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Radwan's story : A Syrian Refugee From Aleppo To Finland

Interviewed and written by : Qassem Al-Salamat Edited by: Joanne Roberts

Following my meeting with Amina and after listening to her story, I became more inquisitive to delve deeper into the conditions of the camp and the stories behind the refugees. As the days passed by, I made many friends there and I met many of the displaced refugees.

The circumstances and suffering we shared as refugees became the common denominator for me being able to open side conversations and allowed me to make wonderful friendships with people. I fell in love with them. Even in Syria and before the war I could not find these friendships.Here in the camp and in this situation is where I met the brothers Radwan and Malik.

Radwan was a young man in his twenty's and his younger brother Malik who was 16 years old had an anarchist teenager look about him. Radwan was a friendly young man with a smile always upon his face even in moments of anger and even while screaming at his younger brother's mistakes.

I always noticed some interesting story behind him. He is a refugee who always was consistent and decent with his appearance. The monotony of his clothes and always caring for his hairstyle. Once I even accompanied him to one of the cheap stores on the island of Mytilini, where he wanted to buy a hair dryer. Despite the difficulty of being provided with enough electricity in the camp,he insisted on buying the hair dryer. He was very careful about his appearance, the cleaning of his clothes and he did not care about the dirty camp or the bad conditions surrounding it.

Radwan was always on a mission to fight the psychological effects of the Camp and the prevailing stress that we live over there or maybe he was trying to live his teenage years lost during the war. This is not what caught my attention to him. Despite the care of his appearance and the spoiled child look, what made Radwan more distinctive than the others was the way he loved to listen to their concerns and had empathy for people's problems. Constantly I've seen him helping the refugees in any way he could. He listened to them, he was laughing with them and even while working for humanitarian organisations he was one of the most active people amongst them.It was a great pleasure for him to help others.

He had found his way to relax and forget the past. Whist working with the organisation, I had many side conversations with him until one day I asked him for an interview where I could ask some questions such as what I had done with Amina. His reaction was very positive and he was overcome with enthusiasm. He finally felt that someone might listen to him and feel his suffering.

So the following came in this way:

From which city of Syria you came ?

I am from Aleppo. From Al-Sha'ar. Neighbourhood

How did you arrive on Greek shores?

By the sea. We crossed with a rubber boat from the Turkish province of Izmir at a point called Aiva lik and arrived on the eighth of March 2016.

How many attempts until your success with your arrival ?

I arrived from the first attempt with the boat, but before this attempt I failed twice. We were arrested with two previous attempts before on our way to reach the starting point of the boat. We faced a lot of troubles with humiliation and bad treatment from the Turkish authorities. They always would gather money from people like us.They used bribes just to set us free.

Why did you register with the refugee relocation program and make your decision not to venture more after Greece?

As you know and everyone knows the Greek-Macedonian border is closed for the refugees. There is no other option but patience and to abide by these strict laws on refugees. I do not have enough money to pay more to human smugglers, For that reason the ideal option for me and my brother was to register in the relocation program, hoping to get a place for us In a country that respects our rights as human beings whatever the country is.

How long did you stay in Turkey, and what was your job there?

I stayed in Turkey after leaving Syria for nearly two and a half years and most of my stay there I was working in the manner of illegal employment in sewing workshops spread in Istanbul in general.

What is the reason for you to leave Turkey?

I did not have any identity, passport or any document indicating my identity because of my entry into Turkey was through smuggling. From the shared borders, I did not have any official document recognised by the Turkish government indicating my identity. For example, I could not get into hospitals if I had to. I could not complain or deal with the Police Departments as well. I could not continue my education. There was no concerned party to solve my problems. They do not recognise us as refugees or even as tourists. Turkish government keeps saying that we are visitors but we have no rights all. No work, no education, no hospitals or other. We only have duties and taxes.This is all that matters to the Turkish Government. Then we have to mention the difficulty of integrating into society and the language barrier. I did not find anyone who speaks Arabic or even English. There are no free or even cheap schools to learn the language. I was in Turkey totally without identity. As for the financial situation, I did not have money to eat, drink or find a place to sleep.It was like I had stepped myself in quicksand. As long as you put your foot in it, it fully sinks you down, without any chance to survive.

