From Hell to Hope

Syrian refugee shares tales of terror & finding Christ

UNHCR/ J. Andrews / April 2013

UNHCR / J. Andrews / April 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As Syrian refugees continue to pour into Lebanon (as estimated 650,000 and counting), the Free Evangelical Church of Beirut is helping them wherever it can.

FECB Senior Pastor Joseph Najem recently interviewed Fahima, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who fled to Beirut with her husband and five daughters from the ancient city of Halab (Aleppo). Halab is the commercial center of Syria and is a stronghold for the Free Syrian Army fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Though Fahima’s family was living a prosperous life in Halab, abuses by the Free Syrian Army and the death and destruction erupting around them forced them to flee. Since arriving in Beirut in February, Fahima has come to faith in Jesus Christ, as have her children.

Here are Fahima’s thoughts on the horrors raging in her home country:

Joseph Najem: Tell me a little about why you came here.

Fahima: We were in Syria, things going from bad to worse. One day my 12-year-old daughter and I went to get bread from the bakery next to us. But we were waiting all day until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and no one came to work there. And suddenly it all turned to chaos with rockets.

My daughter and I finally went home and our electricity was cut off. My husband said it wasn’t safe here, that we should leave to go to Aldaya’a that the conditions were better there. So we went to Aldaya’a. It’s two hours away after Afeefa.

For three months we stayed in Aldaya’a. We didn’t have water.  We didn’t have electricity. The way our water worked was, there was a well, but without electricity we couldn’t pump the water up. For 10 days my children didn’t bathe. There was no bread. In the morning sometimes we would get a little flour and make some bread in the oven. And even when [we did] that, it wasn’t enough, and the kids were always hungry.

Free Army takes over house

Lebanon screen shot

Map courtesy of United Nations Cartographic Section

Things are very bad in Syria. The army set up right in front of our house. There was no place we could go, so we left and went to Halab.

When we first got to Halab, the Free Army stopped us and asked where we were going. We told them, “To our house.” The army was right in front of our house, right under the window.

In front of our house was a garden. The soldiers hung out in our garden and ruined it. When they hit the area with rockets, debris would hit them. So we left and went up into the mountains to my in-laws’. But there were still problems, and I couldn’t protect my daughters, so either I went back to Halab or to Aldaya’a, which had snow. We went back to Aldaya’a and returned to our house.

When we got to the house the door was open. We went in and there were 20 people sitting in our house. I told them I just wanted to get our clothes. One of them had been shot in the hand and was being treated in our home.

There were all these people in my house. I didn’t know what to do. I needed to get things for my children. They told my husband to “Get what you can and leave.” So I grabbed the necessities and we left.

So we went back to Halab, and there was no one in the streets but the Free Army soldiers. When we got to our house some soldiers said, “Kiss his hand and we’ll give you the keys.” So we went in and got what we could and fled back to my in-laws.

J: Why did you go there?

F:  We lived in a ground floor apartment, but they live on the fifth floor, which was safer. My daughters went to buy bread and returned to the fifth floor and my husband and his brother were standing on the corner. He wanted to get water. My husband said to his brother, “We should go to the valley. Something’s going to happen here.”

Death sparks flight

Syrian girl in Lebanon. Photo: UNHCR / S. Malkawi

Syrian girl in Lebanon. Photo: UNHCR / S. Malkawi

My daughter saw a person killed on the street and was so upset that she wouldn’t eat or drink or speak for a long time. So I told my husband that was it, and I’m going to Beirut to my relatives there.

So we left Halab and when we reached AlHara, they refused to let us through. They had cut off all forms of transportation. There was no way for us to get to Lebanon. We had nothing to do except return to Halab. Instead I went to my niece’s house [close to AlHara]. We just need protection. All we had was the clothes on our backs. We slept there and left our daughters there and headed back to our house in Ashrafiyya [in Halab].

