Refugees’ Stories Podcast is designed to be heard, not read. The audio is far more expressive and interesting to listen to, we promise!
The text under Abdullah’s name is from a different translator, and in the audio these sections are spoken in Arabic. The following transcription contains errors, and may not represent the final release accurately.
Jessica Stone: Welcome to the second episode of Refugee's Stories. I'm your host, Jessica Stone Stone, and today we're hearing from Abdullah.
Abdullah: I’m Abdullah from Syria. I’m from Deir Al-Zhour city. I’m a truck driver and livestock trader
Jessica Stone: And one quick note here: I apologise for the quality of the audio. It’s hard to record in a tent in the middle of a refugee settlement with limited equipment, and it’s even harder to keep nine children quiet for an hour.
Hassan Choubassi: Okay he say he is from Syria from Deir al-Zhour city. He was a big farmer of cows and animals. And he also have a big truck to unload the animals and sell it around Syria. He said that he was proud of her work, he love her work, he was very much her work.
Jessica Stone: Did you hear the word Daesh at the end there? That’s the acronym in Arabic, which stands for the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”. Which of course, we anglophones typically call ISIS, or ISIL, or Islamic State.
Abdullah left Syria after he was caught smoking in his car. His punishment was forty lashes. And those 40 lashes were a big influence in him leaving Syria, with his whole family, nine kids, two of which are blind, and making the slow journey to Lebanon.
It’s hard to find specific evidence that smoking would be punished with 40 lashes by IS. We do know, however, that drinking is punishable by eighty lashes, because it’s one of the crimes specifically defined in the Quran, and therefore codified in the legal system. So forty for smoking seems probable.
Hassan Choubassi: He say that yes, he miss her job a lot. And he hope to come back to Syria just to do this work again. And he say that he hope if he stay in refugee in Lebanon to do this type of work in Lebanon.
Jessica Stone: I did this interview before the laws changed in Lebanon. Before, there was a pledge not to work rule, which I talked about a little bit in the first episode. This has since been changed, but there is so much general confusion in Lebanon about the employment rights of Syrians that many refugees still aren’t working, or working only in very low-paid jobs.
Hassan Choubassi: Okay, his father, he say that his father has like now 75 years old and he still own this work. And the same with his mother, she is 65 yrs old and she still make this work. Now because of the war they have a small farmer, they do the milk and the cheese with the cows.
Jessica Stone: Why have your parents decided to stay in Syria but you’ve decided to come here?
Hassan Choubassi: Yes they’re still in Syria. And the area where they live now, around this area, the Syrian army, the different kind, they are fighting in Syria. And he say that his parents are old, and they prefer to die in Syria than die out of their country. He say that yes, it’s very dangerous, and very scary. Because they cannot move out, from Deir Al-Zhour. Because they cannot move out from the checkpoints.
Jessica Stone: Deir Al-Zhour city is located on the Euphrates River between Raqqa and Mosul — the two IS strongholds. Large-scale clashes in the region started on 10th of April 2014, when Islamic State began to attack the area, which at that point was mostly held by the rebel groups. Both Islamic State and Al-Nusra front were fighting against each other, as well as attacking the rebels. Within months, thousands of people had died, and more than 100,000 civilians had fled the province. Within three months, IS controlled between 95 and 98% of the Deir Al-Zhour province. This is according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that documents alleged human rights abuses in Syria.
These days, Deir Al-Zhour is located deep inside this IS-held territory. And life under IS control is no fun at all, unsurprisingly. Before the siege, Deir al-Zhour had a population of about 300,000 people. The 100, 000 people still left in the city have been living surrounded by violence and without access to food or services. There is, of course, widespread malnutrition and starvation amongst the civilians left in the city. The UN’s World Food Programme, in conjunction with the Syrian government and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, has been regularly airdropping food and aid to the areas trapped by IS and fighting.
Hassan Choubassi: And for him, they decide to come to Lebanon, because he has a big family, about nine persons, with awife and children. And he was living in a side of Deir Al-Zhour, who ISIS say just bomb them. So they have travelling for four months, depending different areas in Syria, until they can arrive at Lebanese borders. Until they can arrive to Beqaa. It’s just to search for a safety place for the family.
Jessica Stone: Abdullah has nine children, and two of them are blind.
Jessica Stone: If you don’t mind telling me about your trip from Syria to Lebanon. It’s quite unusual to spend four months travelling isn’t it?
Hassan Choubassi: He spent four months, between the different cities, because when he moved from acity to another, he just stayed fifteen to twenty days, until they plan where to go next.
Jessica Stone: And was this with the whole family?
Hassan Choubassi: Yes, with nine people.
Jessica Stone: And how did you come from Syria to Lebanon itself?