Can you describe your daily life in Istanbul?

I was living in a five-room house with about 40 residents with me. I lived in a room that I shared with 10 other people. I did not have enough space in Istanbul. I had only my own bed, which I had to pay monthly and if I was late with rent, I would be thrown out and sleeping on the streets. So I had to find any job in any possible way. Later I found work in sewing workshops spread around Istanbul in an irregular way or as it is known, working in black [the black market]. I had to work less than a third of the normal salary of any worker in Turkey for this type of work. I worked weekly between 65 to 70 hours and did not receive more than 400 Turkish lira (approximately 170 US dollars ) as a monthly income. I went on like this for a year and two months, and 400 lira a month represented only the basic needs for food and drink to live.and the rent of the bed.

If you allow me I want to mention a few incidents that happened to me during work.For example, because of my situation, I could never complain or discuss many things that I have being through. I was often being harassed by the workers. I did not speak their language.They used to laugh and joke with sarcastic attitudes about me and about my language. They used to ask me to carry out their personal affairs. I was for them like the deaf and dumb. I did not speak their language. I was never treated as their colleague at work. On so many occasions I have been told to work for extra hours without calculated pay. The opportunistics of the employers were not limited only to the equivalent wage, above all this I was swindled twice in Istanbul. I was like a man built for work without the right of complaining, or even the ability to complain. At the end of each month I have to face humiliation when I ask for my monthly income.

Turkey has isolated me from reality and made me forget that I am a man with dreams and feelings and ambition. I want to throw all these memories behind me and forget what they did to me. I hope that I will not face this in Europe and I can find someone who hears me when I am oppressed and my rights have been taken away.

In short, Turkey has hell too which was no less harsh than what I faced in the war back in Syria.

How can you describe your life in Syria before leaving it?

As for my situation in Syria, I can say that before the war, I was a teenager living in a middle-income family at the Al-Sha'ar neighbourhood in Aleppo. I was working in sewing during the school holidays. It was always for my family and for me the achievement of education was the priority but after the war a total change took place in my life and my family's life.

Firstly I will begin with how we got out of our house:- We were displaced from our house because of the continuous clashes between the different parties of the conflict in Syria. The clashes between the two sides had us in fight-or-flight mode as it was close to the place where we live. In the beginning the area was under the control of the Regime. However, with the escalation of events and because of the battles around many of the residents of the neighbourhood were forced to leave, except for my family and another family who remained in the neighbourhood. Imagine this..... In the entire neighbourhood there are only two families left, until a day came and we were threatened to leave our house by Al-Nusra Front - ( Jabhat al-Nusra ) fighters. We were either given the option of leaving without taking our property or leaving and then we were required to pay them fees to transfer our belongings to our new place. Later I was advised from the roamers around that they live in some of the houses in the neighbourhood and take it as the headquarters of their operations after they took control of and expelled the forces of the Regime. News was spread of the events and about the fighting between the parties, reports of the looting of civilians houses and their property by both parties.

I am not here to tell you who is right and who is wrong in this conflict. In my opinion they're all the same. The chaos of war has become a grievance against everyone, whether you're a supporter or an opponent of the Assad Regime. For me personally, I have suffered from both sides of the conflict. The displacement for us as a family was so ugly. The truth was, we always must search for shelter and get a new home. Our daily lives were turned upside down. There is nothing much to think about, only the basics of life, shelter and sleep.

But all the sorrow that happened to me and my family because of displacement and escape does not compare to my sorrow of my brother's death in the war.

Can you tell me about your deceased brother?

