How would you picture someone who’s had to leave his country because of civil war and had friends on both sides die? If you said friendly, enthusiastic and intelligent you just described 24-year-old Daniel, formerly of Damascus, Syria.
Daniel and I met quite by coincidence. A coincidence helped along by my propensity for breaking things.
Before meeting Daniel I’d had vague images and fairly uninformed generalities about who refugees were and what they must be like, but in meeting Daniel and his family my generalities were turned on their head. The debate in the West seems black-and-white with the Left wanting to accept as many refugees as possible regardless of security concerns and the Right claiming there’s no proper vetting measures and that religious, economic and other reasons make the refugees not compatible with Western countries. Syrian refugees specifically, have been unfairly blamed for things done by some migrants to Europe, including completely different countries, in the past several years. Not only were those I met a lot different than I vaguely imagined: they gave me a place to stay, not the other way around.
What happened next is one of the best times of my life.
Here’s the story.
In 2014 I was in the Caucasus region doing journalism. Situated east of Turkey and south of Russia, the storied and beautiful Caucasus is made up of the Republic of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It was my second time in the area, as I’d taught English in 2012 in a village in the northeast of Georgia. It was my year of becoming a Pshavlebi in our village, the second-to-last Christian town in the Pankisi Valley, an area that’s been in the news due to Muslim jihadists from there who’ve left to fight with ISIS and Islamist fighters in Syria. I never saw much of that there or felt threatened, although tensions were high between those in my Christian village and these further Kist and Chechnyan villages.
For my part I absolutely loved my village and the people.
The volunteer program run through the Georgian government was an incredible experience, and enough for a separate tale, one I tell in part in my documentary “This is Georgia.”
In any case, after returning to my native Canada in 2013 I decided to give the Caucasus another go, this time with a notebook and journalistic ambitions instead of teacher’s chalk.
During my first time in Georgia in 2012 I had found a place and people that spoke my language, figuratively speaking (although to bracket boast I did learn the Georgian language to an intermediate level as well, thanks to my great students). I was welcomed as a guest and made great friends. People went out of their way to be hospitable and were always curious to find out more about Canada, English, music and to teach me their customs and language. I felt like I belonged. In Canada and Western countries I’d often felt somewhat out of place. Modern secular society often felt stilted and artificial to me. I didn’t relate to the dominant pop culture or its various apathetic offshoots. The Caucasus, despite its significant and sometimes paradoxical problems, was more traditional and family-centered, focused on faith and national identity more than material success or individual ambition; to me the Caucasus was somewhere that seemed less touched by existential doubt, sarcasm and relativism.
That’s all to say there were various motivations more than material or journalistic success that drew me back to Georgia in the spring of 2014. This time I was a bit more cynical, full of facts and critiques and less caught up in the mystique and exotic feeling of it all. Nonetheless I was excited to try my hand at reporting overseas.
I ended up back in the capital of Tbilisi, where I got the chance to provide freelance coverage of the European Union Association Agreement and its impact on trade and the wine industry for BBC. I also reported on the experiences of Georgian refugees who’d fled Abkhazia during the 1992–93 war between Abkhazia and Georgia. This story was made possible through Marina, who I knew from teaching at a summer camp near Tbilisi in 2012. Her family welcomed me to their home near the Abkhazia border where they hosted me for days, fed me delicious food and made sure I had a great time. They showed me around their village, led me through their hazelnut groves and invited me as a guest to Marina’s graduation.
I ended up losing my wallet during some waterfall graduation photo ops. In retrospect the frayed pocket of shorts I’d bought a decade ago at Wal-Mart probably weren’t the best place to keep all my ID and money (other than my passport). I was touched by how much Marina and her family cared about me. I even got a loud round of applause when I eventually showed up at the graduation celebration, for nothing more impressive than losing my wallet. When I left several days later, Marina’s mom gave me more than enough money to get back to the city as I scrambled to order replacement bank and credit cards. Believe it or not, losing bank cards and credit cards in my experience was actually more of a big problem than in the past when I’d lost my passport, especially in a country like Georgia where the postal service is more limited.
Marina’s family opened up to me about their experiences starting over in half-unfinished refugee tenements that at first hadn’t even had windows or electricity. They played music and recited poems, and Marina’s dad gave me homemade chacha liquor to take with me for the road (it’s perfectly acceptable to have a drink while riding in public marshrutka transport in Georgia). That was some serious chacha.
