Fleeing From War
"I’m not going to be able to describe how painful it is to be in the refugee camps"
Families continue to flee their home country in the midst of government arrests, massacres, bombings and killings into an unsure future.
Majd Tahhouf (28) with his wife Yasmin Alhijazi (27), and two kids Waleed and Qamar arrived in Calgary in March, 2015
At 24 years-old, he was living in a country where the kind of freedom that we know in Canada didn’t exist and outside of the home conversations were muted and rushed. Our translator tells us what Majd Tahhouf recalls of that time in 2011. Students started gathering and protesting against the regime after teenagers had painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. Young men were getting arrested just for being out in public places, and the freedom of the Syrian people rapidly grew smaller. Soon Tahhouf feared stepping outside of his own home onto streets that had become empty as people fled from a regime that threatened their lives.
“Assad’s regime started arresting young people my age,” Tahhouf said in Arabic to our interpreter Sam Nammoura. “So because I wasn’t able to provide for myself or for my family, we couldn’t go to work, we couldn’t go anywhere, if we went out they would arrest us. I had to stay home all the time. So I decided to leave.”
He only had one choice in order to survive. He had to flee.
Now, four years later, more than 11 million people have been forced from their homes as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule battle each other, as well as jihadist militants from the Islamic State.
“The protests started just for better life and better treatment for students and people in general. And then when the regime started to kill people, that’s when they switched from protesting for a better quality of life to the downfall of the regime,” said Yasmin Alhijazi, who was engaged to Tahhouf at the time.
Four months after the protests and conflicts had escalated in 2011, Tahhouf fled alone to the closest bordering country, Lebanon, leaving his family and all that he knew and loved behind. He arrived there as some of the earliest refugees were entering the country and got a job to pay for a small apartment. Alhijazi fled four months after her fiancé had already been living in Lebanon. She was afraid to make the trip to Lebanon because she feared being treated poorly because she was pregnant with her first child and not yet married.
Tahhouf and his wife couldn’t afford to pay the hospital bill to deliver her son in a Lebanese hospital, so when the regime promised they wouldn’t kill any more people back in Syria, she decided to go back to be with her family and to deliver their son in a Syrian hospital. This way her son would get his official Syrian documents, making it easier to move back if they would ever have that chance. She planned to return to Lebanon quickly but leaving Syria after three months was a difficult task.
Yasmin Alhijazi, who asked to appear off camera for privacy reasons, talks about their decision to leave Syria.
“When I was delivering the baby, I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed to go back and join my husband with the baby. Especially since the protests started again in Syria, and the killing,” said Yasmin Alhijazi.
She tried three times to cross the border with her son, each time getting denied access. Our interpreter explained that after the third try she found someone who would smuggle her and her young son back to her husband in Lebanon in the middle of the night. Leaving her country behind for the second and possibly the last time.
Their son, Waleed, was born on November 11, 2012, in Syria
More Syrians fled from the murder, torture and rape happening in their own country into Lebanon. As they scoured for food and a warm place to live, the people of Lebanon didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms. Tahhouf had trouble finding work and soon they called a refugee camp near the Syrian and Lebanese border their home. They spent the winter of 2012 to 2013 living in a tent in wadi Khalid. The number of people entering Lebanon increased dramatically in 2013, rising from around 130,000 people to a million by mid 2014 according to the UN Refugee Agency. For many of these Syrians it was illegal to work in Lebanon without the proper paperwork and sometimes women and children would go out to find work because they would be less likely to get arrested.
“There was a lot of mistreatment towards the Syrian people in Lebanon. From the Lebanese government and from the people,” said Tahhouf.
Tahhouf felt more and more that Lebanon wasn’t any better than living back in Syria. Over one million Syrians had fled to Lebanon at the time and the UN didn’t have the proper resources to support the vast number of people streaming in. In late 2014 the UN appealed for $8.4 billion to provide help for 18 million Syrian people that were affected by the civil war, yet the UN wasn’t able to acquire even half of that amount.
The rest of Tahhouf and Alhijazi’s family didn’t leave Syria until things in their home country had gotten a lot worse. Assad’s forces deliberately targeted civilian gatherings. Bombs had been dropped on the homes of their friends and families and Tahhouf spoke of massacres happening close to his family’s home. Early in May of 2013 Syrian government forces were reportedly responsible for a massacre in Ras Al Nabeaa Banyas, Syria. According to online reports by Reuters, it was believed that many ‘rebel-sympathizers’ lived in these areas. And it was also the same area where many members of Tahhouf’s family lived. On one of the first days that May, Tahhouf’s cousin, Bassam, watched the news of huge massacres erupting in Ras Al Nabeaa. Instead of runing away like many others did, he decided to go towards the city to pick up his family and bring them to safety. He brought his wife, and five other women, including two of Tahhouf's sisters out of the city to a safe place away from Assad’s troops. 1700 deaths were documented in this massacre, yet Tahhouf claimed that the people of the city counted around 4000 people missing. The following day, May 4, Bassam again returned to the city, this time to pick up his laptop. According to Alhijazi, his cousins laptop contained videos and photos of Assad's forces killing the Syrian people, but as Bassam tried to enter his home, he was shot and killed.