My brother Muhammad, born in 1993 was the eldest brother in the family. He died during the clashes in 2012. My brother was a young man at the age of nineteen years and he was studying his last year in high school. Being this age was very dangerous for him to stay in Syria as he was required for compulsory Military Service. He did not have enough options to avoid this service. The decision to escape to Turkey across the land border was the best for his case. It was the last resort to save him away from the war.

After preparing for the trip and making the decision to go he took this risky journey but as they say "Man does not attain all his heart's desires for the winds do not blow as the vessels wish". During his journey to the crossing he was arrested at one of the Regime's checkpoint in the area of (Masaken AL-Sabeel). After his arrest, he was recruited and taken to the training camps where he stayed for two weeks before sending him once again to a hot spot in the Lermon area of ​​Aleppo.

My brother was injured twice in the right thigh before being killed in a battle in the Khan al-Asal area. Within two days after my brother left on the trip to Turkey, he called us to let us know that one of the Regime's Checkpoint in the Masaken Al-Sabil area had arrested him and taken him to compulsory service. His escape plan came to be unfruitful. A week after this incident, we were able to reach him and visit him at the Training Camp. During that visit, my brother began to tell us a little about what he was facing there. As I recall he told us how the military orders were directed to him and how he was asked to shoot at every man or any thing in motion, (a civilian or even a cat). He tells us in whispers with fears written on his face. He must be a killer or be killed in case of non-compliance.

Following a short period of about three days we got another call informing us that my brother was transferred to the Military Hospital after being shot in the right thigh. We went to visit him and see his condition. During the visit, my brother described to us the fear and mental state he was in. He confessed to us that he had fired on his own thigh to distance himself from the problems there.

Although the injury to my brother was not that dangerous, my family was full of fear and the anticipation made us look like a death was to be seen soon. In the meantime my father tried hard to find a possible way, anyway, even if the bribe included helping my brother flee to Turkey again. Unfortunately, these attempts always reached a dead end. After a period in the hospital and even before he recovered completely, my brother was deported again to the same point and the same place.

This time he shot himself stronger and more dangerously in the same thigh. This time my brother shot himself causing a fracture of the bone trying to buy more time to save himself from this hell. We were not new to coming back to visit him and the situation repeats itself. The frequency of the visits and the whispering talk with my brother perhaps increased doubts about him by the Regime's Intelligence Agents in the hospital too. After a while and without completing his treatment my brother was sent back again to the point that he came from.

He had left the Hospital and was not fully healthy when the news of the clashes between the conflict parties of Khan al-Asal was spread by the Al-Nusra front in a battle called "Mugairat Sobha". The clash news began to be known by everyone. I found out the day when I was at a family visit to my Aunt's house. During the visit, my Aunt's Husband asked me to talk to him privately and I still remember the beginning of his conversation with me. He said to me: "Do not show apostasy, do not lose your temper in front of your parents. What I am about to tell you it's between us". He shows me clips recently spread on YouTube broadcast by Al-Nusra Front shows the battles of Khan AL-Asal and in one of the clip shows my brother and his colleagues in captivity and they were identifying their names and showing their faces in that clip. My brother was the second arranged in that clip. In another clip it shows my brother and his colleagues were executed. At this moment I realised that the taboo had happened. The thing I was afraid of, had happened. I did not hold myself, my lips started to shake and I isolated myself a little from my family and sat in the next room. I did not know what to do or how to behave. I did not understand what was happening. I was separated from the reality around me and everything seemed foggy. I sat in my place like a dead corpse from the shock.

After that I do not remember how the news reached my family or who brought it, but our suffering did not end at this point, I still remember in the following days how my father suffered. In his attempts to reach the body of my brother he was always in that burning summer going to the military hospital hoping to meet Mohammed's body. Hoping maybe at least to find certainty of his death, but it was to no avail of his efforts. Despite the news about my brother until this moment my mother is still not convinced and still waiting for news from Mohammed. Maybe she will never believe at all, she is like my father who won't believe until he sees his corpse. As I told you previously I am sure that my brother was on YouTube clips and I do not think there is room for doubt I wish I am wrong.

