Syrian refugees on the careers they left behind
They were professionals — teachers, mechanics, lawyers, hairdressers, police officers. Now, having fled their country’s catastrophic war, they must face a very different existence. Five Syrian refugees stranded in Idomeni on the northern border of Greece reminisce about the productive lives they once led as they wait to be relocated into Europe.
“I thought I could help build a generation of thinkers, of doers, that could save Syria.”
Nahala has been a teacher for 27 years. She taught six year olds in Dara’a, writing her own lesson plans every day. She liked the idea that she was shaping the lives of productive citizens.
“For children that age, education is everything,” she says. “We must give them a good start, give them every chance to be whoever they want to be, to be what Syria needs.”
But there is no school in Idomeni, and many of the refugee children here haven’t been inside a classroom for years — something that can be said of half of all Syrian school-aged children.
Crouching on the floor as dusk settles upon the village, rocking on her heels, Nahala appears fragile, as though she might shatter. Her voice falters as she speaks, and she fights to hide her emotions.
“I thought I could help to build a generation of thinkers, of doers, that could save Syria,” she says.
Her face is etched with guilt, as if war, death, the misery of millions, are sorrows that she must bear alone.
“Now, all we can hope for are psychologists, doctors of the mind,” she says. “That is what our country needs now. Psychologists to help us recover from all this.”
Nahala at least has her daughter, son-in-law and grandson with her in Idomeni. She has two sons who remain behind in Damascus. They are Syrian-Palestinian, a minority within a vulnerable nation.
“Here, I have lost my pride. People here are just waiting and fighting for food. We are not like this. We are civilized, educated people. Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, all good people.”
Crestfallen, Nahala pulls her coat around her tiny frame to stave off the chill night brings.
“Before the war, our life was the best life you can imagine. But Syrian people were not united. We fought with each other.” Nahala gestures across the camp. The makeshift tents, clotheslines hung with washing, piles of rubbish — this is what has become of her country’s people, the lost generation she helped to educate.
“I thought I could help save Syria. I had hope for five years. But now that hope has gone.”
The Police Officer
“In the police force you can move and work in different areas…lots of opportunities for career development.”
Early this year, a military offensive in the town of DeirEz-Zur killed some 300 people, forcing Hani and his family to flee to Turkey.
“A rocket hit a military checkpoint right outside our house,” he recalls. “We didn’t take anything with us. We just ran in what we were wearing.”
At the border, the soldiers confiscated their mobile phones, wiping their content before returning them. “Photos of my parents, of my children as babies, all gone.”
Hani’s mother, who sought safety in the Syrian countryside, sent him photos to help him rebuild his family album. One shows Hani in his police officer’s uniform — gold epaulettes, a red military ribbon, a Syrian flag stitched on his breast pocket.
“I was working for the government. It was a good job. In the police force, you can move and work in different areas — traffic police, or emergency police. Lots of opportunities for career development.”
For 17 years, Hani served as a policeman, a job he loved until war broke out and he himself became a target. A man whose job was to protect the innocent became helpless to defend even his own family. “I am 36 years old,” he says, rubbing his hands over his cropped hair, “but the revolution has turned me gray.”
“My kid, he is 10 years old. He wets himself. He is back in diapers. He cries out “Mama!” at night.”
Hani’s story is further testimony to the psychological damage inflicted upon generations of Syrians. The horrors of war, the instability of refugee life, the rejection by Europe as it closes its borders — these scars will remain for decades.
As Hani puts it, “The crying is in our soul, and it will never heal.”
“I like doing the children’s hair. They are always so excited.”
With her make-up done and neatly plucked eyebrows, Hani’s wife Randa looks exquisite despite the dust blowing in her face. It is no surprise when she says she worked in a beauty salon. The 33-year-old styled hair, but on weekends she would help excited brides get ready for their big day.
Now she and her husband are living in a tent, biding their time waiting to cross the border. Recent rains have rotted the pallets they use as beds, just one of the hardships they bear with patience.
