In September, I sat and ate dinner with a friend in a fish restaurant in Istanbul. He was one of the first Syrians I met when I moved out to Turkey to cover the conflict, and he had become a good friend. I had always thought of him as one of the lucky ones, an urban, middle class and educated guy who had simply come to Turkey, found a job, and started again when his home in Damascus was blasted apart. But then he’d never told me his full story.
That evening, over beers and raki, he recounted how he had defected from his military service in the early days of the revolution and joined the Free Syrian Army in his hometown. When he decided that he could no longer handle watching death every day, he hitched a ride out to Turkey in the clothes he stood up in, with a hundred dollars and a mobile phone in his pocket.
He knew nobody in the small border town where he was dropped off. So he checked into a cheap hotel, spent 3 Turkish lira (1.5 US dollars) each day on kebab meat, and washed his clothes out in the sink every night. As the days progressed he realized that he didn’t have enough money to pay his hotel bill, but he stayed anyway, hoping that the management wouldn’t knock on his door and demand the money. He had nowhere else to go.
Then, one day, he received a phone call. It was a long number, a number he didn’t recognize, but he answered it anyway. It was his uncle in France, who asked him where he was, and whether he needed money. “And you know what I said?” laughed my friend. “I said no. I don’t need money, I’m fine.”
His reaction to that phone call was an instinctive one that I have witnessed over and over again in the Syrian refugees I have met, from Za’atari camp in Jordan to Athens to Beirut. Their instinct is to hold on to their pride, even when they have nothing else left.
Most people will only see refugees in television news reports and charity appeals. There is a formula to the way they are usually portrayed, living under canvas in the camps, disheveled and hungry. That is a large part of Syria’s humanitarian story, but it certainly isn’t all of it.
This year, the number of Syrian refugees soared past the two million mark. Many of those people are in a desperate situation. In the sprawling Za’atari camp, I met families who had been sleeping on mattresses soaked in rain water for ten days straight. In Istanbul, I met an extended family that was sleeping on one double mattress on the street. When I once left Syria with a people smuggler, picking my way across a minefield in the darkness, I was accompanied by a young woman and her tiny daughter. They didn’t have passports: the minefield was their only way out.
But these are not just victims; they are people, and people are resilient. The street that runs through the center of Za’atari camp has been turned into a market where residents buy and sell food, SIM cards and cigarettes, just as they would have in their hometowns. I interviewed one young man, a barber from Dera’a, who had set up a salon in a makeshift steel shack. Business was swift: people will always need haircuts. The family in Istanbul offered to share their food with me as I sat on the pavement and spoke with them. The young woman and her daughter both cracked wide smiles as they realized that they had made it safely across the border.
In Beirut, I met a group of young Syrian men who were all in the worst possible position, because unlike most refugees they did not have family networks to fall back on for support. They had found themselves living in a city where the rent prices are sky high in comparison to Syria, where unemployment is rampant, and where the tensions between the host community and the refugees are palpable and growing. Some of these men had been left with no other option but to sleep on the streets when they arrived. But slowly they found each other, formed a friendship network, and started teaching each other skills—like English and hairdressing—that they can use to find work. They did all of this without any help from the Lebanese authorities. They refused to rely on charity.
There are likely as many Syrian refugees living in apartments and on friends’ sofas as there are in the camps, and in relative terms they are fortunate. But all of them are in a situation that they never chose to be in; all of them have had their lives interrupted in the cruelest of ways. And all of them, when asked, know where they would rather be—back in their homes, in the country they love. Only the country they love no longer exists.
Syria has become synonymous with chaos, with grief, and with destruction. Sometimes it’s hard for outsiders to think that it was not always like that. But for the refugees who’ve fled, it’s painfully easy.
“It’s home,” another Syrian friend told me as he remembered his life in Damascus. “Nowhere else that I’ve been feels like that. It’s my own space. You feel like here, it’s not for us. It’s nowhere that you can own.”
In the Istanbul fish restaurant, my friend finished his story. His uncle had ignored him and sent some money anyway. He picked it up, paid his hotel bill, and bought some new clothes. A few weeks later, he got a job with a non-governmental organization and slowly started building a new life.
If you had seen my friend and me having dinner at that restaurant in Istanbul, you wouldn’t have known that he was a refugee. But he is. And now there are more than a million others, and all of them are just like him.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.