After this experience opportunities and my energy seemed to fizzle in the summer sun. I became a bit complacent about chasing leads and ended up working in a youth hostel in Tbilisi, which was a great place to meet great people but also put a pause on my journalistic endeavors. Throw in a star-crossed romantic misadventure to Armenia with a fellow traveler and you have a fairly good snapshot of where things were going.
As in so many times before, however, once I made the decision to do something instead of sit around and focus on what wasn’t working it made all the difference. Situations and meetings came together that I never would have imagined, not only from a career perspective but from a life perspective.
I had long had a desire to visit the region of Abkhazia, and spending time with Marina’s family had piqued my interest further. The history of the region was tragic and fascinating. I decided I would go, and near the end of summer 2014 I got my visa sorted out and left on a northbound marshrutka after a few days by the beach in the western Georgian city of Batumi.
Abkhazia fought a civil war against Georgia in the early nineties after the breakup of the USSR to claim its sovereignty. Most NATO nations don’t recognize it and regard it as part of Georgia, while many other countries haven’t weighed in either way. Abkhazia had its independence recognized by Russia following the August, 2008 Russia-Georgia Five Day War and since then it has moved increasingly closer to the Kremlin, although it underwent years of being essentially blockaded and unrecognized on both sides, something the people still remember well.
I knew the Abkhazians regarded Georgians as former occupiers intent on subverting and invading them, and that Georgians regarded Abkhazians as disloyal, renegade Georgians who’d deluded themselves into thinking they were a separate country and signed a cynical pact with Russia to make it seem true. The region is a tinderbox of tensions. I wanted to see for myself and hear the other points of view. To find the story from the other side I would have to go to Abkhazia itself.
At the border Georgian police in a small station-house informed me I was entering a zone of “criminals” and would be beyond their help. It was quite the historical turning of the tables that Abkhazia is now allied with Russia, a country which had once been an ally of Georgia against various other Caucasian peoples including the Circassians, Abkhazians, Chechnyans, Ubykh and Dagestanis. Intense resistance kept the Russians embroiled in the bloody Caucasian War from 1817 to 1864 as they worked on a program of ethnic cleansing and conquest that ultimately hacked its way through the mountains and impacted many Abkhazians. The conflict eventually saw what is believed to be hundreds of thousands of casualties of the peoples of the Caucasus such as Abkhazians and Circassians. Untold numbers were deported to Turkey and Syria, with many drowning in intentionally-overloaded boats or killed en masse. There’s a monument to the deportations in downtown Sukhum, the Abkhazian capital.
Crossing the Georgian border bridge on a small, covered horse-drawn wagon that cost one Georgian lari, I sat next to ethnic-Georgian Abkhazians (a small number of whom still shuttle between Abkhazia and Georgia) carrying cookware and diapers they’d bought in Georgia to bring home. I saw the razor wire border approaching, manned by armed Russian soldiers. I presented my passport, explained that I was a journalist and was allowed entry after a few questions. I proceeded to hop on a marshrutka to the capital city of Sukhum, or Sukhumi in Georgian, several hours away. Although it seemed merely a stylistic difference to refer to the capital as Sukhum or Sukhumi (in the Georgian language), I would come to learn that that small difference alone represented a lot of bloodshed and animosity, as it inhered a political perspective. I’m using Sukhum as this piece details a story from the Abkhazian perspective.
I had not planned where I would stay, nor had I sold any stories other than one about Marina’s family and the Georgian point-of-view on Abkhazia. However, I wanted to find out about the situation on the ground and learn the background and the current status of the conflict. It was obviously still on peoples’ minds in Abkhazia, with frequent billboards extolling the first president and founder Vladislav Ardzinba and remembrances of the war to split from Georgia, which Abkhaz call the Patriotic War. Fierce fighting left the former parliament of Abkhazia a bombed-out husk in the Sukhum city center, and other damage is still clearly evident in various areas.
A meticulous marble war memorial is one of the main centerpieces of the capital.
The omnipresence of remembering the past in Abkhazia is something Nathan Thornburgh details well in his superb piece Abkhazia: Paradise Lost.
To continue; at a small rest stop halfway up to Sukhum I purchased a Russian SIM card for my cell phone that would work in Abkhazia. It didn’t seem to fit quite right and I tried a bit too hard to get it in. The next thing you know I had a phone that didn’t work. I was now in a strange place without means of communication, although I had at least done some background research.
