One of the many reasons I have a heart for Syria is because we have friends living there. There’s nothing like being in the comfort of your parents’ home in the middle of beautiful rural English countryside, sitting round the kitchen table as a teenager and tucking into your mum’s delicious roast dinner, whilst dear friends tell you about how their young niece would hear bombs going off on the school run, to make you realise how unjust this world can be sometimes and what an embarrassingly privileged life I lead.
I am so honoured to be able to share with you snippets from a Skype conversation I recently had with one of our friends, as I was hoping to share a more personal account of what life is like in Syria and some of the motivation behind the #SpendforSyria2017 charity auction. Sometimes, we get so used to seeing tragedy on our television screens or scrolling through the BBC News app, that it can desensitise us to the individuals living with it everyday.
Whilst our friend, Sophie, is a lot more privileged than most in Syria due to having Western contacts and her husband, Tom, has US citizenship which enables travel and freedom of movement (he was born and grew up in Damascus but studied for a degree in the US,) I hope it gives you a little more insight into life there and how it has affected people, just like you and I. Please note for safety reasons, all names have been changed in this interview. Sophie speaks incredibly good English but some words have also been changed from the original interview for translational purposes.
Hi Sophie, it’s so nice to catch up! What are you up to now, where are you living?
We’re living between Houston, Texas and Damascus (the capital of Syria), at the moment but we spend more time in the Middle East than in the US. We travel a lot, we run training every month in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Iraq, in Eygpt and in Syria too. That way we have no home all the time, we have nothing that is our own space.
What did you do before the war?
I studied Sociology at university in Damascus and got married soon after in 2010. We’ve been married 7 years and spent over four of those years living apart or with other people because of the war.
How does it make you feel when you go home now and see how it is changing?
I grew up in Syria all my life, Syria was the 4th safest country in the world. Especially as a Christian, I never had any fear to go to work or to church. We had so much freedom without fear from extremists. It was safe, I could travel by myself from the south to the north of Damascus in the middle of the night and never needed to worry. I could catch buses, I could drive, or I could walk in the street at midnight and it was fine. This is the country I grew up with, and suddenly, it started changing. I remember when the Arab Springs started, we thought because Syria was such a settled and established country that it wouldn’t affect us, but then the violence and unrest started, and it started very badly. Yet for two years we were denying the war around us, ‘surely this can’t be happening to our country? It will stop. It must stop.’ But then when the terrorists first entered the city of Hamah, killing people, destroying their homes and burning churches, it really began to hit home. I went to a church where they were giving out food and clothing to everyone in the city and I started to cry, I saw this lady who told me, ‘I used to own a clothing shop, and now I don’t have anything but the pyjamas I am wearing.’ It’s hard to see our people with nothing.
And then the war started to reach Damascus, it’s hard to explain, but to sleep through the night, not knowing whether the terrorists will come anytime can be really difficult. They sent missiles and rockets into the area we lived to pressurise us; they hit schools, churches, family communities full of good people. Every day we would leave home and not know if we would come back. We would say our ‘final goodbyes’ daily to our family, never knowing if we would see them again. Despite how risky it was, people still needed to go to school and to work, we had to carry on.
Every time we go back now, it has changed further from what I once knew as home. There are checkpoints everywhere across the city, if you want to go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood it takes hours as they have to search every car. There is also so much poverty everywhere as everything is very expensive now, for example we would buy one egg for two Syrian pounds, now one egg costs fifty Syrian pounds. Oil (petrol) used to be one hundred Syrian pounds, it now costs two thousand Syrian pounds. It’s a hard place to be.
Is there a lot of poverty?
There are a huge number of people who have lost their jobs and their homes, people coming to the city from Hamah or Aleppo have nothing. They have to try and rent an apartment but everywhere is so expensive. As a church, we are always trying to help as much as we can but of course, there is so much poverty and need. People are so poor and the food shortage so vast, that there are large families I see that can only afford one chicken for the whole month. That is the only protein they get. It is so sad to see but maybe we just always took it for granted, you know? Syria used to have so much food and everything was very cheap. In our culture, hosting friends and family is very important to us and you would always bless others with multiple courses of delicious food as you gathered together.
Are there hospitals and medical care available?
All the hospitals are very busy, but most of the doctors have left. Sometimes we joke that the doctors who are in Syria are the best doctors in the world, as they are more experienced than anyone else! It is not a safe environment though; terrorists hide and bring missiles into the hospitals and clinics.
What is it like for people living in Syria?
Syria has become a prison for people living there. You cannot leave. If you want to you need to have a visa which is almost impossible unless you have citizenship elsewhere. If you want to leave Syria just for one day, you have talk to the people at the border and you get interrogated for hours, it can become very fraught. Basically, if you are Syrian, you cannot go anywhere. Families have been separated for years like this.
It can be very hard because we never know if we will see our family members again. This separation is another thing we are all dealing with. It can feel lonely to go to a country where we don’t know anyone and for Syrians, a family community is very important, we are a social people, we love being together and it is very difficult to go to a country where everything is so new and unfamiliar.
How has it affected you personally?
When the war started we were completely shocked as we had no idea whether to stay in Houston or Damascus. I would cry and wonder what was happening? What were we going to do? For the first four years of our marriage we never stayed in our home but had to stay with other people. We just lived out of suitcases and would go from place to place. You’re planning for something in your life, and all of a sudden everything changes and yet we now see God’s grace in this different plan He has for us.
Do you hope to move back to Syria permanently?
People always say to me, “Why do you keep going back? You’re crazy!” Of course, I wouldn’t advise anyone else going there at the moment, but it is our home, it is our church, they are our people. From the beginning of the war I always said, it will end soon, it will end soon. But now I have learnt I can only live my day, not always looking to the future but live each day as it comes, in the best way I can. It has taught me to be so thankful to God for everything I do have.
Wow. After chatting with Sophie, I was absolutely blown away by how positive and upbeat she remains despite everything that her, Tom, and the rest of her family have been through. Everything felt even more poignant to me as we both got married at a similar time, yet our lives from then on in have been so different. I hope you have found this an interesting insight into life in Syria and why our family has a heart for this country in particular. If you’re interested in the work Sophie and Tom are doing please take a look at their own personal charity which can be found here.
All the money raised from #SpendforSyria2017 will be going to The PreEmptive Love, a coalition of people from all different faiths and backgrounds, working across Syria and Iraq to provide vital aid to families whose neighbourhoods have become the frontline of a warzone.
Please head to @theottohouse on Instagram if you’d like to follow the auction happening this week!