I am Amira: A storytelling experiment
Week 1 – Getting out of Syria
by Anna Austen
Setting the Scene
Amira is a 13 year old girl from Aleppo in the North of Syria. The country had a civil war for four long years. Aleppo has seen some of the worst of the fighting. Part of the town is now under the control of ISIS – the other part is under the control of the government run by Assad. Both sides are bombing and causing casualties every day.
Ninety-five percent of the population of Syria are not involved in the war but it is affecting every part of their life. Many no longer know which side to support. Twelve million Syrians have had to leave their homes. Some are still in refugee camps in Syria, but by September 2015 over 4 million have left Syria. Many are in Turkey, Jordan and Palestine. However in the first part of 2015 many thousands have started making a longer journey towards Europe. This story tries to take a look at the reasons why this is happening.
Aleppo was a town of two million people including a substantial middle class with businesses of every kind. Many have gone now. In September 2015 about half a million people are still thought to be living there. Amira’s father is an IT business man. They are a IT savvy family with high aspirations for their kids. Her parents are trying to make a hard decision.
Day 1 – 1st September 2015, #Aleppo, #Syria
—- My 13th Birthday and first ever post on Facebook!—–
Life is getting serious when your dreams become the most comfortable place to be. I didn’t want to wake up this morning. I felt so safe, so happy and so secure. And then with a lurch all the realities of the day started flooding in. Firstly my stomach gave me an aching reminder that we hardly ate last night. Then I jerked my head up to look around quickly … but it was ok everyone was there. Well when, I say everyone, Mum was already up making noises the other side of the make-shift curtain but that is the new normal.
Our house is fairly unrecognisable. We all sleep together downstairs in the farthest portion of our house from the road. Dad builds a barricade at the two doors into that area most nights. We seem to be boiling water all the time to try and avoid illness. This makes the kitchen damp and foggy. But at least the water supply has held out so far, other parts of the city are not so lucky. Electricity comes on for about 3 hours a day at the moment. So when it is on we are all busy taking full advantage.
When I woke up it took me awhile to remember that there was a good side to the day. I have made it to thirteen. Seems a small thing in the grand scheme of the crazy we are living through, but despite everything, everyone did stop to make a fuss of me. For a brief respite life felt back in place, we were all able to smile for a minute. My family’s love can get us through a lot of hardship.
Mum gave me one of her nicest headscarves – the blue one with white flowers. I love it and Zeinah, my sister, drew me the picture of me I’ve used as my profile picture. She wants be a great artist one day. I tease her about it quite often but today I was quiet. My little brother Elias gave me a kite he had made with uncle – not sure when I will get a chance to fly it but it is a nice thought to think we might.
Maybe my best birthday present is that my parents have let me have a Facebook account. Social media has become a key tool in surviving this civil war. At the moment I am going to keep this page just for me. I can use it as a diary I hope that way that whatever happens it will be safe and I can access it from anywhere, a secret treasure chest of memories on the internet. I tend to think about keeping things safe quite a bit … things seem to get broken, stolen or lost too easily right now.
Aleppo is right at the centre of the civil war there has been fighting here for four years now. We can only visit a small part of the city. Dad spends quite a bit of time online trying to work out what is going on. Some days he says we have to leave and then he changes his mind. Mum wanted to take us all out to her family in the countryside but things are not good there either. Mum’s brother sent a message telling us not to come. So for the moment we are making the best of it. In some ways even though everything outside is so different at least inside our house I have good memories of before things started to change so much for us.
It feels very unreal the thought of leaving Aleppo. I have never lived anywhere else. Here when I walk on the streets, even now when so many have left, I still know people and we all help and support each other.
We had some bad news this afternoon. There are rumours that gas bombs have been used in North Aleppo. Dad looked very worried. He spent a lot of time talking to Uncle about plans.