Prior to going to Abkhazia I’d spoken to several helpful people, including post-soviet expert and former Caucasus region bureau chief for Reuters, Lawrence Sheets. The author of Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, Sheets had covered the 1992–93 war in Abkhazia and many developments since that time. He is intimately familiar with the region, and gave me various insights and practical tips. He advised me, for example, that there weren’t ATMs in Abkhazia and that business was done almost entirely in hard currency Russian rubles. Money could be obtained through one of several basic banks with tellers that could convert American dollars; he also told me who to speak to in government for good interviews, his views of the current situation of Abkhazia in relation to Russia, the West and the conflict in Ukraine, and other perspectives.
As I traveled on the marshrutka towards Sukhum I was sort of winging it, tempting fate almost. I hadn’t booked a guesthouse because Abkhazia wasn’t exactly advertising youth hostels or hotels for foreigners, and I didn’t have a firm idea of what I wanted to report on other than a general look at Abkhazian society today. I figured the best bet would be to find a place to sleep once I was there.
Dozing off as the marshrutka approached the city limits I heard the word “guesthouse” repeated several times in an accent I didn’t immediately identify in my groggy state. My ears perked up and I entered a state of semi-consciousness. Before I knew it the driver had stopped and two young men porting backpacks had gotten out with a young woman. I decided to hop out at the last moment and stood awkwardly hovering near the trio on the side of the four-lane road. I asked one of the guys where he was from and he said they were from France. I asked if they knew anywhere to stay and they said that was what the young Abkhazian woman they were talking to was helping them arrange. After asking if I could join them and them being agreeable to the idea we set off, and I found out to my surprise that the two fellows Camille and Bruno were actually French journalists. Definitely the right people to meet when you want to do journalism somewhere you aren’t all that familiar with.
We ended up staying in small side portion of a house 15 minutes away from the main street in Sukhum. The squat host let us in somewhat suspiciously and we paid her the equivalent of $10 each for the night.
The funniest and most bizarre moment occurred when a beefy blond man with a Dolph Lundgren-haircut swaggered into the yard the next day. The French guys and I were taking a break reading and lounging around after time at the beach and I was hanging out wet swim shorts to dry on a railing. Seeing us on the small deck outside the room Mr. Beefy shouted up “Hello. Were are you from!?”
My new friends told him “France,” while I said “From Canada.”
I was about to ask Dolph-fro where he was from, but he beat me to it.
“I am from ‘ze Russian Federation!” he bellowed proudly.
We nodded and said hello. It wasn’t to be the last of our encounters as he later accused us of being spies and then me personally, in particular, of “masking for the FBI.” I was unsure what masking tape or Phantom of the Opera had to do with anything until I realized he was accusing me of being a spy. I had come back to reclaim something I’d left in the room and was on my laptop when he barged in with several other Russians thinking the room was unoccupied. Claiming I worked for the “Ameericans” or “Breetish,” he demanded to know my interest in Abkhazia and with a laugh and growl opined that if it weren’t for the West and their interference Russia and its “brothers” the Georgians and Abkhazians would be sitting around drinking chacha in harmony. The man, who said he was a high school wrestling and chess coach in town for a chess tournament, was equal parts funny and intimidating. He eventually believed me that I was just a journalist after I showed him my lack of cash and asked him to explain why I would be staying in a public guesthouse without even speaking Russian if I was involved in anything covert.
As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s fair to say our boy Dolph was a founding member of the fan club.
“Putin fucks Obama!” he bellowed, mimicking an aggressive thrusting motion with his hips as he and several other Russians with him laughed.
Suffice to say I did successfully get out of the guesthouse intact, although I had to go down to the main house to get the Medoff vodka the owner had taken from my room when she cleaned it. Journalists have their principles, and liquor is high on the list.
Camille and Bruno were downtown trying to set up a meeting with now-Abkhazian president, and at-the-time presidential candidate, Raul Khajimba, so after resolving the vodka brouhaha I decided to go deal with my SIM-card -addled phone. I wandered into several chintzy clothing stores with half-deflated beach balls and knockoff-brand electronics and several cell phone service centers that seemed to sell phones far beyond what I imagined an ordinary Abkhazian could afford.
Most of the shop owners pointed to new phones or shook their head quickly when I asked if they spoke English. I was almost out of hope. Figuring I would try one last shop, I came to a store bedecked in various Cyrillic-lettered signs and with a window full of Abkhazia patriotic memorabilia. I walked in and asked if anyone spoke English.
“Angliyskiy? … There’s a problem with my phone. Do you know English?” I asked pointing to my cell.
“Yes I speak English,” said a smiling, dark-haired young man at the front desk in perfect, non-accented English. Unlike many of the others I’d asked he made eye contact and smiled in a forthright and helpful way.
