Edited and titled by Ayesha Solaiman.
My name is Raneem Aldroubi. I am 19 years young, studying law in London, and I am a Syrian suffering from hiraeth. I am not going to lie and say, “Oh Syria! It is the most amazing, beautiful, and loving country in the world,” but rather, I am going to tell you the truth, and I will begin at the very start.
I was born in Damascus, Syria on the 25th of July 1995. I lived there my entire childhood, with my four brothers and four male cousins. When I was young, around the age of five, my family and I lived in the “bad” part of Damascus. At the time, it was just my older brother, two of my cousins and I (as the rest of our family wasn't born yet!), so it was basically one girl amongst all the boys. We weren't exactly rich at the time, but were rather poor. My parents could not even afford to buy us milk to drink. Though I was too young to remember those times clearly, my parents have reminded me every second of my life about them. I have some memories though. Memories, moments and times that built my childhood.
For one, we had a neighbor who was around my age, maybe a year older. His name was Mickey, or at least that’s what I recall calling him. We used to meet Mickey everyday to play football (soccer) in the middle of the streets or to just run around like lunatics. The street was our playground. Though there were numerous parks nearby, the street was more fun, as random kids would join us to play. We were poor, but we didn’t need money to be happy. What made us happy was the life we had in us, the life everyone around had in them. All the neighbors were friends, and although I was young, I don’t recall any serious fights. I mean sure, there must have been arguments here and there between neighbors, but nothing a cup of tea and homemade biscuits couldn't fix. My neighborhood, a small reflection of the entire country, was peaceful and loving. That’s what I remember.
A few years later, things began going well with our family business, and we moved to better house in a richer neighborhood. All of our neighbors were well off, and yet all of them were also modest, humble, and generous. No one really looked at another person’s financial status; we just enjoyed mixing with everyone. I even remember being best friends with the street guards, who weren't as well off. We used to go everyday and have tea with them, because drink their tea because it was weird yet tasty. They called it ‘mate’, and I’ll never forget it’s unique taste. Mostly, I will never forget their kindness for sharing their tea with us everyday.
A few years after that, we moved again. This time, we moved into a posh villa, as my Dad was making quiet the profit from his business. Even though we were richer than ever before, our hearts stayed the same, as did everyone in Syria’s: we were humble and kind with everyone, regardless of their financial status. We mixed with the neighbors and the guards again, and became close with everyone.
I clearly remember the day my parents took me to look at the villa after they had rented it. There, I saw the daughter of one of the neighbor’s guards. Though she was probably 10 years older than me, she was so sweet to me. Since that day, we became friends. I used to go to her house, which was merely a small room below our house, and drink tea (with a little too much sugar) and just talk and laugh about everything. I taught her English and she helped with my Arabic. I used to go to her for help with my Arabic homework. We even used to sit sometimes in our back garden and just chat and share secrets for hours straight. At times, she would come to my room and boys will join us for a game of hide and seek. Sometimes, her and I would walk somewhere a bit secluded and just scream, just because we could. After she moved away, we stayed in contact for a while, but eventually lost touch and I’m not sure where she is now.
Our other neighbors had a dog. One day my brothers and I saw them walking their dog and started making random noises to attract the dog’s attention, but we attracted the family’s instead. We thought they would yell at us, but instead they gestured to us to come over and pet the dog. Since that day, we all became really good friends and I remember hanging out in each other’s houses.
These are just some of the good memories of my life at Syria. School life, on the other hand, was not that great. There were some nice people, but just like all other middle schools, there were some very mean kids. Students were often rude to me, and I think it had to do with my mom being a teacher at the school. Also, the kids were show-offs because the schools we went to were private international schools, therefore you had to have a foreign passport to be accepted (my mother is from Pakistan, and I am dual nationality). I was miserable in the school in Syria, I just didn’t fit in. Basically, the school was not too great, which is why in 9th grade my parents decided to send me to boarding school in Jordan. You are probably thinking, “Oh poor kid… had to go to boarding school at the age of 13,” but actually it was the best decision my parents ever made for me.
The school in Jordan was amazing, so diverse and so accepting. You had people from all living conditions, backgrounds, nationalities, and races studying there and I even made five best friends there, whom I am still close with today. I spent my school days in Jordan and my weekends in Syria, and every time I went back I would remember why I loved being there. For example, whenever I went shopping with my mom, I would fall in love with every shopkeeper. They were all happy and laughing and you rarely found anyone rude. They truly wanted to have a connection with their customers, and keep them coming back for life. They saw us as their brothers and sisters, or as their own kids. They were loving and protective at times, but mostly they were happy and wanted us to be happy. You don’t find that very often in every shop owner.
I also loved the drivers and workers in my dad’s office. Every time I had to go wait at my dad’s office, I was happy because everyone was so kind to me. The accountant was an awesome man. I used to chill in the money room with him sometimes (he allowed only me back there). I was also really friendly with the secretary. Every time I was there, we would share stories and look at random funny pictures and videos, having to hold in our laughter because we were right outside my dad’s office. When the accountant and secretary were not free, I would hang out with the drivers in their kitchen and just drink coffee with them. They liked to pick on me, but in a sweet loving way, and though I pretended to be annoyed, I actually loved it. They were all like family to me. They lived with us through all the ups and downs. All of these people were my family and they were Syria to me.
