Hannah Lucinda Smith
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on : Tuesday, 5 Mar, 2013
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Home is Where the Heart Is

The torment of exile having left Syria behind

BACKGAMMON blog: A board game played in smoky cafes from Beirut to Baghdad. Backgammon’s earliest ancestor is five thousand years old and was unearthed in southern Iraq. ‘Backgammon’ covers the state of play in the countries spanning the Fertile Crescent: Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq.
Damascus, Syria. January 2013. Source: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Damascus, Syria. January 2013. Source: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

You will not see Ahmad in a television report, trapped in a war zone that used to be his home. He is not among the refugees escaping Syria for a new hell in the camps. Ahmad is one of the lucky ones: his dual nationality was his ticket out of Syria, and in August last year he cashed it in.

But leaving was not the easy option. From his new home in North America, Ahmad speaks about his decision to leave Damascus, and the daily torment he faces when he thinks about the friends who stayed behind. “I feel like I betrayed them,” he says. “They stayed there, and I left.”

When the protests started two years ago, Ahmad was optimistic. “I had hopes for the revolution in the beginning,” he says. “I thought, the protests are peaceful so the world will support us. But the world procrastinated, and I lost hope.”

As the uprising crystallized into conflict, Ahmad’s family began to talk of leaving. “At first we just took breaks away from Syria, and we always came back. But business became difficult. We own shops in the suburbs and as fighting started to break out around Damascus we couldn’t reach our businesses anymore.”

The crunch came last summer, as the opposition began talking up their so-called Zero Hour offensive in Aleppo. The war was intensifying, and Ahmad’s family decided to leave altogether and build a new life on the other side of the world. Ahmad’s voice breaks as he relives that decision. “I’m still beating myself with it,” he says.

Thousands stream over Syria’s borders every day. The numbers have grown so huge that their jagged edges have worn smooth; over 700,000 refugees are now registered with the UNHCR in Syria’s neighboring countries. People like Ahmad are not included in those figures, and there are many more like him.

Numbers cannot tell the whole story. Each individual comes with a story of ruined livelihood, loved ones left behind, and a friendship group scattered into a diaspora.

“When I look back at photos of myself with my friends in Syria before the revolution started, I can see that we were happy but we didn’t realize it,” says Ahmad. “I look at those pictures and I have such good memories; the places and the people, and the smells of that city. But I know that it’s all being destroyed.”

Social media provides Ahmad with a connection back to his old life. “Around ninety percent of my friends have left Damascus. But it’s the ones who have stayed who I make the most effort to keep in touch with. We use WhatsApp and Skype, but most of all Facebook. If I see on the news that something has happened, I’m straight onto Facebook, checking that everyone is alright.”

But social media also brings uneasy rewards; the Internet’s immediacy means that reminders of what is left at home are constant. A friend of Ahmad’s, also holding dual nationality, has stayed in Damascus with her family. “Her father refuses to leave. He says he’ll die in Syria, and she says that she can’t leave him. And I just don’t have the emotional stamina to speak to her anymore.”

There are also the hours, terrifying and sudden, when contact is lost. Internet and phone outages are standard precursors to the Syrian government’s offensives, tactics intended to prevent evidence of atrocities reaching the rest of the world. Syria’s cyber revolutionaries find ways to get the news out regardless, but for those with loved ones inside the country the hours in between are a black hole.

“Recently, my family visited Damascus,” says Ahmad, “and while they were there heavy fighting broke out. Communications went down, and I spent the whole day calling everyone I knew to find out if they were safe. I grew desperate. Eventually they came back online; they’d left as soon as they heard the gunfire begin, but they had no way of letting anyone know.”

Ahmad is left with conflicting thoughts about the uprising and his own place in it. His old optimism has morphed into something more complex. “Sometimes, I think that they shouldn’t have started this. But if they hadn’t, the regime would have continued unchallenged. And then I think, if I’d stayed, could I have helped?”

There’s a bitter aftertaste to the safety of his new home. Syria, and the people he left there, will always be Ahmad’s priority. When I ask him if he ever thinks about going back, he doesn’t hesitate: “Every day.”

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith is a freelance journalist and photographer covering conflict and humanitarian issues in the Middle East. She has been reporting from Syria and investigating its impact on the wider region since early 2013, and has previously worked on investigations in Kosovo, Brazil and the UK. She lives in Istanbul.

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