to look out for themselves and for each other.
It wasn’t long after uttering those words that her fate was sealed. A short while after, an airstrike came down onto their car. One second Jahida and her family were sat down and the next they were launched what she claimed felt like 15 metres up into the air before they thudded back onto the ground.
Initially, Jahida’s vision went black. All she could think about was getting to her children and pregnant sister, but she was powerless. Jahida told me how she had been reduced to a lump of meat laying on the ground, motionless. The helplessness she felt both in the moment and as she recounted the story to me was palpable.
After some time, Jahida started to regain her vision. As she turned her head, she saw an arm and leg detached from a body. She realised they were hers, but even in that moment all she could think about is how she needed to find her children. As she kept turning trying to find them, her eye caught sight of a blood chilling sight. There, a few metres away from her lay her sister, dead, with her still born baby just a few metres away from her. There on the ground lay the world’s victim of injustice and oppression.
At some point, Jahida felt a blanket cover her and she was rushed over to the back of a truck. As she lay down, she saw another leg detached from a body- but the pain in seeing this was different, more powerful. Not for herself, but for her little son. She tried to concentrate, to speak to him and calm him down but there he lay, motionless. He was gone. If that wasn’t enough, as she moved her head to see if she could find anyone else, she locked eyes with her young daughter, Aalia. Her eyes were slightly open, looking straight at her. She was smiling. Jahida explained how for a split second, she felt hope. Surely if she was smiling, she wasn’t in pain. After a few seconds of trying to speak to her, however, she realised that she was gone too. The same words she had said to her just moments before resonated through her brain. “We’re in the homeland Mama, why aren’t you happy?” But even a moment of grief was deemed too much for Jahida’s. Before she knew it, it was ripped away from her- another strike came down on them and she blacked out.
When she woke up in the hospital, the doctors told her she was the only one who had survived. Her entire family was gone.
I was lost for words, at this point- unable to find the right thing to say in this situation. The next thing she said to me, however, moved me in an indescribable way. Jahida described how the supposed dignity and respect for human life that she had always heard about was a myth. It was a dream neither she nor her family were granted. But when these feelings begin to overwhelm her, she realises that her family ended up in their homeland just like they wanted, and that none of them are alone. “My arm was buried with my three daughters. My leg was buried with my husband and my son. So I guess it isn’t so bad. A little part of us will always be together…”
“The Humiliation was as Unbearable as the Physical Pain”
On the third day I spoke to Noha from the Northern Countryside of Hama. Noha’s story is one which is detached from reality; the human rights violations she encountered knew no boundaries. In 2016, she was stood on her balcony with her two children when a strike came down onto her house, causing the gas tank to explode over her entire body. Despite alighting in flames, her motherly instincts kicked in and she still managed to look over and check if her children had been affected. Once she saw that the fire hadn’t reached them, she began running in order to protect them from the heat of the fire. At the time, her youngest son who was a year and a half started crawling towards her, but the 3-year-old held him back, telling him not to get any closer.
By the time the flames had subsided, Noha had suffered from 3rd and 4th degree burns over her entire body. She was a remnant of what she once had been. She lost her hair, eyebrows and vision. The fire had eaten through Noha’s skin, bones and muscles causing her to lose the fingers in her right hand and initially experience full body paralysis. During my visit, however Noha explained to me how she was in the best state she had been since the accident. Noha had had various operations and medical procedures carried out on her to try to help her regain some mobility and vision. She could see, she was beginning to walk alone, and she could talk. But that doesn’t change that her old life of independence is more than a distant dream away.
As Noha explained her story to me, it initially felt like a she was recounting a detached series of events. As the story progressed, however, tears began to stream down her face at the memories. Noha was unable to wipe them alone, however. As I wiped them away her tears, she explained to me how she felt embarrassed by her domestic life after the burn. She told me about how her husband divorced her and remarried. For a period of time, before the MEC took her in, she was living with her ex-husband and his new wife. Her family had blamed him for her burns since he was selling the tanks and had left them on the side, they told him that he was her responsibility. Noha explained how she felt completely stripped of her dignity, how she felt like an unwanted pest being thrown from one place to the other. Being completely dependent on her ex-husband and his new wife stripped her of all her dignity. The level of humiliation she felt was almost equivalent to the physical pain. “They would shout at me”, she said, “they tried to turn my son against me, tried to make him scared of me. When that didn’t work, they became angry at me and stopped taking me to my physiotherapy appointments. They took the monthly allowance I received from the Red Cross and spent it on themselves- my husband said I didn’t deserve it”.