Figuring he was American I struck up a conversation. He was from Syria originally, he said. He’d had an American tutor in Damascus, which was why his English was so good. No, their store didn’t fix phones but he asked me to wait a second and asked his boss something, then told me his boss would watch the shop for awhile while he came and tried to help me find the right place to fix it. His name was Daniel.
We walked up the street about ten blocks, the conversation flowing easily, and came to a small store filled with workbenches and old mechanical parts. The owner seemed ready to strike a deal, but then said two hundred US dollars after hearing that we were speaking English.
“He raised the price a lot from his first price, when he heard us speak English,” Daniel explained to me.
We laughed, declined the offer and left.
On a side-note, I eventually wedged a small piece of plastic in the SIM card tray area and fixed the problem several days later. At least until later that year when that phone broke for good and I retired it from service.
As we walked back to his work Daniel explained that both his mom and dad and whole family were ethnic Abkhazians, Sunni Muslims whose ancestors were forced to leave Abkhazia when Czarist Russia conquered the region in the 19th Century during the Caucasian War. They were deported first to Turkey, then migrated to Golan Heights, Syria (later to become Israel), and then left Golan Heights to settle in Damascus.
Now, after the onset of the brutal Syrian civil war, they were back to their roots.
After 20 minutes of walking and talking about my journalism hopes and dreams and his family’s flight from the war in Syria, Daniel invited me to his village in the north of Abkhazia. I accepted after asking several times if he was sure and asked if it would be OK to invite Camille and Bruno as well. He agreed with a smile and said no problem.
We all met up back at the small apartment Daniel stayed in some weeknights above the shop. I worked on a bag of chips while the others talked about work and life.
Daniel’s eyes gleamed with enthusiasm as he made a Russian-language “Open” sign for customers. Despite the fact he was working on a degree in business before leaving Syria, he was not getting down about the work he was now doing.
Using a spray bottle of Fairy brand dish detergent to create a glue-like surface on a work table, Daniel meticulously stuck the Cyrillic letters to the plastic cardboard sign.
“You’ve got to have the fairy,” Bruno observed.
“Yes, you sure do,” Daniel agreed as we laughed.
Soon the four of us met Daniel’s father Sami father outside the shop. Bruno and Camille were also looking forward to visiting somewhere off the beaten track and staying with locals. Sami, who was doing construction work in Sukhum, pulled up in an old Honda.
The car was given to him through financial help from the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia, whose clergy at the St. Simon the Zealot Monastery heard of the family’s situation and wanted to help, Daniel later told me.
We pulled out past the crumbling Soviet tenements and drove past the faded glory of the old central bus terminal on the outskirts of the city.
Occasional small vineyards and piles of construction material, gas stations and restaurants thinned out as we approached the country and soon began following the road along the seacoast.
“It’s so beautiful here along this highway,” Daniel said farther along, naming the rivers and towns. He also remarked on Abkhazia’s serious problem with drunk driving as his father drove past monuments to the many mostly young men killed on the road.
With gusts of acceleration in the old Honda we wound our way along the small road. Up ahead a line of cars had formed and we soon slowed to a halt. There must have been some kind of accident. Daniel eventually ran ahead and came back with a grim report. A completely burned-out husk of a car was all that remained. We drove by and it was as bad as he’d said. Police had roped off the area and people were crowding around. We later heard in the news that there were rumors it had been some kind of targeted hit on a prominent financial figure, although I was never able to find out more and didn’t see it in the news for myself.
We continued on. Large Eucalyptus trees whizzed by and their rich scent filled the car.
Soon we passed the beautiful golden domes of the Monastery and Cathedral of St. Simon the Zealot, which is nestled in the foothills of the town of Novy Afon (“New Athos”). It is reputed to be the site where St. Simon the apostle was martyred by Roman soldiers in ancient times.
We walked up a lengthy, winding pathway past small market vendors selling icons and tourism souvenirs and reach the cathedral. Its interior was stunning. I saw a large icon of Daniel in the lion’s den and pointed it out to Daniel. We talked about his family’s view of Christians and he pointed out that his family had a real respect for the Christian religion, despite the fact that it was not their belief. Daniel talked about how, prior to its current war, Syria actually has a long history of different religions coexisting relatively peacefully. Abkhazia includes many Christians and Muslims who see each other as equals, Daniel said.
After several hours more driving we were almost at Daniel’s village, Sami stopped at a small corner store in the countryside near their village so that Daniel could buy candy for his sister Amira and a few food basics.
