Age: 21
From: Adrolomalliyya, Syria

I was born and raised in place called Adrolomaliyya, which is about 20  kilometers from Damascus. I have a mother and two sisters and an older brother. Before the war, I had a normal, happy life. I was studying and working. I had good times with my friends and my family.  A lot of people think that we are all terrorists, but we are just normal people who were living normal lives. We had a normal future.

(Audio excerpt from Rafat’s interview)

I first saw the war on the television. It started in Dar’a and then it progressed to Homs. Then it reached the countryside of Damascus. To get to the university I had to cross the highway to get to the center of Damascus– and it was an actual war zone. We would wait for the fighting to stop for a bit so we could drive through to go to university or to go to work. To return home, we would check if there was fighting going on. If there was, we would wait a bit. If not, we would go. In some specific areas, the bus had to drive more than 100 km per hour, because if there’s a sniper- he can’t get you at that speed. There were a lot of sniper attacks, just attacking people in that area.

In 2012 or 2013 ISIS came to our city. One day we woke up and started our day listening to Feirooz and drinking coffee– like a normal day. Then, suddenly, we saw ISIS on the street telling people to go down to their basements because they were about to start fighting. I saw them from my window–they were all in black. 

So we went down to the basement. And then we started hearing bullets and bombing.

ISIS guys came to our basement with a man from our city who was working with them. The guy’s face was covered so I couldn’t see who it was.

They shined a flashlight on each person’s face and asked the masked man, “Is he working with the government or anybody?” 

Then they told us to go to the middle of the city away from the bombing. The fighting continued. A lot of people got killed.

They killed everyone who worked with the government and all of the Shi’ii people. Even women and children. They killed everybody. We saw a lot of dead bodies and legs and arms and heads in the streets. Once, for a full minute, I stood on two hands that had been cut off without realizing what I was standing on. It was terrible.

ISIS took us to prison. They took a lot of people to prison. If you did anything wrong they would kill you but if not, they sent you back to your family.

After 21 days, we couldn’t handle it anymore. We had nothing to eat or drink. All of the people wanted to leave the city. So we all just started walking. Some people went to the highway and some people went to the area where Assad’s army was.

My family went to the highway. We waited for four hours until one of our relatives came with a car and took us to the center of Damascus. When we arrived, we were really, really hungry. We had not eaten well for 21 days. My uncle brought us a lot of food and we ate it all.

We stayed in Rukin-A-Din, in the center of Damascus in a house in a mountain– you can see all of Damascus. We used to sit on the roof– me and my mom, uncle, brother, and sister–and drink coffee together.

I went back to the university and had a 30% normal life.  

I studied English literature for two years. I love the English language. When I was a kid, I really wanted to learn English so I started to to teach myself and to practice on my own. I watched English movies. I googled “how to learn English without a teacher” and watched YouTube videos.

I also used to talk to myself in English. I would say “How are you? Fine, thank you.” It’s so weird to talk to yourself in another language. I would talk to myself about what I was learning on the internet, and write it down in notebooks.

In school, I studied English for twelve years and then chose to study English literature in the university because I love it. Frankenstein was my favorite book because it is really interesting– it’s a really strange story.

At the university, my friends didn’t understand what the professors were saying, so I taught them English  because it was so easy for me. These days, I’m also teaching Arabic to some friends in Greece. I also want to learn German and French, and the London British accent. I want to learn everything. I am just waiting for the chance. 

I left Syria because I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t want to fight my own friends and my own people and get killed. So I left.

Everybody is just killing people. They say they are fighting for Syria, but they are just killing people.  Assad’s army will come after you to fight with them, and the Free Syrian Army, Jabat al Nusra, and ISIS. There are a lot of groups we don’t even know their names, but they will also drag you to fight. If I go from one area to another they would kill me. If ISIS knows that I’m in the government’s army, they’ll kill my family. Everybody is just killing people. I had no future in Syria. I decided to leave the country. 

To get from Syria to Turkey, I took my passport and I went to Lebanon by bus, then from Lebanon to Turkey by plane. I joined my brother, who had already left Syria before me,  and I worked with him in stones and granite.

Then I joined my friend, Samer (read Samer’s full story here,) in Istanbul and we started to work together–we transformed metal furniture into chrome.