Listening to Noha speak about the experiences at a time when she was only a year older invoked a potent feeling of shock and anger within me. The worst part came, however, when she told me how her ex-husband and new wife’s verbal abuse turned into physical abuse, how she was beaten by them and left for days without food. Her son would help her when he could but when he was caught, he would get beaten too.
By this point, a puddle of tears was forming in Noha’s lap. Before I was able to ask about her children, she began telling me about her younger son who lives with her ex-husband’s parents in the Hama suburbs. Noha told me how they refuse to return him to her since they claim she has no right to him since they raised him after her injuries. He no longer recognises her as his mother due to the extent of her injuries and physical deformation. As for her older son, he lives with his father and his new wife. Every Sunday, the MEC picks him up from his father’s so that he can spend the day with his mother. That’s all the time that Noha’s ex-husband lets her have with him, however. When they divorced, he gained full custody of the child.
“Leave it to your imagination, and then more”
By this point I thought that I could no longer be shocked by the stories that were left to be told. On the fourth day, I walked into the same room I had become accustomed to since the beginning of the week to find Hiam set on her wheelchair waiting for me. Hiam is 60 years old from Zabadane, the Damascus suburbs. She told me about how she was unwilling to leave Damascus even in the most intensive periods of shelling. It was suffocating, she told me, but it was Syria and that is where she wanted to be. In 2015 Hiam’s choice of staying or leaving was ripped away from her when a barrel bomb was dropped on her house and she entered a coma. When she opened her eyes in the hospital, she was relieved to find out that her two daughters had safely made it out of the house and they were by her side. Hiam needed extensive medical attention, however, which could not be provided by the hospital she was in. As they began planning the logistics of transferring her to a different hospital, their contemplation was cut short when Hiam and her two daughters were taken from the hospital by government forces to be put in prison. Imagine, not even the realms of the hospital warranted any limits or sympathies. Hiam begged them to let them go, to have some mercy on her due to her age and medical condition. She pleaded, told them that they hadn’t done anything. They responded by telling her that she had done more than enough, she had raised a ‘traitor’. I soon learned that Hiam was told that she and her two daughters would be imprisoned until they found her son who, according to the police force had committed the crime of ‘having an opinion’ on the Syrian regime. The threshold of justice was so low that a mere opinion was enough to warrant these levels of tyranny.
Hiam and her daughters were kept imprisoned for two and a half years As she described the conditions to me, she shook her head, almost as if she was trying to wipe the image from her memory. Hiam recounted how the prison room they were in held more than 50 women, all cramped up in a tight space barely able to breathe. They were occasionally fed bread and given water. Other times, however, the respect for human dignity was so low that they were forced to drink from the toilet water. Hiam lived for two and a half years on the ground, no sunlight, no movement, no mercy. That was her special treatment for her medical condition and age. The rest were so cramped that they would take shifts for standing and sitting.
We will never know the extent of the horror that Hiam and her daughters experienced, however, because at one-point Hiam stopped talking. I asked her what was wrong, if her story had finished. She told me that even if she spoke for days on end the stories of the horrors she experienced during her years of imprisonment would never end. There are some things, however, that can’t be repeated. There are some things from her time inside that she cannot express. “Leave it to your imagination”, she said, “and then more”.
“As long as I have the choice of laughter, I will never let them take it away from me”
On the last day, I spoke to Fatima who is 18 years old, just 2 years younger than me but with the troubles of a lifetime already weighing her down. One thing about Fatima that will stay with me forever is her laugh. If you looked at her from only the waist up, you would think that she was a carefree teenager. As she told me her story, she paused between the different stages to laugh. After a while, however, the laughter became unsettling. Her story was so heart-breaking that no form of emotion would be sufficient to express the appropriate level of empathy, so as she laughed, I found myself torn at an appropriate response.
In 2016, at just 14 years old Fatima’s life was changed in a way that no human, yet alone a child could should ever have to endure. Fatima had just finished school and had decided to go to the park with her friends. As she was talking to her friends, before she knew it the cluster bombs started coming down on them like rain, one after the other. Fatima told me how they started to panic, how she and her friends started to run around trying to find shelter under the trees. It was useless, however. Fatima’s injuries were severe- she had to have her right kidney removed and her spinal cord was damaged, resulting in initial full paralysis. Despite her mobility having slightly improved as a result of physiotherapy, she still cannot walk on her own.
As Fatima was telling me these stories, she was laughing. It was hysterical laughter. I looked at her, unsure of whether I should ask why she was laughing. When I finally decided to ask, she told me that if she didn’t laugh, she would cry. She would cry for her friends who she murdered in front of her. She would cry for her legs that are now limp and almost fully paralysed. She would cry for the childhood she will never get back. “They took every possibility in my life, as long as I have the choice of laughter, I will never let them take it away from me”.