We went back to check things out and there was nothing but darkness and soldiers. So we went and got our daughters and left from Syria at 9 a.m. and did not get to Lebanon until 5 a.m. So what should have been a short drive took 20 hours.

Family brutalized by FSA

Every few kilometers there was a checkpoint. I hid my girls in my car because anyone who didn’t have their head covered would be given trouble or punished. My girls didn’t cover so I was afraid for what would happen to them. The whole way I was afraid for my own life and the lives of my daughters.

My neighbor’s daughter told me that her 17-year-old cousin had been kidnapped by the army that had been living in my house. They stabbed her father, stole the family’s money, kidnapped the girl and left. When I heard that story I told her I was moving to Lebanon. The same army [Free Syrian Army] that lived in my house took my neighbor’s cousin.

J: Where do they take the girls? What happens to the girls who are taken?

F: They kidnap them. They beat them. They rape them. They kill them. The girls don’t matter to them.

My husband went to his work to open his place. He found a bag in front of the door. He went to throw it away and found there was a woman’s corpse inside it. She had been tortured and stabbed to death and then left in a bag in front of his shop. Before he had left that morning we had heard of three rapes where women had come down to the soldiers.

J: Why did they come down to the soldiers?

F: They take the women out of their homes. The last week I went to work a young man was there and they took his cousin. Fifteen people came to his house and the family assumed they were part of the army. So they fed them and gave them water and visited with them. And after they had shown such hospitality they asked (in classical Arabic), “Where are your women?”

J: Why did they say it in classical Arabic?

F: That’s just how the army talks. They put on this classical accent. They said, “Where are your women? We want your women.”

This cousin (the guy who they had been visiting) who had worked with me was part of the revolution. So what was his answer when they asked “Where are your women?” He says, “Hang on, I’ll go get the women and be right back.”

He went down the street to his uncle’s house. “This is what’s going on. This is the story of what’s happening to me. These guys are stubborn and from the army, I don’t know what to tell them.”

His uncle drew the curtains at his house and told him, “Even if there are 400 people, send them here. Tell them all the women are living in this house. If they ask again to bring the women, tell them the little girls are afraid to come so they will have to come get them.” When the men came to the house, the uncle slaughtered them all. He had been trained years earlier in the Syrian army and had weapons and killed them all.

So where does this leave me if they can just walk into your house and say, “Where are your women?” I have no freedom. They call themselves the Free Army, but freedom for who? Not for the greater society.

J: Are these the ones who are conquering?

F: Yes. What freedom are they increasing? Islamic freedom? Telling people to do this, do that? What kind of religion is that? No religion allows that – not Judaism, not Christianity, not true Islam.To kidnap and rape and kill a 17-year-old girl? To let my young daughter see someone die in front of her so she won’t eat or drink? We have nothing. No water, no electricity, no bread, no flour — nothing in Halab.

If I want to go to the bakery, I have to leave at 12 at night and stand in line until 6 in the morning. I have to stand in line for six hours to bring bread for my daughters. We had to get ration cards so we could get rations for me and my daughters. Each of us had to pay 50 lira up front and then for ten rations it was 100 lira. But 10 rations wouldn’t be enough for us to eat to be satisfied. And they put taxes on them so they’re hard to afford. Everyone had to have a ration card and show up together to get a container of food to eat.

My 12-year-old was standing next to me in line and saw someone killed standing outside one of the offices. This was the second time she saw death. Once when the rocket off, when we were at my in-laws’, and then the boy outside the office. She’s only 12 years old, and she’s seen two murders.

J: How is she now?

F: She is still sick, but getting better. But none of my daughters are well. We walk down the street and if my daughter hears an airplane, she starts sobbing as though it were a rocket again. When people come over, she hides; and in the morning, she tells me not to go out to work.

Hard times in Lebanon

J: When did you arrive in Lebanon?

F: Four months ago.

J: Where did you live?

F: In Khalil’s home, one of our relatives. We stayed with them for two months.