We had a good connection to the internet for short while. He showed me a tweet with a picture of some children from Aleppo who have made it all the way to Hungary in just 15 days. After that we went on Flickr where people post their own personal pictures. We did a search on Aleppo. I had almost forgotten how tidy our beautiful city used to look. The University, the park and the streets all so different now. It was like looking into a different imaginary world which is all the while painfully familiar. Dad says it is important to remember where we have come from. I think it helped him to calm down.
When uncle came over he brought a small bag of lentils from another relative out of town. So we had a good meal this evening.
Mum says I must study. I am learning English. Mum says it is the key to my future. So I’ll stop here. More tomorrow.
Day 2 2nd September 2015, #Aleppo, #Syria
————————- Getting Ready ———————————-
So I have had my bag packed for several weeks now just in case we have to leave in a hurry. It is a bit of a pain because I keep needing things that I have already stowed away. This morning we had a serious family discussion. Dad informed us that we will be leaving Aleppo very soon. He has a plan but he is not going to tell us where we are going yet. He has told us not to talk about leaving to anyone outside the family. He seems to be almost ready. It has been a difficult decision. None of us want to leave our home but we have no choice things are just getting worse.
Mum has been through my bag with me again trying to make sure that I have not too much and not too little. How does one decide what to take on a completely unimaginable journey? Mum is busy photographing every room in the house so we all have reminders of our life here.
Zeinah and Mum also spent a while taking digital copies of lots of our old photos. So now she has my grandparents and all the family sitting in her phone. Zeinah is very good at working out how to place the photos so that light does not fall on the image and cause a shine. With the very old photos she sometimes edits them and can make them look even better than the original. Mum says she has a gift in her fingers.
I had a dream last night about flying my kite. When I told my sister she found a great picture of a girl flying a Kite. Zeinah edited it to make it look arty. She says it looks very like me although I have never had a triangular kite like that. It was kind of her. I love the picture, it speaks of freedom that is just out of reach. Sometimes when life is so difficult art can express what words can’t.
Elias has been making lots of noise in the house. Mum says he really needs to go out for a run because he has too much energy. Unfortunately there is not anywhere safe to go. Instead we have been making him run back and forth along the corridor and do obstacle races over all the bags.
My bag does not feel too heavy but I wonder how I will feel when I have to carry it a long way. I have taken my kite to pieces and folded the bits carefully inside my new scarf. It is tucked right at the bottom of my bag.
Our neighbour told us that tonight there is a special cinema for children at the infant school. It is a special project funded by foreigners. It is a long time since we have had an outing. I don’t think Elias has ever been to the Cinema. Mum says if there are no air raids we can go. It is only two streets away but in these strange days we have to weigh up the risks for every journey.
The rumours about the mustard gas seem to be true. Mum saw some terrible pictures of children just to the North of the city with terrible burns. She would not let me see them. I wish it would all stop, all the barrel bombs, gas bombs and snipers. I have seen too much now – I no longer know who is right and who is wrong. My parents feel the same way. They just want us to live.
Zeinah read some exciting news this afternoon. Apparently Germany have opened up their borders and are going to let all the Syrian refugees who arrive in their country apply for asylum. Maybe I should start learning german instead of english. Apparently 10,000 Icelanders have offered Syrian families places in their homes. There are good people in the world. Unfortunately Icelandic looks even harder to learn than german. Iceland…. it sounds like something out of make believe.
Trying to read all this information is actually really helping my english. Dad says every time I find a word I don’t understand I must look it up in the dictionary. It takes a long time. Some of things I read are so supportive. It really gives me some hope that there is a way out of here to a new life.
We watched a video of some people in Europe who were trying to imagine what it is like to be in Syria during the war. It was funny to imagine them trying to imagine us. When I get away from here I will tell them what it is really like. Maybe I could write a book. People need to know how wrong and scary this all is.
Must be off – I have places to go 🙂
Day 3 – 3rd September 2015, #Aleppo, #Syria
——- Emotional days for Syria and the world #refugeecrisis ———–
How up and down the last day has been. The photographs of tiny Aylan and his family have scorched our hearts and that of the international community. When we first saw them we all cried, even Dad. It made me think of all the tragic deaths we have seen over the last few years. So many of them that we slowly become hardened to it.