Also, Eid (a three day Islamic holiday) in Syria was probably on the top of my list of great memories. Every Eid we did the same thing, but it never got old. The first day we would wake up around seven in the morning, get dressed in the fanciest and prettiest clothes we had, and then cram into our car and drive out of Damascus to Homs, another city in Syria. My father’s whole family lived there so we would go and visit them. We would leave the house around 9 or 10 am, and after about an hour we would stop at the graveyard my Grandmother is buried in. We would never go to Homs without stopping and praying on her grave and placing some flowers on it, so she too could enjoy Eid. We would then continue and visit my favorite relatives from my dad’s side. They were my dad’s cousins and they had 2 daughters and 2 sons. Visiting them was the highlight of my year, every year. I loved them so much and had a great time with them every time.
Our two families would then go all together around Homs from house to house, visiting every single person we knew. It lasted until around midnight. By the end of it, we would be sick from all the homemade biscuits stuffed down our throats, but we loved every moment of it. The next day we would either stay and see everyone again, but this time in one huge house, or we would go back to Damascus and everyone from Homs would come see us. This time of the year was filled with happiness (though there was also a lot of pain caused by the excessive food forced into us!). I remember these trips occurring my whole life, until they just stopped.
I was in Jordan when the Arab Spring began. I was having dinner in TGIF with a huge group of friends and the TV was on, showing photos and videos of the problems happening in Egypt. The first sentence that slipped from my mouth was, “This would never happen in Syria.” Maybe I was a naïve child and did not know about the politics and problems in Syria, but I knew my people. I knew how kind and loving everyone was there. I was 100% certain that Syria would be the country standing strong and united amidst the chaos in the Middle East. A few short months later, I was proven very wrong.
Small problems began but it was nothing serious. Even my dad, who knew many people, believed it was nothing serious. That was in 2011 and that year my parents decided to bring me back to Syria from boarding school because an American school had opened and it had high levels of education. I was happy there, I made several good friends but that was very short lived. The problems were no longer small. The fights were becoming bigger and every day we would learn the procedure for escaping the school in case of people breaking in or a bomb threat. Every day we were told to leave the school from the back door because the front door was blocked due to the protests. It got even worse.
The school tried to remain open but it was hard for them because the lives of children and foreigners were in danger. When a gas bomb was thrown into our school and kids aged from 5 years and over were coughing and suffering from burning eyes, the school was forced to close down. I actually remember that day clearly. I was walking up the stairs to my economics class when my eyes felt like there was fire in them. They kept tearing up and my nose felt like it had hot chili peppers stuffed in it. I entered the class thinking it was just I smelling something weird, but soon realized everyone in my class had tears in their eyes and was sniffling. I soon found out that it wasn’t just me, or just my classroom, but rather it was the whole school. This incident took place end of November, start of December in 2011.
The school had been open for barely a few months. It closed down and slowly so did all the embassies. Things were getting serious and everyone knew it now. My parents did not know what to do, but for the sake of our education and protection, they decided to move us to Jordan. My mother’s family lived in London but they didn’t want to move so far because we believed that Syria would be back within a year. We moved to Jordan, we bought a house and we continued the rest of the year there. By August 2012, Syria was still suffering and it was getting worse. So we remained in Jordan another year and I graduated high school in 2013. Meanwhile, Syria was getting much worse. My brothers and mom would visit my dad a lot, who remained in Syria, but it was a hectic year for me and it was more difficult for me to visit. I went a few times, but the last time I went, I felt how truly horrible the situation was. I remember just a few years before being able to go out at 3 am in the morning for a walk and feeling very safe, but when I went to Syria this time, I did not feel safe even in my bed.
We arrived on Thursday late in the afternoon, and my father was speeding like a crazy man from the border to Damascus because that was one of the most dangerous places. We went straight home that day and everyone went to sleep. But I could not. On the way, I saw smoke in random places and I heard distance shooting. It was not something anyone would want to hear. When I went to my room, I was so scared. I could not keep the lights off, although usually I don’t have any problems with the dark. I thought maybe if I cuddled up against the wall I would be able to sleep, but then I started hearing noises. Faint noises, coming from outside, and I freaked out. This continued for almost an hour and it kept getting louder. I woke one of my brothers up and begged him to go ask the guards if there was anyone outside with guns. It sounded like shooting and loud distant shouting. After begging for a while, my brother got up and went to see the guards. He came back after 15 or so minutes and told me that it was just the wind hitting against the door. I believed him but I still could not sleep. I knew something was wrong because my brother did not go back to sleep either, instead he went outside to stay with the guards, who remained awake all night. I tried to ignore the sound and I put my headphones on. I was able to drown out the sound but I could not sleep. The following day I grilled my brother about why he was outside all night and he told me that he had lied to me and that I was right. There were people fighting and there was shooting taking place a few streets down. I was terrified.