J: He had room for you?

F: They had two rooms. He and his wife and daughter slept in one room. Myself, my husband and our five daughters slept in the other. We stayed there two months until my brother helped me find another place. We hadn’t brought money or clothing or any of our household things, so my relatives helped us find an apartment. By apartment I mean one room that my kids and I live in.

J: How much is rent?

F: We pay $300 including electricity.

J: Who is helping you? I mean, how did you live?

F: My brother and my relatives occasionally help us and now I make money at work. They helped us with furnishing a few things. They bought a TV, some blankets, and pillows, etc. But we were still sleeping on the floor. We didn’t have a bed or a couch.

With my first paycheck I bought two mattresses. That first night, at 11 p.m., we wanted to go to bed and were so hot we couldn’t go to sleep. So I told my husband that he should go get a fan so the kids could sleep. He went and got them one.

It’s been hard for my husband to get a job. He is 40 years old, but he’s too old for someone to hire him. And then he broke his leg and had an even harder time finding work. He couldn’t do much. He’d go to work and couldn’t do his duties, so at the end of the day he might get 25 cents. That’s when I got a job, because we couldn’t live on that.

J: Where do you store food?

F: Well, yesterday when my daughter was going to school in the morning I had left her food out so she could take lunch the next morning. She woke me up and said, “My food is spoiled. How am I supposed to take it to school?” I told her, “There’s no food. There’s nowhere to store food. What are we supposed to do?” My brother brings me food from his fridge and cold water. But it’s so hot, the food doesn’t last through the afternoon. It gets hot and it spoils. We don’t have a fridge.

J: Do you have a kitchen?

F: We have a tiny kitchen, a sink and a small gas stove. But we don’t have room for a fridge in the kitchen. One time I brought food to work from home, but when I went to eat it at 1 o’clock, it was spoiled already. I ate it anyway. I didn’t want anyone to see I was suffering. I don’t want to ask anyone for anything. I’m not used to accepting charity.

In Syria, I was the one helping people in need. We had the house of a king, with olive trees and fruit trees. My husband and I both had good work. We never had need and we always had enough to help others out. Now we’re the ones in need of some help.

J: Do you know anything about what happened to your house or your stuff?

F: All I know about anything we left is that our stuff has been stolen; our house occupied; and the army living where we used to live. I don’t know what happened to our personal things, our clothes and our beds.

We actually had two houses in Syria – the house we lived in and the house we had bought but hadn’t moved into. They were doing some work in the living room, and then we were going to move there. We had been living in a ground-floor place, but were moving to a fifth-floor place in a respectable neighborhood with an elevator and everything. We bought it but never lived there or even set foot there. I still haven’t seen the work they did on the inside. We just left everything behind and got out of Syria.

J: What are your thoughts for the future? What do you hope will happen?

F: When I was in Syria, I knew nothing. I didn’t know the Lord or salvation through him. Now the Lord is here in me and in my future. He is going to take me on the right path. My life and my salvation is in his hands, in the hands of Lord Jesus Christ. I hope now that my daughters, while they’re still young, will read and learn and memorize and know about him.

There’s unrest everywhere from the armies. Even in Dayaa’ [on the Turkish border], they don’t feel safe. Everybody’s leaving Syria. My in-laws’ family moved to Turkey, and we moved here [Beirut]. My other siblings moved to Turkey.

J: No one else moved here?

F: They don’t make it easy for you to come.

J: Why?

F: It’s banned by the army. My sisters made it to Turkey. Khalil [who she had lived with] moved to Greece.

J: I thought he was here.

F: He came back, but his wife moved to Switzerland where her family had emigrated. His kids were all baptized in Greece. He evangelized there and baptized more than four people. Now I pray that soon we’ll baptize my own daughters. Praise be to God! The Lord is taking care of us.

J: Well Fahima, praise God for your safety!

F: Praise God for our safety!

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