The war in Syria continues to rage on with no sign of an end in the near future. Young Syrians are feeling the pressure to work and provide for their families. If you have not turned to working within the war in Syria in some way, then you are left out in the cold when it comes to finances.
My phone rings; a shaky distressed voice I couldn’t recognise was of what sounded like a very scared young boy. It turned out to be a boy I did know. His family had taken me in to stay a few times while working in the north of Syria. In particularly, they took care of me at a time that could have brought great danger to their family while helping me through a troublesome situation.
His words of confusion and sheer distress were apparent that he was in a bad situation and didn’t know what to do. He had managed to get to an internet café, asked to use the internet to find my details which led him to asking to use anyone’s phone to make contact to me.
He had left to Istanbul a month prior to contacting me. His father gave him what money he could to help him get to Istanbul. Many Syrians see Istanbul as a gateway for work and a means to provide for their family. The reality of earning a living in Turkey turns out to be a mere fantasy for most.
I asked him why did he go, knowing he was unfamiliar with the world outside of Syria, a gentle young boy, and had dived in the deep end as many have and continue to do, he said “I need to feed my family, tell me what can I do?”
Having never left Syria alone before, his journey began. After a long bus ride from Hatay, he was in Istanbul and had found work in a factory. Along with many other Syrians, work days being at least 14 hours, he laboured alongside those who also sought a better future for themselves and their loved ones. 22 days later, he was thrown out of the factory where he stayed & worked, along with 20 other Syrians, some who had worked for 2 months and more to find themselves on the streets. They were told they were no longer needed for work; when asked for their money they had worked hard for, they were laughed at as the door slammed on their face.
21 young men were now sleeping on the street in an area of Istanbul that nobody would desire to be, surrounded by drug dealers, heroin addicts and the typical characters one would expect in such a neighbourhood.
Nobody offered them help, this young man was deeply disturbed by this he shared with me as he only knew his culture and ways of living; They would go out and feed the homeless on the streets, they would take people in to sleep under their roof in their family home anytime another was in need with no questions asked, he grew up in a family where they would leave themselves poor just to feed another in greater need. He couldn’t understand why not one person over the days on the street would stop to help them.
Muhammad found himself on the streets hungry without a penny to his name, feeling ashamed for being in a position where he was unable to feed himself, let alone help his family in need. Some men around him resorted to stealing food in hunger, but this young man refused to turn to such activities. He sold a small bag with some clothing, his only belongings he had just for a little money for food, which he shared with the other men.
With a little help from great friends I have been blessed to encounter through my life, he was taken in right away to a safe place where he was cared for until I could finish up some work and get to Istanbul.
He was always a very skinny young man as I recalled when I last saw him in Aleppo, but this time when I saw him, he was a bag of bones & as white as a ghost. A smile was something he had long-lost the mean of, even in seeing me again he couldn’t break a smile, only tears with exhaustion, fear and relief of seeing someone he felt he could trust were all he could express.
He had taken to me as a big sister when I stayed with his family. His mother had many sons, and always wished for a daughter she would tell me, I came along and she saw me as a daughter, she didn’t know why, nor I, but we felt a strong connection to one another. She cared for me in every way she could think of, forcing me to wash as I would try to refuse to not use their limited water, even though I was absolutely filthy from weeks without a proper wash.
Muhammad’s mother is one of the kindest, loving souls I could ever have met in my life. I loved just watching her with her gentle smiles, soft-spoken loving words & tender-hearted touch. I felt in many ways I owed this family my life as they done more than the usual family had done for me inside Syria.
To date, the family are long over a year without electricity in their village. We would laugh together at night as we would fill the lamp with diesel for light, with chats in hope the next day we might have water. One of the young boys would come back after a long time trying to get bread only to return empty-handed. We would giggle in the morning as I awoke battered & bruised as one of the young boys had taken to kicking through his wrestles sleep; and I had refused to listen to his mother’s warning to say no when he asked if he could sleep next to me; I then understood why.
We would watch helicopters drop bombs all around always on edge that it would be us next, while the young boys would pull out their school books telling me how they missed school wishing for me to teach them English. Still, there would be laughter and love, this lady had such a pure heart and I will never forget her tears as she hugged me so tightly worrying for me as I had to say goodbye.
Muhammad felt safe now with me. We spent hours talking; he shared every detail of his horror story. He had 2 choices, to stay and try to work in Istanbul again or go home to Syria.
I took him to the good area of Istanbul, the one we all know with beauty and wonder all around. Sights he had never seen, only dreamed to see in life, I told him to take a few days and relax, I gave him a holiday and told him he was safe.
I took him out to eat and I couldn’t work out why he wouldn’t eat, surely he must have been hungry, sleeping on the streets for days, but he wouldn’t really eat. I was not only a sister figure to him but also a mother figure for the young man, so I had to play mother goose and force him to eat. He finally told me why he wouldn’t eat; he felt embarrassed because he didn’t know how to use a knife and fork. Something I took as a given. While this is far from all of Syria as most do know how to use cutlery, he had always been in a small village and eaten in tradition ways with bread being the fork as such. He felt shy to tell me as he didn’t want to feel stupid; it was the cutest thing to me though. I shared with him for me the first time travelling to villages in the middle of nowhere in the Middle East and when I had to first sit down and use bread as my way to catch food and how I made a fool of myself trying to eat like the others, he giggled and didn’t feel so bad then. It was pizza and chips on the menu for the duration of his time with me while he tried to learn through me how to use cutlery. Even pizza was a first for him to try.