I had never done any of this kind of work before. We worked for 8-12 hours a day. We would wake up at 6 am, drink coffee and go to work. We started working at 7:30 or 8 am and finished at 9 pm or later. At night, I would just fall asleep. We had a day off on Sunday, but I was so tired that I usually spent my day at home sleeping or on the internet. Samer and I would sometimes go out to have some fun.

They paid us only 20% of the normal salary because we had to work illegally in Turkey. We were like slaves. That was my life in Turkey.

I don’t know why my family didn’t come with me to Turkey. I wanted them to come with me. When I left, I asked them to leave with me.

They said, “You go. We’ll follow you to Turkey.”

But then they decided to stay. They are in in a “safe area” in Damascus, in our  house on the mountain. They just want to stay there. Every day there there are two or three bombs, but I guess you can still call it a safe area. Everywhere else is a war zone. In the safe area, people live a normal life. They go to school, to university, to their work. It’s normal. Except for the bombs.

When I said goodbye to my family, I thought I’d see them in one month, or two months. And now it’s been over a year.  

When I realized that they weren’t coming, I decided to leave Turkey. I figured, maybe if I go to Europe I can have a normal life, find a home. Everyone knows that in Europe the countries care about humanity. After what we saw in Syria we just wanted to go to Europe.

Samer and I said goodbye to my brother and then we traveled to Izmir. At four am, the smugglers put us in a closed truck. They told us not to make any noise and not to smoke a cigarette so the Turkish police wouldn’t see us while we drove down to the beach.

They put us into a small boat and sent us off to sea. When we reached the middle of the sea, the engine stopped working and started leaking fuel. I tried with the other guys on the boat to start the engine up again, but it didn’t work.

The people on the boat were really freaking out.

A Spanish rescue team found us– but because we were still in international waters, they told us to try and make it into the Greek waters. We couldn’t move. So they threw us a rope, and I held onto it while they dragged us to Greek waters.

Then a Greek police boat came and put us on their boat. They took us to the island of Chios. On the island, we went to the camp and registered for police papers.

Then we met some nice people at a demonstration from a squat called Soli Cafe and we started to help out there. We were on Chios for two weeks.

On Chios, we met a German university student  who was living in Athens. When we left the island, he told us we could stay in his apartment with his roommates.

So now Samer and I are in Athens, living with these German university students. They are all really nice.

I chop vegetables and help at a kitchen that cooks three meals a day for refugees living in Athens. I applied for the relocation program so that I can go to another country to continue my studies and to work. I’m just waiting until they call me back.

I am always thinking about my family and about what’s going to happen to us.

I’m not the same guy I was before the war.

Before the war, I was a really funny guy, people loved me. During the war we saw a lot and experienced a lot of things. Now, I feel depressed. I became more reasonable. I am really serious all of the time. I’m thinking about what’s happening and Syria and what’s going happen in Europe. I’m not that interested in socializing and joking with other other people.

I really want to just be that guy again, but I can’t help it. I miss my family, my friends, the university, playing on my accordion, having a normal life like other people.

I had a group of close friends in Syria- twelve people from the same city. We always had a lot of fun walking around Damascus together. We played cards. We had parties.

Now we’re split apart. Some of us went to other cities or other countries. But Samer and I stayed together. Our families are friends. We were raised together and we’ve been friends since we were four or five-years-old.

The hardest part about this is being away from my family. If I had known that they would end up staying in Syria, I probably would have stayed, just to be with them. They are afraid. But they want to stay in Syria. I don’t know why. I talk to them every day on Facebook and Skype to make sure they are okay and safe. To hear what they are doing. They don’t really tell me anything because they don’t want me to worry. But I worry anyway. I would like to bring them to Europe.

My plan is just to have a home and a future. I just want a normal life. I want a future. I want my family to be safe.

I am sad that the border is closed and we are just stuck here. I don’t know why they closed it.

 In the media it seems like everyone is a terrorist and if they go to Europe they will blow themselves up or start killing people. If we wanted to kill people, we could have stayed in Syria.

But we are just normal guys. I don’t even know anybody who is a terrorist. The people who came here made the choice to join European society. They want to be useful. They want to work. A lot of people want to continue their studies.

They just want a normal life– a home where they can finally feel safe again.

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