16 March 2021 - Syria

Ten years after I left, I know there will always be a Syria for me

Ten years ago, I left Syria. It was a decision I had made before the situation started to get bad. As he saw me off at the bus station, my uncle told me: “You will miss this place”.

I was excited, like any 20-year-old would be, about my next adventure, so I didn’t give those words much thought. In the end, I was going back to my country of origin, Lebanon. I thought I would regularly return to visit my family in my adopted home city, Aleppo.

Ten years later, I think of my uncle’s prophesy almost every day.

My mother, a Syrian herself, and siblings found their way out of Aleppo after the first bombings in 2012. My father decided he would stay put. He died peacefully at home in the city two years later. He was alone.

This is all becoming a distant memory, but as a Lebanese citizen who spent two-thirds of his life in Syria, I still feel the connection. I spent the formative years of my childhood and went to school and university in Aleppo.

That city, like countless other places in Syria, has been decimated by a savage war. Tens of thousands of children have been killed and injured across the country, and millions of people have been uprooted from their lives. Villages only known for a local river or a rich dairy-based recipe became front-page news overnight for the bloodshed and destruction they witnessed.

In Lebanon, I soon stumbled upon the reality that my country was not as excited as I was, that I had returned. I started to feel a struggle for identity. Wherever I went, I was referred to as the ‘Aleppean’ - as if it was something to be ashamed of.

I realised I had some integration to do in my own country.

When I meet Syrian children who spend every day in tents that instantly become a hazard with the first rainstorm, and who trudge barefoot through mud with nothing to keep them warm, I wonder if they feel like they actually belong anywhere.

Children are feeling less connected to their country of origin, but many are also unable to find that sense of belonging in Lebanon. A new study by Save the Children shows that only 29% of Syrian children in Lebanon wish to return to Syria, while only 9% in Turkey and 3% in Jordan have the same desire. Knowing how ingrained the issue of identity is in every Syrian family, these numbers tell a story.

Syrian children don’t think they belong in a place of war. Home is not where a bomb could suddenly go off, where there is no school to go to, where there is not enough to eat, where there are no hospitals to treat you, where you can’t make a decision for yourself.

In the heart of the story

A large number of Lebanese people have been generous in opening their homes to Syrians fleeing the brutal war, although refugees were, and still are, widely seen as a burden. Children are bullied at school because of their accent, just like I was when I used a Syrian expression. Wherever I went, Syrians were blamed for something: the economic collapse, terrible internet connection, power outage, insufficient wheat supplies – almost everything.

It made me want to try to change the way people in my country looked at refugees.

This month also happens to be exactly five years since I joined Save the Children, on the exact same date the world marks as the start of Syria crisis. It was through my work with refugees that I realised that there are many families like mine, separated by a conflict they didn’t provoke. There are many children like my young cousins, scattered in and outside Syria, and they, too, are probably unaware of what was going on.

The personal became the professional.

Over the past five years, my job has been to amplify these voices, to make the world hear what children in Syria, Lebanon and beyond have to say. One message I always hear is: ‘There will always be a Syria for us’.

Whether that will remain a memory passed down from one generation to the next, no one knows.

But wherever they are, Syrian children deserve to live in peace and safety. They must be allowed some certainty about their education and future. Host countries like Lebanon must continue to show the generosity they showed towards vulnerable people over the past decade, without making them worry about what is going to happen to them tomorrow.