Muhammad is an extremely intelligent young boy, his English is incredibly good, but he had just never had a chance to be outside of his village. Very well educated as were his brothers, I always wondered what great things men like him could do if they had to opportunities we in the West take for granted so often.
I took him to beautiful sights that were wondrous to him as I watched magic in his eyes to see everything. I took him for long walks with beautiful surroundings and let him share all he needed. As we walked by the Bosporus, I asked him if he enjoyed swimming… he said he had never even seen the sea before. Next thing he knew he was sitting on a boat for the first time. It gave him such peace, such a sense of calm able to share to me all his problems & thoughts.
He met friends of mine, good people; including a very kind lady we had dinner with who gave him some money to help him and his family. He would ask me in confusion and tears why she would do that as I explained some people are just kind in life truly and to not judge from his back experience.
He was deeply shy from me having come to help him and spending on him. Some members of his own family had made him feel ashamed of failing as they saw it.
He wished to study in life to have a good future to take care of his family, to someday have his own, but he knew Istanbul was not going to be as financially fruitful as some members in his family believed. He would go back to Syria for Eid and think of what options he may have for a better future.
For the first time he was boarding a plane with me. A sad moment for him as he feared what would be waiting for him as he went home. He glared out of the window as the sun lit up the sky welcoming in the morning over the clouds. He told me how beautiful it was, how beautiful everything was he got to see with me and how thankful he was. I knew he was suffering from severe stress, so I made him take an extra day to rest and try to sleep before he had to go back home as we arrived in Antakya.
His father had always been a difficult character in his life. When his father would come into a room while I was staying all laughter would end, only silence dared to fill the air. He was a kind man to me, but I could always see the fear in the family’s eyes when he was around. Muhammad’s mother would joke with me about running away to France with me.
Members in his family told him they would not be able to collect him at the border. A very young man, in a war zone, needing to venture through what was a highly dangerous of raging battles, and he was to be left alone by his family. Devastated I assured him it would all be ok.
His brother who he is closest to was without phone to be able to contact him who would have of course helped him.
Muhammad got back to his family home safely, however is feeling severe pressure to provide for his family as he sees the situation for his loved ones deteriorated greatly to what he had last saw. He struggles in confusion on how he can provide for his mother and young brothers.
Tears as we said goodbye, with a giggle beneath his tears as he said ‘Peace and Love’ waving me farewell; something he had heard me saying too often and learned fast this was my only motto for life.
He gave me the greatest gift of all, the blessing of being able to help another soul in need, the gift of being able to share peace & love. This gift is the most valuable of all in our world.
He left with a long list of first times to reminisce over from his time with me & a photo album of his journey. He saw for the first time the beauty of waves crashing under the suns glimmer, first time to try strawberry ice-cream, pizza, and various foreign foods. He has his first flight with me, first time to stay at a hotel. He also had many firsts of negativity including sleeping in a factory, slave labour, sleeping on the streets, & learning what a heroin addict looked like and how they use the drug, along with street prostitution as he asked me in confusion about things he saw from his innocence.
Most importantly, he left his time with me having had too many laughs by the end, smiles, and visions of beauty through sharing love in our world, he had hopes and dreams he had buried for 2 years were coming alive again. His faith in humanity and his fight through this life enabled within again.
The other young men who were used for work, mostly returned back to Syria, a few continue to work elsewhere in Istanbul for minimal money.
A 26-year-old was now a father for 2 young children after his brother was killed in Syria. It was now his responsibility to provide for these 2 children his brother sadly left behind. All the young men shared an equally tragic story of how they ended to being on the streets of Istanbul. Each of them, as with many young men wanted a future, a life; they were wise in many ways. They all shared the same issues however of pressure in Syria to fight when they did not want to. All of them being teased for being cowards as others would call them for not fighting.
A bleak future of struggle and severe hardship is the only one ahead for most Syrians nowadays. The men of Syria possibly facing the greatest difficulties if they choose a life not destined for fighting. The man in the Middle East must be just that, a ‘man’, he is deemed as weak for shedding a tear, he must care for many others in his family, and he holds such great responsibilities at a young age.
Syrians across the world are feeling suffering at this point. Few families left untouched from tragedy that war brings. Syrians across the world exhausted financially from assisting their loved ones and fellow Syrians. Young men feeling great pressures as the war intensifies, many have a sense of suicidal wishes choosing to just fight from pressure as death seems the only option now for them as opportunities for a future are becoming fewer by the day.
The men of Syria have little focus on their troubles. Many focus only on women and children suffering; the men are struggling greatly also. The men are suffering severe torture with sexual violence as a form of humiliation. The men are suffering pressures from every direction. The men are left alone without a support network that women are able to reach out for. Not every man in Syria is fighting; many are fleeing their days of being a fighter due to the changing situation in Syria with outside groups taking over areas in Syria.
Countless Syrians are finding themselves abused for work in Istanbul and elsewhere. With little support available for the men of Syria, it seems their life is only destined for one of hardship and severe struggle as they try to support their loved ones.
Sadly this story is not a one-off. I have had many Syrians contact me regarding abuse like this. I met with many Syrians in different areas of Istanbul, who all had tragic tales of struggle as they attempted to assist their loved ones.
(‘Muhammad’ has been used in place of the real name)