Out of Syria: ‘Powerless in my flat in France, I watch Aleppo’s destruction’
‘My focus now is on the arrival here from Turkey of my wife and children’
A Syrian boy receives treatment at a hospital in Aleppo on Thursday. Photograph: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty
I wept for Aleppo this week. Literally and metaphorically. It’s an out-of-body-like experience to watch, through the international media, the obliteration of a city you know. Worse is to see it accompanied by the slaughter of its people, and especially its children. From the comfort of my flat in Beauvais, I can observe and, through social media, I can comment, but otherwise I’m powerless. I’ve morphed from refugee to a quasi-citizen of France, with a changed outlook where my concentration is elsewhere. I’m focused on the final plan for my wife and children to leave Turkey and join me, courtesy of the French government. It’s transformational of my spirits.
In Syria, in the midst of the unfolding catastrophe, you think of the whole community. When you’re smuggling yourself and your loved ones out, and when you’re in camps, you’re in survival mode, thinking and behaving as part of a wider humanitarian canvas. Then, when you reach your place of sanctuary and are about to be reunited with those most precious to you, your emphasis changes and the drama in which you were a participant becomes something you now observe and comment upon. You’re no longer an actor on the stage, you’re seated – in the front row perhaps – and observing only. On many levels, it’s an uncomfortable change, a selfish one.
My days are spent preparing the final steps of my journey. Mine, in the sense that without my wife and children it could never be complete; a prospect that I had thought might never happen is imminent. There’s every reason to believe my wife and the two children will be in France within six weeks and then the only obstacle to our successful integration into European society will lie with us, in how we respond.
The officials believe all the documentation is correct so that, when my wife presents herself with the children at the French embassy in Ankara, everything will be in order and arrangements can be made to fly them here.
Once my family comes it’ll be time to reassert the independent living that had been our way of life until the war in Syria began. I want to work, to reacquaint myself with the routine and structure of employment. I’ve no wish to be a drain on the French exchequer. The great stumbling block is the language, but we’ve started lessons and I’m determined to achieve a basic competence soon. Then I could, more quickly, get a job waiting tables or working in a petrol forecourt, work that would improve my conversational French.
Recently, a friend admonished us for not being more pro-active about improving our language skills, and last week I met a local priest who has good English and has agreed to take four of us for a few hours of classes a week – a reassuring gesture of concern.
There’s a more normal pattern to my life. I eat well, drink coffee and smoke too many cigarettes; I Skype family, read, go to French lessons and, with my friends, talk over and over again about the dire tragedy that’s unfolded in Syria. We pass our days freely and relatively comfortably, but we cannot escape the dark shadow that’s home, that’s Assad, that’s Islamic State; a crisis that poisons the waters of hope France has offered us Syrians.
Beauvais is a small town. Last week we were guests at a reception at which civic and church leaders said the community had told the mayor it wanted to receive Syrian refugees. This is reflected in our daily experience; the people are warm and welcoming.
My friend Nabil is in Bordeaux. We met on, and travelled together aboard, the smugglers’ dinghy from Turkey to the Greek islands and then on to Piraeus port, where we spent months sharing a tent. The same process that brought me to France has now seen him relocated to a town outside the city of Bordeaux. Ireland had been his country of choice, but he’s happy to be in France and to feel secure in the possibilities that will be open to him here. Nabil is from Aleppo.
The torment all Syrians feel about what’s happening in Aleppo is felt more acutely by those, like Nabil, who are from there and have family there. We know each other well. We trust each other and yet, when I ask about his family, he goes quiet, becomes audibly more tense. Then he offers that they are not in the east of the city.
Nowhere in Aleppo is safe. The city is burning. The people are being slaughtered by their own and by Putin’s Russia. The unease I feel about my fortune is felt a thousand times over by those Syrians, such as Nabil, for whom every cluster bomb represents an attack not just on humanity but on their families.
Mustafa is a pseudonym adopted to protect the identity of the author, who is a refugee from Syria. He spoke to Fintan Drury