Former Aleppo Tour Guide Urges An End To War In Syria
It's a sad fact that tragedies instantly become more relatable to people once they have a personal connection to them.
For me, in terms of the war in Syria, that connection has always been Yahya Abdullah.
I first met Yahya in Tbilisi, Georgia back in 2012.
We'd both volunteered to be English teachers for the Georgian government and were in the same orientation program.
I remember the moment I met him. We were in the lobby of the Soviet-era hotel our program put us up in, and I could immediately tell Yahya would be the life of the party.
He radiated positivity.
In the months to come, Yahya organized numerous gatherings and parties across Georgia, a country that was as foreign to him as the rest of the volunteer teachers in our program.
A lot of the other teachers were from the US, the UK and Canada, and a sole Syrian man was often the glue that held us together after we were dispersed over various parts of Georgia following orientation.
What I found so astonishing about Yahya was how positive he was able to remain in spite of the circumstances that led him to Georgia.
Here's me with Yahya in Georgia back in 2012.
I'd come to Georgia as a privileged, 23-year-old American who decided he wanted to teach and travel in the absence of any other clear professional goals.
Yahya, however, made his way to Georgia due to the fact his country was consumed by war.
Yahya is from Aleppo, Syria.
Yahya is one of the millions of Syrians who's fled his country due to the ongoing violence there.
His story is emblematic of what many Syrians have gone through, and are continuing to experience, as they try to lead normal lives while their country is consumed by war.
In December 2011, Yahya left Syria in order to avoid the mandatory military service.
He's a peaceful man at heart and didn't want to get involved in the violence.
As he told me in a conversation back in 2014,
…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.
Since Yahya left Syria half a decade ago, it's been absolutely decimated by the war.
Aleppo – Syria's largest city and Yahya's hometown – has been reduced to rubble.
Prior to the war, Yahya was a full-time student and a tour guide in Aleppo.
Many of the historic sites he used to give tours of are no longer standing.
I cannot imagine how the city really looks now.
Aleppo is an ancient city – its earliest inhabitants settled as early as 4300 BC.
Beyond the catastrophic human toll, the destruction of so much priceless history is one of the biggest tragedies of this war.
Photos of historic sites in Aleppo before and after the war show the devastating impact the conflict has had on the city.
The Old City of Aleppo in 2009
The Old City of Aleppo in 2016
In mid-December I spoke with Yahya, who is currently pursuing a second master's degree in Budapest, Hungary, about what it's been like for him to watch his city be consumed by violence and despair.
His experience with the war, and living apart from the country, has definitely evolved since we first met.
As Yahya described how emotionally draining the war has been on him, "helpless" was the word that stuck out the most for me.
He told me,
Maybe it shows on my face...I haven't been able to sleep the last 10 days... I fall asleep when my body gives up... I am going through ups and downs at the moment where I feel like I'm completely helpless and worthless.
The positive, cheerful young man I befriended in Georgia back in 2012 appeared utterly depleted as we spoke via Skype.
It was evident he was exhausted and haunted by recent events in Aleppo as his face stared back at me through my laptop's screen.
You can hardly blame him.
Yahya is very active in encouraging an end to the violence in Syria.
Yahya, who has no hope of returning to Syria in the near future, hasn't seen much of his family, including his parents, for five years.
He said this is easily one of the hardest aspects of being away from his country.
It's also very difficult, quite understandably, for him to see the place where he grew up be torn apart, piece by piece.
Literally seeing your personal history, seeing your memories slipping between your fingers, without you being able to do anything... I'm not sitting doing nothing, I'm trying to do my best, of course. But...we are all watching, helplessly. We see images coming every day from Aleppo... We see body parts shattered on streets... Barrel bombs... All kind of horrible violence deployed by the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah militias, and we are just watching. For me, that's crazy.
Yahya has really struggled seeing the graphic images coming out of Aleppo.
I'm seeing these images coming out from neighborhoods where I used to live... And that's really, really, really difficult to witness, on the human level...and on a very personal level... I cannot imagine how the city really looks now. It's quite intense, it's not an easy thing to take.
In spite of how difficult it's been for Yahya to be away from his country and loved ones, and the pain he's felt watching Aleppo be ripped apart by war these past five years, he's actively encouraging an end to the violence and urges others to do the same.
We can still do something about Aleppo. It's still happening right now... If we get our act together...we can still change the future.
To Yahya and so many others from his country, there are many to blame for what's happened in Syria – and they should certainly be held accountable.
For now, however, Yahya says what's most important is stopping the violence, and we all can and should play a role in this process.
In his words,
Conflicts end. All of them. As we have learned. What we haven't learned is it's wrong to let people face death while you know it's happening.
It's difficult to disagree.
Watch my conversation with Yahya in the video above.