We’ll call her Salma. We met her in the plain of Akkar. She prefers to hide her true identity for fear of reprisals when she returns to Syria.
"I'm from Homs. We had a big house there where we lived happily before all hell broke loose over our neighbourhood. Tareq, my husband, loved his job, and never missed a day of work. Stubborn as he is, he insisted on going to work that morning. As he was crossing the street from our home, he was hit by a sniper. As he lost a lot of blood, he had to flee from street to street and house to house, to find the nearest hospital. The battle lasted up to three hours. He was admitted in the emergency room, and underwent a surgical removal of the spleen as well as 30 inches of his intestine. The bullet had made tremendous damage but luckily it had stopped an inch from his spine. It was two months of waiting before Tareq got back on his feet. This gave me just enough time to prepare our papers – including our four children’s – in order to flee to Lebanon."
The road to Damascus
"The second attack was decisive. I was sitting in the kitchen when a terrible explosion shook our house. I rushed to the living room and what I saw marked me forever. My children crying, shards of glass everywhere, shredded furniture, walls with riddled shrapnel. From that day on, we started moving from house to house, staying at most 24 hours in the same place before moving elsewhere. We became indeed very much 'displaced'. There was even a day where we changed houses five times, through bombs, snipers, and stray bullets. We then found a car to take us to Damascus, but on our way there, we also escaped many bullets. I scanned my children, with fear in my eyes and rage in my stomach, feeling their bodies to make sure that no bullet had reached them, and I told myself, 'Thank God we are all safe and sound, once again.'”
The first smile
"I remember this like it was yesterday. At 7:15 a man joined us in Damascus. It was the driver who would drive us out of Syria. We headed towards the north of Lebanon, where we would meet my brother-in-law in Halba, in Akkar. But once there, what would I do? With four children and a husband who could barely walk, I was completely lost. Apart from my brother-in-law, I didn’t know anyone there. Then, one morning, life smiled on me for the first time in many months. A woman, a member of the Association of Women in Northern Lebanon, came to visit us. She helped me find a job in order to survive and feed my children. I take care of the children nursery you see there.”
Find someone else!
"But the morale of my husband got worse every day. As he was unable to work, he felt useless, so marginalised while he was a responsible, strong man with a strong sense of duty towards his family. And now it was my turn, as a woman, to do everything. The situation was hard to accept and completely ruined our relationship. Our marriage was on brink of collapse. Tareq isolated himself, was depressed and no longer went out of the room and wanted to isolate me with him. He expressed anger for the smallest reasons and he would let it out on me most of the time. One day he said, 'Salma, find someone else, I'm no good, you deserve someone better than me!' It was unbearable for me to hear these words coming from my husband, the father of my children, the man with whom I had lived 17 years and whom I loved more than anything in the world. I ended up by convincing him to go live in Beirut where his brothers and sisters had taken refuge. There, he could change scenery, and no longer feel dependent on me. From my side, I had to continue working day and night, if necessary, so that my husband and children did not lack anything. This is who I am: I never give up."
"I wanted my children to continue to go to school and for them to stop rehashing in their heads the entire trauma they had experienced. My daughter, who is six, is with me here at the nursery. She cries everyday when she thinks of all the children that died back home. The other two girls are in the French school of Halba and my 15 year-old boy, the eldest, is at home. He would have liked to go to school but he wasn’t accepted. I try everyday to find him a small job to keep him busy: I just don’t want him to remain inactive. My children are very affected by the situation, I can feel it. Seeing their father so diminished in front of their eyes did not help either. I do everything to stay strong and communicate my strength to them. School does them a lot of good, being involved with other children their age is very beneficial. When I see them laugh, I am relieved. They are so young and have seen everything already. They have such sadness in their eyes, which breaks my heart. I can’t even talk to them, or break that sad silence."
We will rebuild bigger houses
"Upon my arrival in Lebanon, I registered at the United Nations Office for Refugees (UNHCR). They found me an apartment in Halba, gave me some blankets, mattresses, food. Thank God for that. At first I could not stop crying, I couldn’t even answer when people talked to me. I was paralyzed by the situation in which we were immersed. A bedridden husband, traumatised children and all I could do was cry. Today, thanks to this job, things are better. I made friends here at the association. I smile, I live. Every morning, I drop my children to school, we come back together at 14:30, we have lunch together and we share our daily experiences.
I have no news of my family that remained in Syria. Are they still alive? My brother died, he was 35 years-old, married with two children. My cousin and my uncle also died just before we left.
The day everything ends, we will return to Homs and resume our lives and rebuild bigger houses. Remember this: in life, you can get what you want. You just need to have hope and great faith in God."
This is the first part of a series on Syrian refugees. Stay tuned for more stories in the coming days.