From Syria to Greece: one refugee's story
Abdulazez Dukhan is an 18-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. To escape the flames of the civil war, he and his five-member family fled to Turkey, living there for a year and then migrating to Greece 10 months ago. This is their story.
Abed doesn’t remember seeing guns in the hands of anyone but the police before war broke out. But as the wretched fighting took firm hold, weapons of many different kinds and shapes—Russian- and American-made, even those smuggled from Turkey and Lebanon—started to show up, eventually turning Syria into a black market. The proliferation of weapons and the increasingly hopeless prospects for the country opened the door to the arming of many young men.
“People didn’t care much about which group they followed as long as it was against the atrocities of [President Bashar] Assad,” Abed explains. Among these groups were radical groups like ISIS, which were hardly present prior to the war.
Abed and his family became afraid of expressing their own opinions or support for any side in the fighting.
“If you supported the rebels, Bashar’s forces would come to shoot or arrest you. And if you said a word against Islamist groups, they’d do the same,” he says.
The theater of war in Syria looked like a group of gangs going after whomever opposed them. Taking sides was not a wise decision because that made you a target. On the other hand, staying neutral didn’t guarantee protection either; there was no set of rules by which all parties played.
“If some group didn’t like your appearance—for instance, if you had a beard—you risked being arrested or killed, and so your destiny depended on luck, God’s response to your prayers or the militants’ sense of judgement and evaluation,” Abed tries to explain.
After six months of living in fear and misery, Abed’s family moved to the eastern countryside of Homs, where the conflict was less intense and constant. However, the countryside had its own complexities and challenges. His family had to adapt to living with only two hours of power a day for nine months. When there was no gas, his family used wood to cook their food and generate heat in winter.
“We thought life would be better there, but safer doesn’t always mean better,” he says they learned.
During the family’s three-and-a-half years in the Syrian countryside, ISIS spread further and Assad’s tank shelling and air strikes came closer. Abed managed to attend school, but he longed to help his country and people and there didn’t seem to be a way to do that without following the road of violence.
“What can you do right when you’re under constant panic and threat?” he asks.
Finally, the family was lucky enough to make it to a village in Turkey, 5 km away from the Syrian border. In Turkey, Abed at first felt hopeful as he enrolled in school and began to learn Turkish on the internet. It was while surfing online that he taught himself Photoshop and other graphic programs—a skill he used to make art representing his people’s dreams and sorrows.
However, as time passed, Turkey became a place of growing frustration, with natives perceiving Syrians as stealing jobs and committing terrorist and criminal acts.
“Racism was very rampant in Turkey and we were treated badly when missiles came from the Syrian side, hitting to our Turkish border village,” Abed recalls with a shudder.
After one year in Turkey, Abed’s family sold everything they had, borrowed money from friends and managed to travel overland to Greece. Arriving in Greece’s refugee camp of Idomeni, they settled in a tent. Those who couldn't find a shelter slept wherever they could find a space, even if that meant in the aisles between the tents or on the ground outside.
Three days later, heavy rain ruined their tent and they moved to another camp called Eko. Impoverished Eko camp is a gas station, whose parking lot its owners allow to be occupied by tents provided for refugees by UNHCR and NGOs. Abed saw Greece as an opportunity to both help his fellow refugees and improve his English, by volunteering with NGO relief teams as an interpreter and fixer. It also was in Greece that an Italian volunteer gave him his first camera, and he discovered his skill for photography exhbited here.
However, what he didn’t like was the slow response of the health care system to his father, who suffers from diabetes and a stroke.
“When my dad was in the hospital for 10 days, the response to his needs was slow as a turtle; we had to follow up constantly,” he recalls.
What it means to be a refugee
Although Abed considers himself lucky that he was able to flee the chaos and suffering in Syria, there are still moments that sadden him.
“In refugee camps, when Syrians are asked about their education level or grades, it breaks my heart that they start their answers with moftarad akoon (I’m supposed to be) instead of ‘I am’—just like I say I’m supposed to be a first-year college student now,” Abed explains.
Another thing he dislikes about being a refugee is the necessity to use coupons to buy food, making him and others stand out from everyone else. “It’s a bit humiliating,” he says.
But the hardest part of all is the loneliness and isolation Syrians experience wherever they go. They left their homes behind and are cut off from their communities and friends.
“I keep reminiscing about both the happy and unhappy details of a life now forever changed,” Abed sighs. “I especially dwell on the memories of local football matches I used to arrange with my friends, Mohammed and Abedelrahman—of whom I know nothing now.”
Despite the tragedy of his fate and the precariousness of both his present and future, charismatic Abed has started his own Facebook page, “Through Refugee Eyes,” to bring some of his people’s stories and pictures into the light. In times of war and crisis, individual stories of loss, fear, hope and survival usually get lost. But since the beginning of his ordeal, Abed has and will continue to portray his people’s stories through his camera’s lens, his creative use of Photoshop and his words.
Update: There is good news for Abed and his family: They have been accepted for asylum in Belgium. He cheerfully aspires to go to college soon, there where he can fulfill his dream of studying architecture—a major he hopes will help him to return home one day and rebuild his destroyed, beloved country.
Published January 28, 2017