Imagine that one day your life is absolutely fine. Your country is at peace. You are young, and have a rewarding job, a loving significant other and dreams of traveling the world.
Then, out of the blue, public discontent with your country’s government evolves into a full-blown civil war. Neither side is much better than the other, as the government begins indiscriminately killing civilians, and extremism pervades the factionalized rebellion.
This is situation that Yahya Al-Abdullah, a young Syrian, found himself in back in December 2011.
He was presented with a very difficult decision. If he stayed in Syria, he would have to join the army and fight against his own people. If he left, it would mean leaving the only home he had ever known, leaving his family behind, and not knowing when he would be able to return.
Ultimately, Yahya decided to leave Syria, as he did not want to contribute to the violence. He made his way up to the Republic of Georgia, and applied to be a volunteer English teacher for the Georgian government through a program known as Teach and Learn With Georgia (TLG).
I met Yahya in January 2012, as I had also traveled to Georgia to join the same program. He was the first Syrian I had ever met, and he shattered all of my perceptions about the Arab world.
Yahya was the life of the party. We became very close over the course of our time in Georgia, and on some of our more inebriated evenings, he told me his story.
When most people think of Syria, they picture death and destruction. It’s important to remember, however, that many Syrians are just like you or me. They are real people who simply desire to live peaceful and happy lives. We must not forget the human side of this conflict.
This is Yahya’s story…
Yahya Al’ Abdullah is 29 years old and was born on April 5, 1985 in a small village in the countryside near Aleppo, where he also grew up.
In December 2011, however, he was forced to leave Aleppo, the only home he'd ever known. Up to that point in time, he'd been a student, with hopes and dreams to travel the world. He earned a master's in English.
Upon graduation in August 2011, he got a contract with an international school in Aleppo, where he worked with Armenian and Iraqi refugees. It was a great job; it paid well, and he hoped to use the money to travel.
But things did not go as planned. In March 2011, social unrest in Syria escalated into a bloody conflict, and it would only get worse as time went on.
...Things got really really bad in the country... It started getting really bad all over… In Syria we have compulsory military service. I never wanted to join the army, because I never believed in violence…. The choice was join the army or leave the country. So I decided not to join the army of course…. So I decided to go to the Republic of Georgia, because I'd heard about the program (TLG). So basically, what I did was, I left Syria and traveled through Turkey to Georgia. I didn't have time to apply to the program online, so I arrived with all of my degrees and I gave my application by hand. Luckily, I was accepted.
As a student, Yahya was able to get a deferment from the army until May 2012, which made leaving the country a lot easier.
His passport was nearly expired, but with a little cash and some help from a friend, he was able to leave Syria through Turkey. "... I didn’t need to sneak or do anything illegal. The government just stamped my passport and I left for Turkey."
Despite the fact that the physical act of leaving the country went relatively smoothly for Yahya, it also took an emotional toll.
Well of course I felt somewhat like I was forced to leave... I was leading a good life… I had a girlfriend that I was planning to travel with in 2012 during the summer. Literally I felt that I was being kicked out my own homeland, just because I didn’t believe in the violence that was escalating at that point in time. It was not an easy thing at all, despite the fact that I wanted to travel. I didn’t want to follow my dreams by force; I felt pushed to do it.
Yahya now lives in Istanbul, Turkey. Luckily, since there are no formal diplomatic relations between Syria and Turkey, he was able to get both a residence permit and a working permit.
Ever since his arrival in Istanbul, he has worked tirelessly to improve the desperate situation in his country.
I was planning to do work in a refugee camp in southeastern Turkey, but unfortunately that did not work out. I wanted to do the same work with refugees in Turkey like I did in Syria, but did not have the time. I needed to find a place, do paperwork etc. But I did put lots of people in contact with organizations that were working with refugees. I put them in touch and made people meet each other. I helped design curriculum for kids in refugee camps. I ordered fundraising events in Istanbul and sent the money back to the same organization I used to work for Syria, Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS). I have also coordinated with Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
Thus, Yahya has found a number of ways to keep himself occupied, although his country is never far from his thoughts. Likewise, perhaps the greatest struggle for Yahya is that he is detached from his family, and he is worried about their safety.