And then over the next few hours we started to see the international response. Late into the evening the hashtag #refugeecrisis has been trending on twitter all over the world. And this morning many national newspapers lead with the photograph on their front pages. It is kind of amazing – we have had war here for 4 years and then in one night it feels like the whole world is focused on our story.
Zeinah and I first noticed the photograph was going viral when I got back from the cinema. It was the drawings of the little boy that started appearing on our twitter feeds that made us realise this was going to be big. We started to collect them. Once again art has so many ways of telling the same story. Each of them shows a different aspect and emotion. We started favouriting them and collecting them. I have put them in an album called “Tributes to Aylan”. To start with he was just anonymous child but this morning we found out that he was three years old and that he died alongside his five year old brother and his mother. He was washed up on a beach in Turkey at a place called Bodrum. Apparently it is very popular with tourists. What a strange contrast – people sun bathing and a small child dying in the waves.
We have all been heartened by the outpouring of outrage from people all over the world. Things must change now for us Syrians. I hope and pray that it is so. Maybe foreign governments will listen and provide safe havens for my family and our fellow countrymen.
We were so taken up with the news we stayed up late. I didn’t get up early this morning – I have not had school for quite a while now so it was not a problem.
This morning I did ask Dad if he had been thinking of taking us the same way as Aylan’s family. Across the border into Turkey and then across a short stretch of the Aegean sea to Greece. I am quite scared of the thought of that, especially for Elias who is so small. Dad gave me a big hug and told me he promised he would look after us.
I played with Elias a lot today. The journey we are about to take is going to be hardest for him. He loves to play games with me. He will join in with all my skipping games, card game, imaginary games and of course we play football. He just loves football.
This afternoon Dad seemed quite emotional again. He is so different to before this war started. Then he was always so sure of his decisions and what we should do. Before the war I had never seen him cry. He would laugh a great deal, especially with all my uncles and he worked hard every day in his IT business. He has been selling off the last of his stock to try and raise funds for our trip. For anyone planning to leave it is convenient that Turkish lira have become the main currency in Aleppo. We are lucky we still have the car – there are not so many cars now in Aleppo. He often loans it out to neighbours – it is a precious thing.
In all the excitement I have forgotten to mention the films we saw last night. There was a gaggle of us and it felt good to be in a group of kids. Since school stopped it has been rare to see that many others. Elias’s little friend Abdullah was there. They were so pleased to see each other. There were various cartoons and then we watched Mr Bean. What a funny man with all his unusual European ways.
I saw a poster today that said Einstein was a refugee. It made me have a strange thought… I am about to gain a new label. No longer just a Syrian from Aleppo but also a refugee. It might take a while to get used to …
I must go now but I think I will find it hard to sleep the noise of aeroplanes and bombs is everywhere. We have not had much food today. I am hungry all the time. There was also no water for five hours. Mum was starting to panic – without water our life here is not possible. Luckily it seems to be working again now.
I can almost smell our departure from #Aleppo in the air.
Day 4 – 4th September 2015 Near the Syria/Turkey border
— Leaving Aleppo —
It all happened very suddenly in the end. The noise of the explosion was earth shattering.
Apparently the infant school where we watched the films the day before yesterday is now a pile of rubble. The dust was everywhere.
It was not yet light when it happened. Somehow we all found each other in the dark and dust and ran out into the street. Dad used his phone to light the way a little. We have seen buildings collapse easily after such a blast. It was hard to orientate ourselves in the dark. And all I could hear were screams and the noise of the planes still flying overhead. We all hugged each other for a moment.
After a while mum ventured into the house for a lamp. Then I sat with Elias on the street in a little pool of light. The old lady from up the street came to sit with us. She was praying quietly and holding Elias’s hand. My parents and Zeinah rushed to load the car with our bags and provisions. All around us our neighbours were making similar hasty plans.
