What does home mean to you? For some of us, the word evokes memories of summers with childhood friends; for others, it brings to mind communal meals shared with loved ones. But for most of us, home summons forth a sense of comfort and refuge — until it’s swept out from beneath us.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian families have seen their homes destroyed by barrel bombs and punctured by bullets since the start of the civil war in 2011. Their sense of safety and belonging has been reduced to rubble.
Many of these families are among the half a million refugees who have risked their lives to cross the Aegean Sea in search of a secure future — and new home — in Europe.
This September, as they passed through the Greek island of Lesbos, one of the main ports of entry into Europe, five Syrians spoke with the International Rescue Committee about the places they have escaped, their lives in limbo, and the new homes they hope to find.
Fatima*, 27, mother of four
From: Aleppo, once one of Syria’s largest and most prosperous cities. She fled on foot across the mountains to Turkey with her family — five days after giving birth to baby Alisha.
Staying: In a tent in Kara Tepe transit camp on Lesbos with her family. Her four-year-old daughter, Miryam, keeps close watch over her new baby sister as she sleeps in her carrier.
Home means: Something warm and safe
“We were living in terror. Every single moment we were afraid. We would say goodbye to our children when they were going to school as if it was the last goodbye. We treat it like we’ve seen them for the last time because you have to expect that they would not come back. In simple words: there was no future.
The bomb hit our house three weeks ago. The entire family was sitting in the living room. The petrol tanks on the roof of the house made the explosion worse.
We were trying to save our children. There was so much dust you couldn’t see. For half an hour we couldn’t hear. We were just trying to escape.
We want a home and education for our children more than anything. Home for us means something warm and safe. It is my dream to cook in a safe and warm house, in my house.”
Mohammed*, 26, former student
From: Homs, Syria. He was severely injured after a bomb exploded next to the room where he and his family were huddling for safety during an air raid in 2013. His older brother Sameer and others took him to Yabrud, Syria for first aid and then carried him through the mountains to Lebanon, where they hoped to find doctors who could remove shrapnel from his shoulder and spine and help him walk again.
Staying: In a cabin in Pikpa camp, a former children’s summer camp now being used as temporary housing for refugees who need additional support while they are on Lesbos.
Home means: The small things
“We were home when the missile came. The bomb hit at three or four in the afternoon. I thought I was going to die. My eyes were full of blood, I couldn’t see. I lost consciousness for one minute. When I regained consciousness, people were dragging me. I couldn’t hear for a short period of time.
We left the village at nine that night and went to Yabrud. There was no treatment in Yabrud, only first aid. They took me to Lebanon where [doctors] removed the fragment in my shoulder, but they didn’t remove [them] from my spine. The cost was too high.
I miss the small things I used to do: Writing my name; now I can’t. I want to be able to walk again, to start studying. I want to be a doctor. I never thought I would want to be a doctor, but because of my injury I want to be one now. I want to help people. It means everything to have my brother here helping me. He gives me hope. I couldn’t do this without him.”
Amal, 46, supported family working odd jobs
From: Homs, Syria. Her husband was killed during the first year of the war and her house was destroyed by airstrikes.
Staying: Under a tree near a port in the capital Mytilene, with her newlywed 14-year-old daughter, her son-in-law, and her younger son. The expense of the journey to Greece forced her to leave four of her children behind with relatives in Syria. She relies on strangers to keep her family fed.
Home means: Happy memories of her children growing up
“When we left our house we decided we either die here or we live, but we didn’t know where. We don’t know how they treat us in Europe. We are going for the unknown. I don’t have money to go one step ahead; I don’t have money to feed my child. What can I do?
I counted myself dead four years ago. We saw so many bad images of people being killed, of heads being cut off. They kill all over the streets, everywhere. I hoped to die, but I need to live for my children.
My daughter, she is 14, was married, because I was afraid for her. I was worried that if I was arrested, that my daughter would be lost. Before we were very happy, we were smiling, but now the war has stolen everything from us, even our smile.”
Ali, 33, former owner of an electronics shop
From: Aleppo, where the family home was stuck in the crossfire of fighting for three years. As the violence escalated, Ali and his wife Samah escaped with their four children and nephew to a small camp nearby for displaced families — but with no schools for the children and no work available to enable the family to survive, they decided to try for Europe.
Staying: In a prefab shelter in Kara Tepe camp provided by IKEA and the United Nations Refugee Agency
Home means: Peace
“Our house was just a mile away from the worst part of Aleppo. We stayed in our house like we were in chains. We could not go out. The worst was at night. I didn’t sleep at night and if I heard an airplane I would run and wake up [the children] and put them in the bathroom. I thought the bathroom was the safest place in the house because it was small and closed.
In Syria, every day you thank god because you have your two legs and hands. But, this cannot continue. We are already dead because of how afraid we have become.
We lived in that house for 10 years. We got married in 2005. It was our house, our kingdom. If I was sure the war in Syria would end in five years, I would have stayed in Syria. But no one thinks it will finish. We do not think it will end. It has become darker and darker.
We want to stay in our house in peace. We want our school back. I miss everything in my house, I miss that I can take my car at three in the evening and I can go and walk. If I need a doctor during the night, I can go to a doctor. We just want to live in a peaceful land. And we want our child to go in school and have a good future.”
Ahmed*, 24, former teachers college student
From: Deir Ez-Zur, Syria. After their home was reduced to rubble during fighting, Ahmed and his family fled to Raqqa, only to live for two years under the control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) before escaping again to the safety of Europe.
Staying: In a small canvas tent in Kara Tepe camp that he shares with a group of friends and traveling companions.
Home means: “Everything”
“[In Raqqa] my brother was working in a bread bakery and I sold cigarettes. The work was only enough to live for now, we could not save for later. [Under ISIS], you are forced to keep your hair and beard long. There’s absolutely no smoking. You weren’t allowed to wear shorts or pants. Every day they put new rules, harder and harder. You have to follow the rules. If you don’t, you will get hit. Each violation has a set number of hits to be given. They took me once. I was smoking. They hit me 15 times. I couldn’t take it anymore.
I want to go to any safe place. I only want my family with me. That’s the most important thing. Home to me means everything. I don’t want to go back to Syria, only if Syria gets back to the way it was before the war.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed. Some of the refugees have continued their journey from Greece to other European countries
Learn more about the IRC’s work on Lesbos where we provide clean water, sanitation, trash removal, and protection and information services to refugees staying in the Kara Tepe camp and other locations on the island.
Interviews and photos by Tyler Jump
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.