Hassan Choubassi: He say when he arrived he went to Anjar, he was with his family, with the Red Cross, who they helped with matters like this, like the shelter. Then he stayed in El Marj, with some family. Until he found the camp here. But here they had a lot of travelling, they went to different camps. He say that at the beginning he didn’t have any money to buy the materials to make the tent, or for the rent, so when he got her paper and registered to UNHCR, and they helped him with UNHCR card, now he has money, and he buy some wood and a plastic sheet and build her tent.
Jessica Stone: How long did it take to build?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that for building the tent, it take about one month, because he just buy a small quantity of food and plastic sheet in the beginning, because he didn’t have enough money to buy a lot. But after one month, when he got the pay from UNHCR, he built the rest.
Jessica Stone: The thing is, he had a car in Syria, and he sold it to travel to Damascus. By the time he’d reached Lebanon, he was out of money, even to build a fairly basic shelter for his family. Abdullah’s shelter is similar to many I’ve seen here in Lebanon. It’s made of a wooden frame, with tarpaulin stretched over it. The issue with structures like these is that they straddle a difficult line: they’re simultaneously meant to be temporary, but are often lived in for many years.
Justine Boillat: Can you describe your house now?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that in Deir Al Zhour he has a big land, where they build a big house. Her big house was nine rooms and each person has a private room. And he talk about the relation between the brother sisters and parents. It was like, it was not like a relationship between the family, but like friends. They are very lovely and they help each other. They work in the same farm. And he missed this life.
He say that before he was like with freedom, and he has anything and can do anything in the country and buy whatever he want. but now it’s a big difference, here there is no freedom for the refugees, that’s what he say. And he cannot move, he cannot do anything, he cannot find the work, it’s a big difference.
Jessica Stone: What was it like in Syria?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that in 1978, he has four yrs old, so he described the area where he was living. It’s about 800 houses. He say that it’s not like we are neighbours or something, we are like one family. When our family decided to do some foods, it will be like a big event for the community. He also has her friends and neighbours. It was very calm area, and they love each other.
Jessica Stone: Is this typically Syrian do you think? The idea of a community acting as one family?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that all Syria was like this. He say that he is from one place and this guy from another place. But they do that also in the settlement, they are from different places but they think that all the Syrians are one family.
Jessica Stone: Do you think they still feel like one family, because they’re quite scattered at the moment?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that in the place where they live, all the people are Muslim, but just about 11 or 12 families was Christian, but we don’t care about their religion, we are just one family, we are human, religion is for god, not for people. So yeah, they are like one big family.
Jessica Stone: When Abdullah says that everybody was like one big family, I’m inclined to believe it. Yes, of course, as far as he’s concerned I’m culturally Christian, and he might have had that in mind when he made that comment, thinking that it would endear me to him, and perhaps anybody listening to this podcast. But there is also a lot of truth to the idea that Syria has always been incredibly diverse in terms of religion, and throughout a large portion of its history, these multiple religious groups have managed to coexist.
Of course, the situation is complex, but both Syria and Lebanon, and the many, many religious groups from this region, were all living together under the Ottoman Empire. At the end of WWI, when the Allies cut up the Ottoman Empire into the states of Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, France was the country that had control over the newly formed states: Syria and Lebanon.
And it was actually the French who separated the country into its different ethnic and religious groups, by portioning out particular regions to specific religious minorities, regardless of whether or not they made up the majority in that region. For instance, in Greater Lebanon, the Christians were given authority over the region, despite only making up about 30% of the population. The French authorities also occasionally reshuffled these divisions, creating a lot of instability in the area, and increasing friction between the different groups.
After a while under this French rule, Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and Druze followers united in order to revolt against their new French overlords during the years 1925-1927. There was a general sense from some Syrians during that period that the French were trying to pit the different groups together. Enough of a sense that one rebel, Sultan Al-Atrash wrote the following in his manifesto on the 23rd August 1925: “the imperialists have stolen what is yours…raised barriers and divided your indivisible homeland. They have separated the nation into religious sects and states…To arms! Let us free our people from bondage!”. The revolt by Sultan Al-Atrash ultimately failed, but later self-styled leaders did succeed. What’s interesting about Sultan al-Atrash’s manifesto, is how clearly, even all that time ago, some Syrians were concerned with how the French had cut their land up into pieces, and how that fundamentally weakened the people.
Unsurprisingly, with colonial interference like this, Syrians didn’t manage to form national unity at all, and were easily prey to a series of military coups after regaining independence in 1946. It began with Husni al-Zaim’s coup in March 1949, the first military coup in the Arab world, launched with American encouragement if not prompting. Four and a half months later Zaim was killed during a second coup, carried out by Colonel Sami al-Hinnawi. And then, there was a short-lived political union between Syria and Egypt, called the United Arab Republic.
The Nasser vision of a single great Arab nation collapses overnight, as Syria revolts against his rule and declares itself an independent state.