We left just as it was getting light. Aleppo was surreal in the early morning light… one destroyed street after another white and glistening in the dawn. The changes to our street and local area had become familiar to us. But the full impact of this war on our beautiful city became clearer as we crawled our way out of town in between the potholes. Maybe we were already seeing it with strangers eyes.
Inside the car we were all very quiet and subdued. The tears streamed down my face as we moved West out of the city. Yesterday I read that Aleppo is the most dangerous city in the world. It doesn’t feel like that when you are just living day to day. But now with the reality of this huge change it feels enormous. It strange how one building has been providing a cocoon within which we can live and function. Now we belong nowhere and the enormity of that feeling is overwhelming. Zeinah says that the only way to cope is to live each day one at a time. I think I will have to try and do that otherwise I don’t think I can manage this.
We headed west out of Aleppo. To the north there is terrible fighting as ISIS try to prevent the creation of a safe zone near the Turkish border. It is only 27 miles to the border crossing at Cilvegozu but we cannot go there. The border crossings with Turkey were shut earlier this year. We take some very bumpy back roads to a small hut where we will meet some guides later. Dad tells us that they will take us to the border in the early morning and help us to cross. He says we must not worry these men have helped many people to cross this way.
We stop and buy some food from some road sellers in a small village on the way. Dad has told us not to speak of where we are going. However the vendor give us advice about the road anyway. They have seen enough people fleeing this way. To them it is an everyday occurrence. It is good to have some fresh food.
I am not sure whether Dad took the advice of the vendor. It is so difficult to judge who you can trust. We head across country. We come to places where people have put nails across the road. This is an attempt to hijack the car and we just have to drive straight across hoping our poor worn out tyres will survive. One tyre did not and at the relative safety of the next village my Dad has to change a tyre. Luckily he has a spare but it is not as good as the others and our car lists fairly badly now.
It feels like forever before we draw up at the guides place. There are a couple of other cars there and a small hut. We will have to sleep the night in the car. The car will be left as payment to the guides but for tonight it will be our home. So now we just wait and snooze. It is hot in the car but there is a tree we can lie under for shade.
It has been a truly exhausting and scary day. We are all glad to stop for a while.
Tomorrow inshallah we will be in Turkey
Day 5 September 5th Close to the Syria/Turkey border
– The March of Hope –
I am not sure where to start this entry. Once again things have been so deeply bad especially for us, personally, and yet so exciting for our people. The long and the short of it is that we are back at the guides hut. We did not make it across into Turkey today. But let me explain how things unfolded.
Yesterday in the late afternoon the guides appeared. They were on horseback. They were pleased because they had successfully managed to get their last group across the border. There were two of them, both reasonably good natured but tough. They are doing well out of this situation as people pay them every day for their knowledge and experience.
Dad spent some time talking to them in their hut. There is a television in the hut, being close to the border, they can pick up Turkish TV. The guides invited us all in to while away the time. We all started discussing the journeys different people were taking and they mentioned how bad things were for people in Kos (Greece) and in Hungary. In Hungary they had stopped all the trains travelling across the land. There were large numbers of people at the station in Budapest and the situation did not look good.
And then we saw a report from a British woman reporter. She was an older woman and she showed how people were climbing over the fence at the camp and walking. They said that if they can’t take the train they will walk to Germany. The look of determination on their faces. It was wonderful to behold.
And then thousands of other people joined them. The news must have spread like wildfire via peoples phones and social media. They followed. The reporters were saying that they were not sure what would happen. They thought that maybe they would all be put back on coaches. But there were so many people. There was a photo of a large bridge over a huge river. My father said it is called the Danube. The bridge was full of people streaming over it towards Austria.
We managed to get on twitter and found pictures of the marchers… young, old, with pushchairs, in wheelchairs. It was amazing. I saw a picture of a mother with six children travelling to find her husband in Germany. It made me happy to see that if her little kids can make it then surely we can get Elias to safety.
It was clear that they were all starting to get very tired. But there were stories of how the marchers were all helping each other. And then setting up little camps by the side of the M1 motorway.