In Syria, Randa had a salon that she ran with a friend. She never regretted her choice of profession. “I love speaking with people, hearing about their lives and their dreams. But most of all, I like doing the children’s hair. They are always so excited.”
Her own children, two boys and two girls, have tidy haircuts advertising their mother’s skills. Randa has borrowed scissors from a fellow refugee to prepare the family to celebrate the first birthday of their youngest member.
“My husband hoped we would celebrate it in Germany,” she says with a shrug and a meek smile. “But here we are.”
The family has been in Greece four months, having arrived by boat from Turkey after numerous failed attempts to cross the Aegean Sea (one time the boat ran out of gasoline, another boat ran aground, still another simply got lost and had to turn back). Each time they had paid $300 for life jackets and buoyancy aids for the baby.
When they reached Lesbos, aid workers met them at the shore. “They came to carry our things and our children,” she says. “Their kindness made us forget about the war.”
Randa remembers feeling at that moment “like we were finally home.”
“A trade is gold, and a job is money.”
Broad and bearded, dressed in a tracksuit, 24-year-old Mohaned was an auto mechanic in Damascus. He grew up with engines — his father sold good luxury cars such as BWMs and Mercedes — and started working at his trade when he was 16 years old. He soon had his own garage with a growing reputation.
Since fleeing his ravaged country, he has worked selling ice cream in Egypt and in a factory in Lebanon.
“My garage was destroyed,” he says, remembering the night a tank — a T70 had flattened a parade of shops. “No cars were destroyed, but I lost all of my tools.”
Twenty-five people were killed. “The dead,” he says, “were mostly walking by, innocent passersby.”
A few days later, his father’s dealership and their family home were bombed. With no work or place to live, surrounded by death and destruction, they had no other option but to escape.
Mohaned is trying to reach his brother in Germany. His parents have turned back, deciding they were too old for the arduous journey. He turns somber thinking about them. Grey clouds billow overhead, mirroring the ashy mist rising from the damp ground. Asked what his dream car would be, Mohaned doesn’t have to think about the question.
“A Mercedes C600. The only people who have Mercedes are kings, the very rich and ministers. I started to buy and sell Mercedes parts back in Syria. I was going to refurbish my dream car.”
Living in a tent battered by wind and rain, wearing the same clothing every day, eating fruit from a can, Mohaned couldn’t feel further from his dream.
“If I get to Germany, I will work as a mechanic,” he says. “A trade is gold, and a job is money.”
“I feel like a savior.”
Sakher, 31, practiced law for only one year before war broke out. He loves his profession because he believes in justice — he wants to represent the oppressed — but he admits he never got used to wearing a tie to the office.
He lived in Idomeni for months, sheltering in one of the large communal tents that house up to 100 people — residents literally living on top of each other. Row upon row of bunk beds left no privacy for either Sakher or his pregnant wife, Tahani, or his toddler daughter, Maysoun.
Sakher had only his memories for solace, recalling the joy he felt when he and his family spent holidays on a farm outside the city.
And he dreams of advocating for people less fortunate than himself, for those who have been denied their rights or unfairly imprisoned. When he imagines himself helping others, he says, “I feel like a savior.”
His hope is to reach Germany where his brother, a doctor, has settled. He dreams of going back to school to further his studies and career.
In the meantime, Sakher and his family have moved to Thessaloniki to live with a local family. There they wait for authorities to decide where they will be relocated.
“Sakher means rock,” he says, explaining that he wants to be a solid support for his family and to contribute to the country that welcomes him.
From Greece to Germany to the United States, refugees often thrive in their new communities, building their careers, purchasing homes and gaining citizenship.
Refugee Crisis: How the IRC helps
The International Rescue Committee is providing relief to millions of uprooted people inside Syria; in neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan; in Afghanistan; in Greece and Serbia; and in our 26 resettlement offices in the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.
Nearly 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes by war, conflict and persecution — more lives uprooted than at any time since World War II. Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers in this global refugee crisis.