Which lasted from 1958 to 1961, when it was bro ken by, you guessed it, a military coup, on September 28, 1961. In fact, Syria managed the unenviable feat of 10 coups in the two decades post-independence from France. When Syria was finally finished with all of these military coups, they were rewarded with nearly fifty years of dictatorship under the the last two presidents, Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad. In short, Syria has had a really bad run of it politically for a very, very long time.
Jessica Stone: What sorts of things are you hearing about Syria at the moment? Does it make you worried?
Hassan Choubassi: They can’t speak of these things on the phone, because they are scared the government hear if they talk about this situation. They didn’t speak about this on the phone. He don’t know about this situation now. Only they see on the tv.
Jessica Stone: Another quick note here: Abdullah has given an interview before. An important interview, with a high profile figure in international aid. And this interview went on television, and then Islamic State went to Abdullah’s father and asked him why his son was talking about Syria on television. Abdullah’s father denied everything, but it must have been scary, and now Abdullah is a little bit worried about the impact his opinions, freely expressed, might have on his family still in Syria.
And according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, Syria ranks as the second worst country in the world for internet freedom. In areas like Raqqa and Deir Al-Zhour, Islamic State has issued strict regulations on internet access. Private internet access was limited in mid-2015 to public locations1 that can be policed by the extremists, often the Hisbah police, a type of religious police designed to “promote virtue and prevent vice, to dry up sources of evil, prevent the manifestation of disobedience”. This means that internet is only availabel at selected internet cafes, of which there are only four in Deir al-Zhour city, and all four are under heavy surveillance.
Jessica Stone: From what you see on the tv, how is your life different now from how it was?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that whatever if I am a refugee here in Lebanon, because my life is still better than in Syria. The place where he live in where ISIS in Syria, her life here is better here than in Syria. It’s more safety, and it’s little bit more freedom.
Jessica Stone: You might have heard before that the Syrian civil war is the best covered war ever, in history. This is despite the lack of international news media. Since international news media is banned in Syria, the main sources of second-hand information and dis-information are private videos made on mobile phones and uploaded to YouTube. The sheer proliferation of these videos has also made it difficult to navigate between truth and propaganda—everybody from Islamic State to the rebels to regime supporters to undercover activists is using videos and other forms of social media to promote their cause.
The sheer quantity of amateur videos is all the more striking in a country which had previously been able to hide its massacres a little too well. When Assad’s father, Hafez, crushed a 1982 uprising in the city of Hama, killing thousands of civilians, he was able to keep it almost completely hidden from the world.
Audio excerpt of perpetrator in Hama Massacre: They told us, the people of Hama, they all of them, they are terrorist and criminal and we have to kill them all. We have to clean the city from him. Nobody have a weapon, we see people on the street protest. They have nothing. Kids women you know. And then we We start shooting people everywhere, We go house by house… I wouldn’t have forgot anything. Everything I have it, like when I spoke to you now, I have it front of my eyes. I remember everything. I remember all the blood in Hama.
Jessica Stone: That was an excerpt from an interview with a perpetrator in the Hama massacre, conducted by Piers Scholfield. The original casualty estimate by Western media was 1000. To this day, the final death toll is not known, although it ranges between 20-40 000. It is widely regarded as the single bloodiest assault by an Arab ruler against his own people in modern times.
But these days, Syria refuses to say silent about the massacres that happen it’s own people. In 2014, The group Deir Al-Zhour is Being Slaughtered Silently, a local monitoring group that secretly maps and records the mass graves left by ISIS militants and pro-government forces, stated that the 3000 people who were then missing were buried in 36 mass graves in four villages in the region. Thirteen of these mass graves were left in the region controlled by the government, and the rest in regions controlled by IS. And these graves, much like those over twenty years before in Hama, were filled with men, women, children, the elderly.
These days, even without international media, people are making sure that deaths are being counted, and reported. It’s just hard to tell if anybody is really listening.
Jessica Stone: So for you it was the right choice to bring your family here?
Hassan Choubassi: Honestly I hope that, but I wish that I come back to Syria. He say that he believe it will be a end for the Syrian war in Syria soon, and he will come back.
Jessica Stone: Are you looking forward to showing your children Syria then?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that only two of her children, don’t know how it was in Syria. Because they born since then. But only this little boy, he was five months when they left Syria, he was very small. Sometimes they just talk about Syria and their lives, but they’re very small they cannot understand the situation.
Jessica Stone: Do you mind telling us about one of the stories you tell your children?
Hassan Choubassi: He tell a story. He let them them know how was his work before with his dad. Sometimes he go with his dad, about two hours, to buy some cows for the farmer. The life in Syria was very easy and they have everything, and can work. During when he tell them these stories they are very interested to live this life.
Jessica Stone: We’re curious about your hopes for your children?