And then came amazing reports on the TV that 2500 people in Austria had agreed that they would get in their cars and come and fetch the marchers. The reporters started to call it “The March of Hope”. Next came the news that Austria has said they will open their borders to the marchers. And then very very late at night the Hungarian government decided that they would send coaches. They collected all the people still at the train station and then collected the marchers. Finally Germany announced that the marchers can come into Germany. This morning we have heard that the Austrians are laying on trains to take those that wish to Germany.
The joy and strength of our people marching towards freedom was quite overwhelming to see. After years of trauma we are taking charge of our destiny. As you can imagine we were all very emotional. The guides sang songs. Zeinah started drawing as she always does. It must be the way she expresses her emotion. She did a beautiful drawing celebrating the 4th September 2015 – a historic day for Syria.
In the end we stayed up so late watching the story unfold that the guides said we should just stay up. Luckily Elias had slept in the corner. He is so small my parents just carried him fast asleep.. It was still dark when we got on the horses and travelled the short distance to the border. The guides were scared to use much light but the horses seemed to know the way. It was still only just getting light when we arrived. It felt like a dream to be there. Freedom was so close we can almost touch it.
There is a big ditch with barbed wire. The guides have to cut the wire to let us through. We kept hidden away from the ditch whilst they were doing that. Just as they were getting back to tell us to come we heard some noises. There was a truck and some Turkish soldiers firing their guns into the sky. I was very scared. They could so easily have turned them toward us. No-one would know. The guides hurried us away. And we rode sadly back to the camp.
I can’t tell you how emotional we all felt. Sometimes when you spirits have raised so high they dip deeper than feels possible. The fact that we were all extremely tired did not help matters. I sobbed myself to sleep back at the camp.
I have just slept for six hours. I feel a little better … although still wrung out. Life is so complicated. Some days I feel I am getting to the end of my strength. I had to look at Zeinah’s picture to cheer me up. We will get there.
One of the guides came over to talk to me. He could see how sad I was. He told me not to worry it happens all the time. We just have to keep trying … it may take three days but we will get there. I guess that is all very well but where we are does not feel particularly safe. There are gangs of militia roaming this area all the time. The less time we spend here the better.
I just have to hold on to hope. I must remember how strong Syrians are.
I hope I have better news for you tomorrow.
Day 6 – 6th September 2015 Syria Near the border with Turkey
– Disappointment mounts –
It is another difficult day for us here waiting near the border. We tried to go to the border again very early this morning. It was no good. Before we even got close we could hear the noise of the Turkish guards at the fence. Dad asked whether it was worth continuing on to another place. And the guides conceded that since it was still so early it might be worth it.
We carried on in the dark but somehow those Turkish guards could sense us. We could hear their cars driving along the other side of the border. The guides became uncomfortable – near to the hut they have a good idea of which militia groups are working but the further away they get the more unknown it becomes.
So we turned back reluctantly. The guides say we will try a different place where they have been successful tomorrow. They are keen to see us get through. Another family arrived this afternoon. We will all go as a group together. That means that some of us will have to walk next to the horses.
Later in the day we saw some American planes flying over – they went very fast. Apparently they have bombed Marea today… just North of Aleppo. It is lucky we did not head that way – Dad was thinking of it because the Turkish government kept saying they were going to create a safe area there. We could just hear the bombs going off in the far distance. Elias cried when he saw the planes. Most young boys love planes but I guess he knows first hand what they can do.
The news from Europe is still good. We have seen videos of people being welcomed to Germany with balloons and flowers. We try not to be jealous. Even to be in Turkey would be a huge relief for us. Syria is very dangerous. Maybe when we get to Turkey I can fly my kite for the first time. We would not dare to do it here in case someone were to see it.
Zeinah has been drawing again. She has drawn me a picture of Mr Bean. Apparently the character is 25 this month. She showed me how she did it on her tablet. It is quite easy to make the pictures but she has a gift. Her’s are special. She always knows just how to cheer me up.