“My daughter will be very upset if we don’t stop and get her what she wants,” Sami explained with a chuckle, telling of how Amira is the greatest love in his life and saying she’d changed him into a man who cared about others more than before. With eyes that bespoke sincerity and a lot of life experience Sami was someone you naturally listened to and respected.
As Daniel returned and Sami began to drive on, a rakish man in a puffy blue ski vest came out of the store, a visible scar from a knife-wound running across his cheek.
“There are a lot of mafia here, but they all respect me because they know I’m Syrian,” Sami said with a wry half-smile, casually giving a small wave and nod to a passing car as he drove on.
Neighbors’ cows grazed and the roosters crowed as we pulled up to the gate of their house in the village. Crisp mountain air greeted the lungs as Daniel’s family came out to say hello, smiling and waving. The house had a small side porch and main kitchen and dining room area and an upstairs, but was clearly more of a temporary lodging. It was only half-built and had been derelict before they moved in. As Camille, Bruno and I were introduced to Daniel’s family members I took in the incredible view of the mountains, almost purple in the fading afternoon light. A tap outside runs some of the purest water in the world, Daniel explained, a conclusion he said Coca-Cola reached decades ago when testing for the best water in the region to use in their soft drinks. Sami had spray-painted “Allah Bless Ardzinba” in red on the side of the house in Arabic as you come in, something I would later find out when I asked Daniel what it said, as I don’t speak or read Arabic.
Sitting later at the dinner table Sami told us a bit about what they’d been through.
“We are like the Jews,” he said with a melancholy laugh, half-focused simultaneously on news from Syria as it scrolled across the nearby television given to them by neighbors.
“The Palestinians say ‘why us?’ but our people have had to move countries maybe five times,” Daniel added. “I don’t know why it happened. Maybe we had bad luck.”
Later the neighbors who gave Daniel’s family the house and were some of the first to make them feel welcome came over for coffee. Camille, Bruno and I sat around the table with tea and biscuits, as Jack Nicholson played his part in A Few Good Men onscreen and the neighbors chatted with Sami.
“These are the best people you will ever meet in the entire world,” Sami said with emphasis, clapping a hand on his neighbor’s shoulder and acknowledging his neighbor’s wife.
Daniel and his family had come from a nation so ravaged by war it’s now half-destroyed to a nation that many other countries don’t even consider to exist, but they provided Camille, Bruno and I with a place to stay and outstanding hospitality. When they were in between places themselves and staying in a house only partly built they made it clear that we were valued guests who they wanted to get to know and provide a great experience. We were made to feel at home by people who’d experienced the roughest way possible to be forced from their home.
When I traveled to Abkhazia to follow my journalistic curiosity, the last people I expected to meet were Syrian refugees, partly because I knew Russia’s pro-Assad position vis-à-vis the conflict, and Russia is essentially the guarantor of Abkhazia, with physical control of its land, sea and air borders. In fact the war in Syria was something I didn’t know that much about at the time, although it had been ongoing by then for several years.
I felt closer to Daniel and his family and a deeper connection with them than I ever expected. I went from worrying about what article I would publish next or where to go after, to just enjoying the experience of being in a new place and meeting incredible people. Sami’s older parents also lived in the house and were very friendly, always offering food and greeting me and the French guys. Good attitudes can be infectious, and Daniel’s optimism started to rub off on my sometimes gloomy outlook.
Since his arrival two years ago with his family Daniel told me how he had made a life for himself and adjusted to the new society as much as possible.
Before the war Syria was a place they loved, with Sami working as a delivery driver for downtown businesses in Damascus and his mom teaching young kids. Daniel attended university to study business and had been admitted due to his high ability in English reading and writing. Arriving in Abkhazia meant a whole new language. Well, two, actually.
“I worked hard, but it was pretty hard. I didn’t take lessons,” Daniel, whose first language is Arabic and speaks fluent English, told me of learning basic Russian. “But the Abkhazian language I don’t know that well, just a few words.”
Around four months after Daniel and his father Sami and little brother Marten came to Abkhazia, his small sister Amira, mother Yana and middle brother Radwan also arrived, followed soon after by Sami’s own mother and father. In eventually asking if I could tell their story I agreed not to use the family’s real names for the sake of safety, although they agreed that some photos were fine.
Radwan who came later than Daniel to Abkhazia told me about some of his experiences. He talked about seeing the army open fire on protesters in his neighborhood and killing four people, including small children.