We spent the rest of the day at my dad’s office, but it was not joyful like I remembered. There were bombs dropped somewhere a bit distant from my dad’s office and again there was shooting. We could hear it all. It was horrible. Later in the afternoon, when there was no sign of trouble for a while, my mother wanted to go shopping. The driver warned her that it may not be safe but she still wanted to go. It was my driver, my mom and I in the car and we drove to the shopping area. We only had just arrived when the driver saw people packing up their shops quickly and leaving. He immediately turned the car around and as he drove the car away, he told us that something was happening there. A few minutes later, there were two different huge groups gathering and the shouting began. My driver was successful in driving us away from there and I found out later that guns were used at that time.
We left that day back to Jordan and although my brothers and mom have gone again, I never went again after that time.
In 2011, when it all started, my life and my family’s life began going downwards. We never went out anymore and while we were still in Damascus, the changes in our lives started. Eid came and went. No one visited and we did not go to Homs either. No one wanted to dress up. All I could see was depression all around me. When my family moved to Jordan, the depression grew. Everyone basically went about his or her days like zombies. Eventually, we were forced to leave the country we grew up in. The country we learned to cherish. We were watching it falling apart right in front of us, and I promise you, it was not the best feeling.
The situation was continuing to get worse in Syria and we were also receiving several threats on our lives in Jordan. In school, people were constantly talking about Syrians taking refuge in Jordan and they were complaining about the Syrians taking up their space, food and causing prices to rise. It was hard to hear this everyday and I had several people tell me that the Syrians were not welcome in Jordan. It hurt every time and the feeling of being unwanted was horrible. What hurt even more was that when other countries needed help and refuge, Syria never closed its doors on them and now that Syrians need somewhere to feel safe, all the Arabs closed their doors on us.
At this point, the depression reached extremely high levels. Before, we all had some hope that we would return home and everything would be fine sooner rather than later. But when we learnt that we were very wrong, all our hopes were crushed. We no longer felt safe in Jordan and my dad decided it was time for us to move to London, to where my Mother’s family was living. We left in the last week of August, 2013. Since living in London, I have heard several stories about different people dying and different people leaving the country. For example, A driver I knew since I was three had to run from Syria on foot to Germany. There were several stories I heard and each one hurt me more.
Also, since coming to London, I have had several nightmares about Syria. They usually begin with me sitting with my family and laughing and having a good time, when suddenly everything just goes wrong. There are sirens all around and the place we were sitting in is no longer there, rather we are suddenly standing in the streets surrounded by destroyed and crumbling buildings. There are people running in front of us. I always look around in my nightmares and see pure fear in the eyes of my parents. The nightmare ends with us all running trying to find refuge in a building, but the dreams always end before we find a safe place. In other nightmares, I would be in Syria and all around me there would be people dying, running, and bombs dropping behind us. I couldn’t sleep some days because of the nightmares. If I heard fireworks unexpectedly I would be so terrified.
I remember once being at my cousin’s house and there were loud bomb like noises and everyone told me they were fireworks. I could not see the fireworks, though. I could just hear them and all I could think was that they were bombs and the war had followed us to London. I remember breaking down that day and I felt fear that I had only felt once before, which was that horrible day in Syria.
After being in London for a month or so, my father informed me that they had taken my cousin, the one from Homs (the youngest son) and they had thrown him in jail because they thought he was a terrorist. He was only 18 years old and he was tortured for weeks. My father was able to get him out after 2 or so months but the tragedy did not end there. After living in London for almost 3 or 4 months, my father gave me more horrible news. We were having breakfast when he told me that a bomb had dropped in Homs on 3 of my male cousins. They were lucky to have survived but one of them had lost both his legs from his knee down and he was only 23. His brother had lost one leg from the knee down and had severe damage to his kidney, and this was the cousin that was tortured in jail. And my other cousin, who had just married and had a baby son, lost his foot from the ankle. When I heard this I was devastated. How could 3 innocent boys, who were just closing their shop for the night, suddenly loose so much. It was unfair. Since then, it has become a weekly thing hearing news about people I know being killed, kidnapped, tortured or fleeing the country.
Every time I heard something, I would not be able to handle it. Just reading on the news would cause me depression. My country has now become a warzone and the people whom I loved and grew up with are now blown to pieces. I can say I am lucky to have been able to leave and have a hopefully good future, but what about the million Syrians who did not deserve to die? What about the young kids whose lives are forever ruined? What about the kids who see their siblings and parents killed right in front of their eyes? If I have nightmares from what I have seen, what about the people who live through it everyday? Do they deserve all of this? My father, who lives in Syria until today, has seen so much and has lost so many people. He has seen in his own eyes buildings burn down and people getting killed trying to get out. He has received death threats himself and has barely escaped bombs that were aimed at his own car. What about my cousins who had their whole lives ahead of them? Why do they have to suffer? What about all the people living in their beloved country? Why do they all have to see such cruelty?
I know Syria will one day return back to how it used to be. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but I have to believe that it will.