We live in an age of unrest. We hate, we fight, we kill, and for what? Don’t we all want the same thing? A chance for freedom, peace, and equality? A place to call our own, where our children are safe, our government is transparent, and our society is treated fairly? Yet, somehow, our search for just that leaves many people displaced in the world, and unclaimed by any nation—Hosam and his family are no different.
The room where Hosam now lives with his wife and three young children is small and reasonably nondescript. It contains five single beds that are squashed together, a small sofa, and a dining table, but it is probably smaller than most bedrooms. It is devoid of any personal belongings because the family has nothing except for one or two toys for the children to play with—donations picked up along the way. For Hosam and his family, however, this is their new home, or at least they hope it will be. A home in a country that is not their own—a place where they must learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of life—but this is of little consequence in comparison to their journey to get here.
Hosam is a Syrian refugee, and his current situation is not how he imagined his life would pan out. Graduating from a college for veterinary science in 2004, Hosam, then 25, had his whole life ahead of him. He was young and well-educated, but the political climate in Syria was beginning to change. Ultimately, he found it difficult to find employment. His small city of Jarabulus, located on the Turkish-Syrian border and with only 11,570 residents, had limited employment opportunities. Hosam quickly noticed the government’s economic failings which, he says, led to corruption as well as favouritism within the political regime. Unlike many, he was eventually lucky enough to find employment in a small veterinary clinic. However, the knowledge of corruption, severe economic disparity and political favouritism was never far from his mind, and it was this knowledge that would ultimately compel him, and many others, to take matters into their own hands seven years later.
After marrying in December 2007, Hosam and his new wife desperately wanted to start a family of their own. With the addition of their first child in 2009, and the growing political unrest in Syria, he and his wife became more concerned about the future of their country. In 2011, shortly before the birth of their second child, he joined ranks with protestors in an attempt to improve the crumbling political condition the country was experiencing. While most reports document a change in the nature of the civil protests from political to religious, Hosam maintains that, for him, there was nothing religious about it; his motives lay purely in the desire to make his country a better place for his children. Before long, the demonstrations turned violent as the government, now using military forces to control the masses, became increasingly uncomfortable with the protestors’ growing support. The military was subsequently placed in a position of governing power which was climactically met with dissidence, with little effect. Groups of protestors were disbanded. Those considered instigators by the government—Hosam included—became fearful of unfair punishment as a result, and the situation continued to deteriorate.
In 2013, things took a turn for the worse. Islamic military radicals, now known as the Islamic Front, established a 45,000-strong alliance exclusively aimed at overthrowing the existing government and founding an Islamic State. It was clear to Hosam that the face of Syria was changing forever.
Having lost his job at the veterinary clinic because of the negative attention his involvement in the demonstrations was bringing, Hosam struggled to once again find employment to support his family. In June 2013, just in time for the birth of his youngest child, he secured a position with a non-profit organisation (NGO) that promoted conflict resolution and harmonious living—his dedication to making his country a better place to live never wavering. Then, at the beginning of January 2014, ISIS arrived on his doorstep, and everything he had been working for was lost.
In what Hosam describes as a full land assault, ISIS captured Jarabulus with no warning. For 17 days, in the middle of winter, the town fell under siege. Unable to leave the house for fear of being killed, the family did the best it could to stay out of sight. However, with supplies running low, Hosam had no choice but to leave the safety of his home and find supplies for his increasingly hungry and freezing family.
As the siege continued, aide groups were forced to retreat from the area, leaving residents in the city to fend for themselves. With round-the-clock bombing and gunfire, it was hard for Hosam and his family to believe that there would be a future—for themselves or their country—but refused to give up. Leaving the shelter of his house, he was confronted with the harrowing scene of death, destruction, and despair just outside his door. With machine gun-wielding ISIS soldiers patrolling the streets, he was forced to stay on the periphery and out of sight. The bodies of those who had already been captured and killed littered the streets. Hosam only left the house on two occasions, but realised his luck in coming home alive on the 15th consecutive day of the siege. His father-in-law chanced the short distance to see them but never made it; he was killed by a car bomb outside Hosam’s house infront of his grandson (Hosam’s son), then three years old, who happened to be peeking out the window.
It is easy to understand the remorse on Hosam’s face as he thinks about what happened—not just for the loss of his father-in-law but also for his inability to shield his son from such a horrible scene. To this day, he says his son still suffers psychologically. Although the situation is getting better, the boy often wakes in the night crying from nightmares in which he relives that fateful day, the culmination of events that led Hosam and his wife to plot their escape.
With Jarabulus positioned just one kilometre from the Turkish border, it may seem as though escape would have been easy. ISIS’s 17-day siege was now over and there was less movement within the area. However, the border was still heavily patrolled, so Hosam did what many Syrians have been forced to do and paid a trafficker to ensure passage into Turkey.