“I remember four men died, two children and two men,” Radwan told me in a halting voice as we sat upstairs in a room with several pieces of old furniture in it. “I knew all of them of course, because all of them were my neighbors…And I still see the child. I remember his face and blood all over…”
Then during the funerals for those slain the next day, Assad’s army attacked again. One of Radwan’s friends fled as he was being shot at by the army, only to collapse in shock-induced paralysis on the ground once he reached a safe street closer to home. Radwan told me about bending down to talk to him and his friend not answering. He thought his friend had been shot and was dying, but realized it was just extreme shock. He got his friend to stand up and helped him to his home where he gave him water.
The violence happening in Syria is more callus and spur-of-the-moment than people in peaceful countries comprehend, Radwan told me.
“In Syria they kill someone so easily like — how can I explain — like taking a piss. They act like they are just taking a piss,” Radwan told me. “I understand … It is war. But why do they hurt the people who are not on a side … the innocent people — civilians. Why?”
Radwan still remembers the day his family left for good. His mother Yana had bought tickets and were ready to get out. He told me about running away as helicopters started destroying their neighborhood.
Radwan held his then four-year-old sister Amira and a bag with some belongings, scrambling to evacuate as their street started exploding. His mother and cousins ran with him. The back-and-forth fighting between the Assad army and rebels had now come to their front door and leaving was the only option. They couldn’t drive because the small city streets were strewn with rubble and blocked off in some cases, not to mention that gas was very difficult to find. Everything was left behind. They found a bus on the main road that took them to the Aleppo airport and got on their flight to Mineralnye Vody, Russia. From there it was on to Sochi and then Abkhazia.
They made it out just in time.
If they’d left only 10 minutes later they might not be alive today, Radwan told me.
“I was sleeping and I woke up to ruh-tuh-tuh-tuh. I heard it and it was so shocking — they want to blow us up! So I take my sister and my mother … I carry Amira and a couple of bags and I go. We left everything else in the house and go. And when we were running in the street we saw the helicopter start shooting our neighborhood, shooting at all the houses.”
Radwan recounted one family friend arrested because his brother was involved with the rebels. He was just an average guy who played a lot of video games and had no desire to get involved in any way with the conflict that was going on. Despite protesting his innocence he was jailed by Assad’s forces. Inmates are not fed properly and are often tortured, Radwan said. They received news that this family friend died two years after his arrest.
In Syria Daniel also lost friends, and the family still has a relative in jail for “no reason.”
It’s a painful thing to remember, the days he read his friends had been killed, but Daniel acknowledges it with maturity and control.
“One of my friends he was in the army, in Assad’s army, but he was placed in intelligence. He was a normal soldier, but they put him in intelligence,” Daniel told me. “When he saw the way they were killing people for no reason he decided to go as a rebel. So he fought with the rebels and he got killed by the army. He was my age … We were good friends, from the same neighborhood.”
Daniel also lost another friend who fought with the Syrian army.
In my time in Sukhum I’d had the chance to arrange an interview with Abkhazia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Viacheslav Chirikba. He’d helped give me information and insights into the context in which Daniel and his family had come to Abkhazia, and also presented me with a small book he’d written arguing the case for Abkhazian statehood.
Daniel and his family make up around 500 Syrians that had been allowed into Abkhazia by summer 2014, according to Chirikba.
“Syrians of course are Arabic-speaking people with a different culture, though the territory is close across the sea. But we have good relations with them and the people that are coming here,” Chirikba said, speaking to me in August, 2014 from his office in Sukhum. “Because of the civil war in Syria there was destabilization which meant some of those who wished to return to Abkhazia could do so. We organized two charter flights from Beirut to Sochi in the fall of 2013, to get more than 500 Abkhazians from Syria, who are now here.”
Daniel and his family came via their own route, but in a similar way to these other Syrians.
The flights from Beirut included Abkhazian and Circassian Syrians (Circassian is sometimes used as a catch-all term for people from the region, but specifically refers to a neighboring republic’s dominant ethnic group). These people generally knew each other and could prove ancestry. The flights were authorized by Russia, which has accepted less than 2,000 Syrian refugees according to some sources.
As for the partnership with Russia, Chirikba said it is the logical stance for Abkhazia going forward.
“We have maybe 5,000 Russians here, smaller than the American base in Kosovo, which is around 7,000 [troops],” Chirikba told me. “We are very happy to have a Russian military presence here where they reduce any eventuality of war with Georgia.”
The close relationship seems likely to strengthen further with the election last year of Khadjimba as president of Abkhazia, a man who has shown the will to increasingly partner with Russia on military and defense matters.