After this black incident, my family decided to push us forward (my brother & I) to try to leave and escape to Turkey, abandon our study and departure to an unknown future. I was nearly 18 years old back then.

I had a lot of trouble finding human smugglers and crossing the border. Luckily my attempts to Turkey were successful, not like what happened with Muhammad. My journey was fraught with dangers. I passed through endless Checkpoints by the parties of the conflict and crossing the areas full of clashes and shelling. I had days. I was disconnected with my family, I spent almost a week but I eventually ended up in the safe haven of Turkey or that's what I thought.

As I told you and explained to you earlier how Turkey was for me, my journey and my new life started here with suffering of another kind.

While i was in Istanbul on one occasion while working in black at workshop, my path crossed with a young Syrian man named Da'as. Da'as was average, tall, dark skinned, and full-bodied. He was about four or five years ahead of my age. From his look it is easy you may recognise him as a fighter. We exchanged conversations numerous times during work. He spoke my language and was relieved for me to find someone from Syria. Later I discovered he participated in the battles of Khan al-Asal, often he was telling me about how they were fighting there and recounting about the clashes and how high-ranking officers of the regime escaped the battles, leaving behind the soldiers who were bound as martyrs and facing their inevitable death. Da'as mentioned once that ISIS and AL-Nusra front were the ones who gave the soldiers the safety to lay down their arms and eventually executed them.

I did not know whether his statements were true or not, and I never brought him up to my brother. Maybe I did not find anything that had happened in the past real or I did not find any real benefit from the news about the incident. Maybe I did not care enough about it because of what had happened and my brother will never be alive again. Even if I have thoughts of revenge, I do not think I would be able to find the person who caused my brother's death.

I still have a picture of my brother in my memories between now and then and this wound is still not healed yet even if I became older than he was before it disappears. He is still my oldest brother and his memory will not be erased for good.

Now, almost four years after the incident, I think you are the first person I have told about my brother. I wish to forget, but I wish more to find and read about my brother. My brother is not the only victim in this cursed war. There are thousands, even hundreds of thousands of relatives of war. Victims who want to talk and get out sorrow and anger off their chests.

Radwan Do you have relatives other than your brothers killed by war?

Not only my brother, but I have several friends I lost their news and I do not know if something is wrong with them.

Radwan, why do you volunteer with Humanitarian Organisations?

I do not know exactly, but the general atmosphere of volunteering brings inner peace to myself and makes me feel happy and alive. The constant movement and continual conversations with people plus the help I can give for others. All these things give me self-confidence and makes me feel that war is not everywhere.

What do you hope for with your arrival in Europe?

Now I have been selected with my younger brother, we've been chosen to go to Finland through the Refugee Resettlement Program. I am very happy to go there. Finland is one of the best countries in the world. I hope to get there without complications.I want to complete my studies in Banking Management. as that is what I was doing in Syria before leaving the war. I hope that I can reunite with my family in the near future. I do not know much about what I will face there, but I am confident that it is going be a better future than Turkey or Syria.

Do you ever think of returning to Syria if the war ends?

No, I do not think I'll ever go back, I'm out of it and I'm not going to think about it. I'm comfortable because I left and I will build my future in Finland calmly, and confidently. I believe in my ability to integrate.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I hope that the war will end soon. I hope that education will be better than in Syria. I pray to God that no one should experience the war. What we have learned from the scourge of war can not be described in words. I wish peace in this world and would wash all the violence away.

Radwan, the boy who gave his family tears in the fall of 2013 will remain in my mind as that young man who is full of vitality and activity and confidence. I am positive that he will make his way to success in life and am sure I will visit him someday in his second country Finland.