It is strange to think that the building where we watched the film is gone. Best not to imagine what would have happened if it had been the night before. I try not to think of home at all. It is only 25 miles away but it feels like 1000. I wonder if we can ever go back to our lovely Aleppo.
We spend much of the time just trying to rest as best we can. It is fairly uncomfortable especially now there are more of us. The other family are very quiet. They look in shock and very dusty. They don’t seem to want to interact with us at all. Mind you I am not so clean myself. We need to get out of here soon so we can wash properly. Water is very precious in this place.
I just hope that we can escape tomorrow.
Day 7 – 7th September 2015 Near Iskenderun, Turkey
– Freedom starts here –
Yes we did it!
This morning everything went to plan … we got to the border earlier than we have before. We felt like we were more conspicuous because there were more of us but we made good progress.
The ditch was deep and Dad had to lift me down. We had to be very careful not to get ourselves or our bags caught up in the barbed wire. And then we were grabbing our bags and running up the other side and into Turkey. I gave the guides a wave goodbye. I wonder what will happen to them.
The guides had given us directions as to where to meet two cars. It was a 20 minute walk in the early light. It was so peaceful but we were all scared. If the border guards caught us there near the border they could easily send us back into Syria. Luckily the guides were as good as their word. Two cars were waiting for us just where they said. They gave us a lift into Reyhanli to the bus station.
We have friends in Iskenderun which is near to the sea. Many years ago we travelled via Reyhanli to visit them. Dad contacted them a few weeks ago but has not been able to make contact since. It was dangerous to make phone calls or send emails in Aleppo because we did not know who was listening. And it was better that nobody knew our business.
Dad phoned them as soon as we got to Reyhani. And they told us which bus to take and where they would meet us. Dad was smiling and talking excitedly. It felt so good to hear familiar, welcoming voices. We got tickets for the bus to Iskenderun. It is only an hour away. We really have not gone far but already what a difference. The bustle of the streets almost scares me I am so used to the sad, secretive streets of Aleppo.
Now that we are away from the border fence we are relatively safe in Turkey. The authorities will not send us back to Syria. We are “guests” in this country which means we have no legal right but at least it is a sanctuary.
We had to queue up and wait many hours until there was space for us on bus to Iskenderun. There are lots of other Syrians wanting to take buses away from the border, others are saving their money and walking away from the border.
We finally climbed aboard in the early afternoon and it gradually began to dawn on us all that we were free. We had left Syria and this was the start of a whole new life. I slept like a baby on the bus. And when we arrived in Iskenderun it was hard to wake up. I sleepily climbed into our friend’s car.
When we got to the house there was a great deal of noise. The whole family had come to welcome us. It was like a party. As soon as we had made our welcomes we were lead to the bathroom to wash. It was so good … three days of grime and dust dissolved away.
Then they prepared a meal for us. We all sat at tables outside. It was like a dream. Aleppo feels like a different world. Much of the talk at the table was about family and friends who have also escaped Syria. Many of them are trying to make a living here in Turkey. Some are in the refugee camps – apparently life is increasingly hard in the camps. There is limited food and too many people. 30% of the refugees in Turkey are in these camps. The rest are staying in the community at best they can.
And now I am going to bed. Dad has promised we can go and look at the sea tomorrow. It is not far from here. I think Zeinah saw it when we arrived but I must have been asleep.
Today has been an important day. A wonderful day. But in someways the days that are coming cast a shadow. We need to rest and get strong.
I think Mum and Dad are still planning our next move . They were always scared to talk in front of us in Syria but I can see them starting to open up. I hope to learn more tomorrow.
I will sleep now.
To be continued
I am Amira
Week 1 of Amira’s diary is now available as a podcast:
On Apple itunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/i-am-amira-podcast/id1039350513
Youtube version of the podcast: https://youtu.be/xwbI9oJ8xOM
Web Page: http://iamamiraaleppo.com
© Anna Austen 7th September 2015
Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Commercial copying, hiring, lending is prohibited.