Hassan Choubassi: He said his first hope is for his sons and daughter to do the surgery, so they can be as normal people. He hope for his children to be educated. He say that right now I’m not educated, and I have a bad life, and education is important in life.
Jessica Stone: Are they in school at the moment? Or is he currently finding it challenging?
Hassan Choubassi: Only Ahmad and Rahma go to a church in Zahle, that’s specific for these cases.
Jessica Stone: Ahmad and Rahma are the two blind children. They’re going to an Evangelical Church School.
Hassan Choubassi: The rest of the children don’t want to go to the school.
Jessica Stone: One son, Yassin, studied up until year nine in Syria, but didn’t continue in Lebanon.
Hassan Choubassi: Because the system here is very different to Syria, but it was very difficult and different for them.
Jessica Stone: This is true. I’ll have an education specific episode later on, but in a nutshell, school in Syria was held in Arabic. School in Lebanon is taught in French or English. This means that many Syrian students have an incredibly hard time in the Lebanese public school system. Because Syrian students have usually missed out on a few years of schooling, and have lower levels of English and French, they’re placed in classes with kids several years younger than they are. Which is obviously not great for self-esteem. There are also reports from Human Rights Watch that Syrian students “face bullying and harassment on the way to school and in the classroom from bystanders, other children, bus drivers, teachers, and school administrators”, even including physical attacks.
Jessica Stone: Tell me about a time you were really happy.
Hassan Choubassi: He say that since that he born in Syria, until they decide to leave, all their life was full of happiness. A special moment was when his dad buy for him a new car, it was the most happiness moment for him.
Jessica Stone: What was the car?
Hassan Choubassi: It was a Nissan pickup. He went far away from her country, to buy it from Nissan. They pay 20,000 for this truck.
Justine Boillat: What did you like to do with this truck, where did you like to go?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that there was a place, a river, that was 500m from his house, and he went with his pickup to this place. Swimming, and wash his pickup in the river. He was alone, and he stay for a long time there.
Jessica Stone: Then Abdullah pulled out his phone and showed me a photo of another car.
Hassan Choubassi: He has this car in Syria. A Kia.
Jessica Stone: Who’s driving it now?
Hassan Choubassi: They put it in a garage in Syria, and they put on the car a lot of wood and things, because if ISIS sees this car they will come and take it.
Justine Boillat: What about his house is someone living in it now?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that he has two houses in Syria. The first one was destroyed by the war. The second one is used by his parents.
Jessica Stone: Are they hiding a lot of stuff in this house?
Hassan Choubassi: Okay he say that the most important and expensive thing that they have, was the first house that was destroyed by a bomb. So they don’t have anything right now. Only the jewellery of the women.
Jessica Stone: That’s very sad I can’t imagine losing all the family possessions.
Hassan Choubassi: He say that whatever if he lose a lot of expensive things, but we win our life, we still alive and that’s the most important. He hope to all the Syrian peoples, he think just take care of his life, and don’t care about other things. Just think that they should be safety and take care of their families.
Justine Boillat: have you found this safe place that you were looking for in Lebanon. Did you find it here?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that maybe I found a safety place, but not full of safety. Because now safety place, like our country. He say that he just found about 60% of safety here, but not full of safety.
Justine Boillat: Have you felt welcomed here?
Hassan Choubassi: He say that Lebanon and Syria are like my country. He get a welcome at the beginning. And he thank the Lebanese government. Because he say is a small government in a country with a lot of refugees and people. And they help a lot the refugees.
Justine Boillat: What are the little things that make you happy in your everyday life here?
Hassan Choubassi: Okay he say that the simple things, is just to be able to be able to move in a freedom here. Because the Lebanese people love the Syrian refugees here and they have a good relation. And he don’t have any problems travelling here.
Jessica Stone: To wrap up, I was curious how you imagine your situation in the future.
Hassan Choubassi: Okay he think that the war in Syria will finish and Syria will be better soon and they will come back. that’s what he see in the future pictures for Syria. And all the refugees will come back to Syria and the war will end.
Jessica Stone: That was the second episode of Refugee’s Stories.
Made with the support of Salam LADC, and NGO working in the Beqaa Valley with Khansaa's community and other like it. You can donate to Salam LADC here.
Music credits in order:
Creeping Glass by Axletree
Amor é odio by Nuno Adelaida
teeth wrapped in tissue by ALPHAMALE
Ya Rayah by Banda Comunale & Internationale
F. Meridian by Nuno Adelaida
Farewell by Amr Ezz
Ya Souria Zalane Malak by Youssef Tage
teeth wrapped in tissue by ALPHAMALE
Intro by The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
Lost Memories by Rocco Granata
Translators: Hassan Choubassi & Wael Yassin
Assistant: Justine Boillat
Further thanks to Miguel Ángel Isotta Sanchez and Gregory Stone.
Writing and production: Jessica Stone.