My family is still in Syria, and they are all living together now in a small village where my father comes from. They are relatively safe. There is no specific action in the village itself, or close to it... I would say, compared to other places in Syria they are considered super safe. ... But we have to define safe here. By safe we have to say your house is not being shelled, and you are not dead. That’s the new definition of safe in Syria.
The last time Yahya managed to speak with his parents was three weeks ago, before that he hadn't been able to speak with them for nearly half a year. Landlines do not exist in Syria anymore, and mobile phone reception is extremely rare because most of the towers have been destroyed.
His family could attempt to get to higher ground to make a call, but that would be very risky. "If they want to talk to me they have to go to another village and get to higher ground, which might be risky sometimes, because if a car goes up into the mountains it might get targeted by an airstrike. It’s not a simple process."
Consequently, Syria, and his family, are always on Yayhya's mind. It was difficult not to get emotional when I heard him speak about his country. I couldn't imagine having the place where I grew up completely destroyed, or being forced to separate myself from my family in the midst of war.
I miss everything... I have a huge family. I come of a family of 11 children. And… I have lots of friends who are everywhere at the moment… One of my childhood friends is staying with me now in Istanbul… I have memories of every single little corner in the city of Aleppo. What I see now on the news… Most of these places have been destroyed. I miss just walking around, and knowing that I am in the place where I belong. I’ve been outside the country for almost three years. It’s difficult to feel like I fully belong somewhere else. It’s always in the back of your head, whatever you’re doing, wherever you are. I don’t belong here, it’s not my place. Like if I’m sitting in a public bus, and something happens, and I want to say something about it, and to give feedback, it doesn’t work, because whatever you want to say is completely foreign to those around you.
For most of us, Syria is a distant and unfamiliar place. The current crisis there means that most of the images coming out of the country are bloody, chaotic and depressing.
According to Yahya, while it's true that violence consumes most parts of the country, it's not like that everywhere. He has been able to talk to friends in the capital, Damascus, where things are relatively normal in some parts.
With that said, Yahya knows that most people are not going to have a very positive perception of his country.
The way I want people to see my country is really almost impossible now. You can’t see the country physically now because you can’t go there. The way you can see any country is through the eyes of the people, and you can’t talk to them now. My country is very ancient, an old civilization. It’s very beautiful, but unfortunately that's not the whole story... There’s lot of bitterness and misery, and this is not new. There has always been a lot of misery in my country, and I think part of my decision to leave the country even before this war started was me feeling helpless to do anything against that. My country is the top producer of textiles in Middle East, but the number of people without proper clothing is very high. My country is where the first alphabet in the world came from, yet there are lots of ignorant people.
Despite his frustrations, Yahya still exhibits an intense love for his homeland. He laughed when he told me that, besides his family, he misses Syrian food the most.
There is an incredible variety in Syria; it's a mixture of Syrian, Turkish, Lebanese, Palestinian and Jordanian cuisine.
On the subject of the recent reelection of Bashar al-Assad, however, Yahya was less positive.
... I was following very closely, what was going before the elections. And it was just a complete farce. There were two guys [candidates], one of them appeared once on TV, saying that his example and idol in life is the father of Assad, the president of Syria for 30 years, and the second was Abdul Nasser... A journalist asked him what he would have done if you had been the president at the beginning of this conflict and he said, I don’t think I would have done anything different from Assad… and this was a candidate for President... And then there was a candidate from Aleppo, and even in his neighborhood he wasn’t known… So for me it was a big joke. I can tell you that I don’t know anyone that went to vote. We would talk about it and joke about it, of course, but none of us took it seriously.
Consequently, it is extremely difficult for Yahya to be optimistic about his country's future.