Tahhouf believed it was supporters of the regime who were responsible for the death of his cousin. After this event, his family realized it was time to get out before anything else happened. They followed Tahhouf to Lebanon, where they would be safe from the regime, but it would be a place where they would face so many more dangers, and a place where they had absolutely nothing.
Living in the refugee camp he remembers seeing children sleeping in the cold without anything to keep them warm and without food. They struggled to live in tents, which were barely enough shelter in the cold winters, and would often blow away or catch on fire in the hot summers.
Looking for safety in Lebanon, Yasmin Alhijazi continued to follow the conflict at home as much as she could. (She wished to appear off camera for privacy reasons)
Majd Tahhouf speaks about the pain of living in refugee camps and the suffering each person goes through.
“No matter how much I'm going to tell you about the suffering over there. It's very bad, I’m not going to be able to describe how painful it is to be in the refugee camps,” said Tahhouf.
In 2014 Tahhouf and Alhijazi were expecting their second child. But this time, it would be a lot harder. Tahhouf had gotten very sick from a tumor that grew in his neck. Cancer had spread from his throat to his nose and he couldn’t pay to get proper treatment. There weren’t enough resources for the many sick people inside the refugee camps who were in dire need of medical attention. Tahhouf couldn’t work because of the severity of his cancer, and with a second child on the way their outlook on a safer future became more and more uncertain.
While in Lebanon, Majd Tahhouf suffered severely from cancer and was unable to afford medication.
Finally the United Nations were able to cover 75% of the expenses for a surgery to remove the tumor, which still left him with a $1000 medical bill. As he became sicker, his wife delivered his daughter in Tripoli. With no help to get the medication he needed to treat the cancer and no money to support his growing family, he again needed a way out of the country.
The UN couldn’t help them anymore than they already had in Lebanon, so they asked the family if they would consider migrating and suggested Canada.
“They put us in the Canadian embassy,” said Tahhouf. “The Canadian embassy arranged for the travel, they were very kind and very helpful. They arranged everything for us, the Canadian embassy in Beirut.”
But it had taken a year for the Canadian embassy to arrange everything needed for his family to be able to move out of Lebanon. It was a very long year of waiting, going from interview to interview with the UN and the Canadian embassy and still no guarantee of being able to afford his next chemo treatment.
“The last year before we came to Canada was very difficult for us, the treatment was very expensive. Chemo cost us lots of money, and my husband couldn’t work. I couldn’t even feed my kids. I had no hope but for God to help me and move to a better place,” said Alhijazi.
Their daughter, Qamar, was born on September 15, 2014, in Tripoli, Lebanon
On March 29, 2015 they left Lebanon to Germany and from there they flew to Calgary. In Calgary they were put in another camp with Syrian and Iraqi families. He suffered again in the camp in Calgary because of his need for cancer treatment and his specific dietary needs. But soon they were given a chance to choose a house were they could live as a family.
“At least when I took this house I felt so comfortable. I had a place to sleep and to look after myself and my family. The government helped me big time. And all the support was coming,” said Tahhouf.
The Canadian government promised in January of 2014 to let in 10,000 Syrian refugees over a three-year period, but Canada’s newly elected Prime Minster Justin Trudeau promised during his election campaign that Canada would take in 25,000 refugees before the end of this year. Just over 2,000 Syrians have resettled in Canada since then. Tahhouf and his family are now safely living in an apartment on a quiet street in the North East of Calgary, Tahhouf is receiving free treatment for his cancer, and his children can go to school and have a better future.
Yasmin Alhijazi isn't afraid anymore, as she sits in the safety of her home in Calgary. But she will never forget the people who are still suffering. (She wished to appear off camera for privacy reasons)
They are happy, but they left behind all of their family. Their families have also fled out of Lebanon and are now living in Europe mostly as refugees, not being able to do anything but live on the $13.50 a month per person that they receive from the UNCHR. Tahhouf’s mind is never at peace even though he can rest much easier at night.
Staring gravely ahead of him, Tahhouf told our translator about the conversation he had with his mother on the phone when she was still in Lebanon. She told him how she watched a woman deliver her baby on the streets because there wasn’t enough care for her. Tahhouf lingers in these painful thoughts as he tries to explain how he thinks about all the things he has seen and everything he continues to hear for his people back home. He is restless about trying to make people aware of what is happening. Our translator, Sam Nammoura, stops to explain how angry Tahhouf was when he first met him in the spring of 2015. Nammoura helped him settle into Calgary and he saw first-hand, the anger rising up from all the things that had happened to his family and the reason why his children still fear the sight of strangers. This was their life, they are safe now, but the Syrian civil war is not over and they will forever be a part of it.
“I have food, I have a place. But I know so many people that are in need of desperate help, ” said Tahhouf.
Majd Tahhouf feels safe in this new country but there's always the other side of the story and he feels for the people who are still suffering.