In hushed voices and hidden away from prying eyes, Hosam contacted an importer/exporter whose property lay on the north side of Jarabulus along the border. He would travel alone into Turkey to first secure the safety and finances required to ensure the future passage of his wife and children later, but he was becoming increasingly restless waiting for his own departure. ISIS no longer exclusively occupied the town but continued to capture NGO workers in the surrounding cities, and moved closer every day. Then, one night, under the cover of darkness, Hosam paid the trafficker a visit.
Approaching a house with trepidation, Hosam knocked quietly on the door and received no response. The house was in darkness, but there, in the distance, he could see the border and, along with it, the freedom he had desired for what now seemed like an eternity. So he ran, darting forwards, heart pounding in his chest, eyes fixed on nothing more than the nearing invisible line that separated his present from his future. Just metres from safety, a flash of light suddenly threw Hosam to the ground. It was a hail of gunfire from an unknown assailant. Rolling down a slight embankment and into a ditch, it took him seconds to feel the searing pain spreading up and down the left side of his body. He had been shot with 13 bullets from a pump-action shotgun. He lay quietly in that ditch in darkness for 45 minutes, unaware of the extent of his injuries. As blood slowly flowed from his body, he thought he would die in the shallow grave. As the darkness enveloped him further, salvation came in the face of the trafficker, walking along the ridge on his way home. The man carried Hosam’s blood-soaked body back to the house and contacted Hosam’s cousin.
Severely injured but undefeated, Hosam spent the next 20 days on crutches with only three of the 13 bullets removed. He used his recuperation well and planned his second attempt across the border. Successful, Hosam found himself alone in Turkey. His money was dwindling and he had a family back in Syria to support. He made the strategic move of obtaining work with an NGO that sent its workers in and out of Syria daily basis for safety, an opportunity for Hosam to try and connect with his family and secure passage into Turkey. But, again, he found himself encountering unforeseeable difficulties.
In 2015, ISIS once again arrived on the outskirts of Jarabulus. Hosam searched frantically for a trafficker to escort them across the border, but Turkey was closing its borders to refugees. The family had to travel over 100 kilometres through war-torn country to a small section of the border still allowing people through. The trip was dangerous, and time was running out, but the family had little choice. Hosam waited with bated breath for news of the crossing as his family’s fate lay in the hands of a stranger and, after a few days, they were eventually reunited. The triumph was short-lived, as the road ahead was long and arduous. At this stage, Turkey was not the source of liberation many refugees hoped for, and Hosam had strong concerns that the government would send them back to Syria.
He had by now saved US $2,050 and, after searching for days, he found the owner of a small rubber-based boat willing to take him and his family, and around 50 other refugees, to the Greek Islands, but it would cost him US $1,700 in a three-and-a-half-hour journey. Arriving at the docks in the middle of the night, he realised just how overcrowded the boat was. Intended for a maximum of 30 people, the boat noticeably buckled under added weight—almost double capacity. Hosam inquired about life jackets, and paid an additional US $100 for five life jackets in a harrowing journey.
The boat arrived on the Greek Island of Lesbos on 14 December 2015. Tired and hungry, new arrivals were pushed like sardines onto buses and taken to a hall to be registered. By this stage, Hosam made the decision to head to Germany because he felt the country had a more progressive view on immigration and integration. For the next two weeks, the family was herded from country to country with hundreds, if not thousands, of other refugees, having to be registered in every country entered even if it was not the final destination. Many countries treated them like terrorists. For the first time in his life, Hosam was openly ridiculed for his religion without provocation. From Greece to Germany, he used up his money on transport and buying exorbitantly priced food from private vendors who set up shop in front of refugee processing centres. The family arrived in southeast Germany on Christmas Day after 11 days of travel through Europe with little sleep. Germany gave them hope when they thought hope was lost.
However, almost two years on, Hosam and his family are still displaced, their future a waiting game. Due to the sheer number of refugees that have arrived in Germany over the past two years, visa processing times are severely delayed. For the refugees, this is an ambiguous ending to a long ordeal. With little information from their social worker about processing times, Hosam and his family must now await their fate—to be decided by nameless and faceless people and in accordance with laws that were not implemented with mass migration in mind. Until a decision happens, Hosam and his wife can only remain thankful and hopeful that the family can begin to heal the scars of war—both visible and invisible.
Story behind the story
This article was written based on interviews with a Syrian refugee, Hosam (the name has been changed for safety reasons), who travelled from Syria to Germany in 2015 with his family. As millions of people have experienced similar ordeals in the face of war, I felt it imperative to document his journey and the ongoing difficulties many refugees continue to experience years later.