I would love to be, but at the same time, I cannot see anything positive happening. Pretty much everybody is benefiting from the war in Syria… Let’s talk about the neighboring countries first… Jordan has the Zaatari refugee camp, and they are getting a lot of aid money for the camp. Yet five or six Syrian children died from the cold there. It's one of the worst camps in the world, yet the Jordanian government is still benefiting from it. And Turkey is also playing a central role, and they are benefiting a lot too... They are basically charging people to pass the border. Russia is benefiting as well, in terms of international power. They have used their veto... I don’t know how many times, I’ve lost count. The second thing is weapons... Most of the Syrian army’s weapons are coming Russia. It’s not a secret, everyone knows that. Iran is also fully involved, Lebanon as well. Syria is the only link between Iran and Lebanon. And now Iran is playing the role of mediator in the conflict, and if they want to solve the conflict they have the ability to, but they don't… China does not want the conflict to finish either, because they want to serve the interest of Russia and Iran too. And with the armed revolution, there are lots of different groups... The money is coming from Saudi Arabia, and they don’t want Assad to stay. Their attitude is, we started this and we want to finish it.
It seems that the desperate situation has also started to take its toll on the typically positive and optimistic worldview of my Syrian friend. The man that I had known in Georgia always believed that people had the power to change the world, which is precisely why he has continuously worked as a volunteer in multiple countries.
Yet, he expressed that he was beginning to doubt this conviction. He worries that there now forces more powerful than common people. But he has not lost all hope.
His main concern is for the people of Syria, and for his family.
I just hope that this comes to an end right now, because the people that are impacted are just the poor. And they are poor not just in terms of money. They are poor in terms of the choices afforded to them. Like my family, who cannot move out of the country. My family alone is now more than 60 people. That’s only my brothers, sisters, and their children. And they live in the countryside with their extended people, and that makes nearly 250 people. How can 250 evacuate from a small village to another country? They don’t have electricity there, they don’t have basic things... They are happy, they have their vegetables and animals to survive. But I consider them poor because they are literally stuck.
Yahya is incredibly well-traveled. Since he left Syria, he has been to Turkey, Georgia, Iran, Sri Lanka, and in about a week will travel to Malaysia and Cambodia.
At first, most of the people he met on his travels treated him with a combination of respect and curiosity, but things are changing. He worries that people are simply tired of hearing about Syria, and worse, he feels that the extremism pervading the rebellion has generated an awful stigma surrounding his country.
When it comes down to it, despite the chaos in his homeland, Yahya is just like anyone else. He simply wants to live a happy and productive life, and in many ways he does. His positivity and enthusiasm for the world is inspiring.
Lately, I cannot tell you Syria’s direct problems. I am here (in Istanbul), I have a very normal life. I have a good job, a well paid job, lots of friends, a flat in the city center. Everything is going well. I am not, day-to-day, engaged with this problem. I can feel it when I’m away, or meeting random people. Lately I’ve started feeling that people have are being accusatory when they ask me about Syria. 'There is terrorism there now.' I know there is terrorism, I’m not supporting that. But, where did this terrorism come from? Ask yourself that. But I can tell you, I have lots of great friends around who are very supportive and we just meet and hang out and have good talks about the situation and our lives. Just like normal people.
Yahya wants the world to know that this is not the worst situation Syria has found itself in. It is an ancient country, with the oldest capital in the world.
The tiny Arab country has experienced great triumphs as well as terrible calamities, and he does not believe that this current conflict will be its ultimate demise. "... I’m sure it will stand up again. And I hope it will stand up strong, like it used to."
Yahya has one final message for the young people in Syria.
I would just say that I hope that they can read, because seriously, a lot of young Syrian kids have lost the chance to have books. And this is something I have seen firsthand, and that pains me.
As a teacher, Yahya believes fervently in the capacity of knowledge to spread peace. I hope that his story has changed your perspective of Syria and his people.
It would be wrong to diminish the dire situation that common Syrians currently find themselves in. Yet, it would also be wrong to let this conflict define their spirit. Yahya is a testament to the nation's integrity, optimism, and resiliency. Like him, I have faith that, one day, it will stand up again.
Thank you, Yahya, for both your courage and message.