The fact that Daniel’s family had ancestry in a place allied with Russia must have helped as they made their exodus.
Daniel and his family are part of the much wider and bigger Abkhazian diaspora, estimated at 150,000 to one million people, the majority of whom now live in Turkey.
“Because of economical hardships the program was not very successful before,” Chirikba said of former attempts by the government to attract some of the diaspora back to Abkhazia. “Now that our economy is having more of a boom, every week we have one or two or three families from Turkey coming back.”
Some, as aforementioned, were also coming from Syria.
At first, after arriving in Sukhum, Daniel’s family felt less than fully-welcomed. The locals seemed to regard them more as “Arab outsiders” than actual Abkhazians rediscovering their roots. Despite a detailed hand-drawn family tree that Sami carried around with him to show they weren’t imposters, most were wary.
But that on-the-fence attitude toward Daniel’s family all changed several months later at a wedding they were invited to attend.
“Everybody welcomed us and said you’re our brothers and sisters, after they saw us dancing at the wedding,” Daniel, who was the leader of a Circassian dance group in Damascus for two years recalled. “They thought we had forgotten who we are. But after when they saw us dancing, acting like them, cooking the same food, they recognized us and hugged us and said ‘after 200 years you really have not forgotten who you are.’”
Soon after, a friend of Sami’s saw the family’s situation living from guesthouse-to-guesthouse around Sukhum and spoke to other friends who then offered them the house in the village. Although it was mostly derelict and ruined when they moved in, the house was a real blessing, along with the refrigerator, building supplies, cutlery and basic furniture that their generous new neighbors chipped in to give them. Nonetheless, it was clearly a situation of just getting by, with only a wood stove to heat the interior which became especially cold in winter months.
Daniel talked about the ‘92 war as if it were yesterday and retold legends, history and traditions from further back as if they were his own history rather than that of a new land.
“In the old days if a woman passed a young or middle-aged man on a path she would ask if he was OK,” Daniel said. “She would ask who was he and what was wrong that he was not fighting.”
Daniel told the story of one young warrior who survived after fighting to his utmost in a doomed battle and just made it out alive back to his village. After telling of the horrible defeat he expected to be seen as a heroic survivor, but instead his grandmother at home ordered him to go back to the battle and fight to the death.
During the day we generally did things outside. Daniel’s younger brother Marten was very energetic, and joked around as he washed their father’s car with the hose.
Amira squealed as she hit a badminton bird up in the air. Camille, Bruno and I had bought the badminton set for her in Sukhum as a present. Yana and Sami’s mother worked together preparing delicious Syrian food in the kitchen, while Sami, Radwan and Sami’s parents watched television.
It was a real home, because they had each other. But the situation was still obviously difficult and full of upheaval in a profound way.
Sitting around the supper table and despite his earlier good humor about getting respect from the local “mafia,” Sami lamented the many downsides of being stereotyped and disadvantaged purely because of citizenship.
“The question is not who you are, it’s what is your passport,” Sami said. “You could be a robber in Sweden, but if you have a passport from a strong country [like that] the customs [officers] will greet you at the airport and say ‘welcome.’ But you can be an engineer from Syria and they will think you are a bad person.”
As I talked to Sami it was clear that even though he had a love for Abkhazia, what he really wanted was a chance for his family to go to Europe and start a new life.
Sami also commented on the situation in Syria, where he said Shia Muslims are often unfairly favored over the majority Sunnis.
“Muslims have two ways, Sunni and Shia. The president is Shia. These kind of people, Shia, if you go to any house, all of these people they have work. If you go to a Sunni house you see maybe one worker,” he said, shaking his head. “The Shia they work in intelligence, in the embassy, outside Syria. They’re VIP … All of this group has such privileges, but only a small percentage of Syria is Shia.”
While Sami said things were “not good” under Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad, he acknowledged that under Hafez “at least there was peace.”
One of the few upsides of the war that’s torn their life apart is that Daniel and his family now have friends all over the world.
“Most of my friends they don’t live in Damascus right now,” Daniel said. “One thing this war did that’s good is that now I have friends all over, in Europe, Turkey and America.”
Daniel and I bonded over our shared love of American country music. He especially loved the song “Gonna B Good” by Keith Urban which he heard when I let him listen to my MP3 player. Daniel knew songs that had only come out weeks ago on the American charts, and had Luke Bryan and Florida-Georgia Line songs on his phone. I was impressed because he knew more about country than most of my American and Canadian friends.
We stayed up at night talking, in the cool mountain air outside, smoking Turkish tobacco from a hookah. Camille and Bruno talked about France and their adventures. Daniel demonstrated some traditional folk dance moves. The crickets chirped. From societies so different we all had become fast friends, easily enjoying one another’s company.
The next day we decided to go to the river. The hike was about one hour and ended with a climb down a steep moss-covered slope with wayward branches ready to catch your clothes. It ended up being a lot of fun — the hike and the river. I learned the term for “let’s go” in Arabic, “Yallah!” thanks to Radwan. The river was refreshing and sparkling, you could even drink from it, Daniel said. I tried and it was definitely pure-tasting water. We all swam around, talked, explored and eventually constructed a rock wall to the side to form a kind of swimming pool. It was a great afternoon.
That night Yana served tasty food at the dinner table as she kept an eye on the stove for the next dish to be ready. Everyone else was already eating, and Yana was in her element. Sami commented on how the woman was the real master of the house with a wink. Early evening sunlight streamed through the window while the family and Camille, Bruno and I sat around the tale. Yana beamed as she received a compliment, watching happily as her family and guests ate. Daniel and his brothers and little sister joked and laughed, busy enjoying their meal and temporarily blind to the television as it flashed the endless violent news from their former home.
In spite of everything they’d lost it was inspiring to see Daniel’s family had the most important things: a sense of humor and each other.
“We learned from the bad things that happened to us to be a good person, because we tasted the bad,” Daniel told me when I asked how they stayed positive and cared about other people. “We don’t want anything bad like what happened to us to happen to any other person.”
When I met Daniel and his family they were in radical transition, but it hadn’t broken their spirit.
“We have hope,” Daniel said. “I don’t know how. We just keep laughing. We have hope. You don’t have to give up. Why would you give up?”
I still stay in touch with Daniel and his brothers online and am continually impressed by their positive attitude and enthusiasm whenever we talk. In the three days I spent with them I experienced not only the ability of people to rebound after upheaval, but the power of family to hold things together.
There’s no doubt the world’s always been a tough place, and past generations of various nations have been through the incalculable struggles of famine, slavery, world wars, genocide, economic depressions and global upheaval. But it does seem that today in particular psychological hope is often found in short supply. Even in countries that have everything, antidepressants pour off the shelves at record rates.
Now, as Russia and the West tangle in Syria, shaky ceasefires are set up, and refugees flee into Europe, the world’s attention is once again on the small and devastated nation. More than 210,000 have been killed since the start of its civil war in 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while the UN estimates 3.73 million Syrians have also left the country as refugees and at least 6.6 million have been internally displaced as well.
The debate rages in North America and Europe between maintaining high security standards and helping as many innocent Syrians as possible to escape war and persecution. Recent arguments from the Left and Right often seem to devolve into simplistic characterizations and positions. Debates are either firmly pro-refugee, casting opponents as bigots lacking compassion, or alarmist-style anti-refugee, casting proponents as naïve and inviting disaster. There’s no doubt caution and prudence are called for, but it can’t be emphasized strongly enough that innocent Syrians and people from the region in particular are the last ones who should have to suffer more from the war.
One thing is clear to me based on my experiences: Syrian refugees, and refugees of the many different countries of the world, are not tokens in a political argument. They’re so much more. They’re very much just ‘people like us,’ but in some cases maybe even a bit more determined and positive than people like us.
Meeting those in the midst of the struggle who won’t give up hope no matter what is a powerful experience.
As millions struggle to find a home and the world becomes more chaotic than ever, my time with Daniel and his family will always be a one of my best memories. It reminds me how the most remarkable and genuine people can be found around every corner, even in the most difficult situations.
Daniel recently informed me over Facebook that he, Amira and Yana are now in Scandinavia, with their other family members possibly coming in the future. They would have considered applying to come to the United States, somewhere Daniel is a big fan of, but were put off by the anti-refugee rhetoric of people like presidential contender Donald Trump. Now, with the chance at a new life they are hopeful, despite the good and bad left behind.
“We miss Syria you know, but the old Syria not the new one, and we all know that Syria we’ll never be like it was before. Almost all [of] my friends have left Syria now,” Daniel told me. “War took everything beautiful. ”
Recently looking at Daniel’s Facebook profile I saw a quote he had written that summarized the winning spirit of so many now down on their luck but trying for a better life:
“No matter how much it’s impossible to do it, you have to be the warrior. Fight for love, for life and for dreams.”