Aiesha, 23 years old, from Deir ez-Zur, Syria
“Ahmed and I were in love for four years before we got married. At first, our families did not agree to the marriage. I moved from Deir ez-Zur to Ar Raqqah to study at university and Ahmed followed me there. I was studying Arabic literature. That was when the war started. However, after a bit more than a year, bombs began to fall on Ar Raqqah and it was no longer safe. Ahmed decided to go to Al Bukamal, a city near Iraqto work. We were still not married, but he left and promised that when he returned, we would get married.
I heard no news from him for three months. I was heartbroken, because I was convinced that he had left me and wasn’t going to come back. I was so sad that I wanted to cancel the upcoming wedding we originally planned. But then one night, I had a strange dream where Ahmed appeared. He was blind in the dream but he said to me “I can see you". Suddenly, I woke up and I saw that I had a missed call and a message from Ahmed! I called him back straight away and the first thing he asked me was “where are you?” I thought that he could have at least started by saying, “Hello, how are you?”, but he sounded stressed and said he was close to Ar Raqqa, where I was, and asked where we could meet urgently. He was scared because the reception was bad and the call could be cut off quickly.
I was nervous to see him again, and although my mother urged me to get ready to greet him, I still felt hurt that he had not given me any news all this time, and I wanted to forget about him. When he arrived at the house, I refused to see him at first, but then he showed me over 50 text messages that he had tried to send me while he was in Al Bukamal, that I had never received. The reception in Al Bukamal hadn’t been good enough to send the messages. In the messages, he was saying that he had found a job, he was earning money and had found a house, and was preparing everything to welcome me so that we could get married.”
Aiesha and Ahmed were married a month later, in May 2013, and moved to Al Bukamal together. She shows me her wedding ring and jewellery.
“We didn’t have a wedding party because so many of our relatives and friends had already died in the war, and we felt it was not a good time for a celebration. But my aunt organised a small party in Al Bukamal anyway, because she felt it was not right for us to live together without a proper wedding party. She gave me a white dress and some makeup and we had a small celebration.”
Aida holds up a jewel given to her during her wedding.
"Ahmed has the same one in blue. It represents our love."
Photos: Clara Veale / Story: Voices of Refugees
The war raged on but Aiesha and Ahmed lived a reasonably stable life under the Free Syrian Army’s control in Al Bukamal. Ahmed found work in a chicken factory. He pushed Aiesha to continue with her studies. Her family was living in nearby Ar Raqqah, and they regularly visited each other. During this time, Aiesha gave birth to Sham, their first daughter, who is now 3 years old, and a couple of years later, she gave birth to Mira, who is now only 1. While she was pregnant with Mira, Aiesha graduated from university.
One day in 2015, while she was still pregnant with Mira, her and Ahmed woke up to sounds of fighting and gunshots outside. Daesh (ISIS) had come to Al Bukamal. “They arrived at 6am and left in the evening,” Aiesha recalls, “and when they left, more than 100 young men were lying dead in the streets.”
Daesh didn’t stay away long, and a month later, they came back and took over all of Al Bukamal. Life instantly became harder and scarier for Aiesha and her family.
“Members of Daesh approached Ahmed and told him that working with frozen chicken was ‘haram’, or forbidden under Islamic law, and he had to stop his job. Then, Ahmed started working with live chicken instead, but Daesh said that too was haram. So Ahmed had to stop working with chickens all together. He also couldn’t wear jeans, he couldn’t shave, and everything suddenly became haram.”
Ahmed wanted to leave Syria, but Aiesha did not want to leave her extended family behind. Finally, when the bombs became too intense, they were left with no choice. Mira was only one month old when they decided to flee. Aiesha sold everything she owned, including all of her jewellery and gold to pay for the journey.
“But in Al Bukamal, in order to travel, you need a permit from Daesh. I used my aunt’s permit who had one because she needed to travel for head surgery.”
“The hardest thing was saying goodbye to my mother,” Aiesha’s eyes fill with tears. She hasn’t seen her mother since they fled, and fears for her life every day.
Photo: Shayanne Gal / Story: Voices of Refugees
“The smugglers took us to the mountains on the Turkish border. We stayed one night in a village near the border, under the bombs, with our babies. I couldn’t sleep all night because of the bombs. At 3:30 am, the smugglers took us through the forest, but there were many landmines, and so we had to be very careful and walk through difficult ways, passing rivers and falling. When we arrived in Turkey, the police caught us and took us back to the border.”
“We paid another 20,000 lira to take a different route into Turkey, but we got caught again. We spent the night in the mountains and used our jackets to warm our girls. On the third attempt, we took yet another road, but we had to pass a high fence with barbed wires. We had to climb over the fence, and once Ahmed was on one side, I was forced to throw my daughters over the fence to him. Mira was only 1 month old. I was so terrified they would fall. When I climbed over after them, the barbed wire tore through my clothes and my legs. We walked all night and finally got to a village in Turkey, and felt a little safety, at last”.
“Along the way, the smugglers demanded more money, and threatened us with knives. We gave them what we could. They took us to a room with more than 50 other people, waiting like animals.”
In Turkey, Aiesha and Ahmed joined Ahmed’s parents, who had travelled to Turkey a little earlier. They stayed there for one month, but Ahmed’s parents explained that life in Turkey for Syrians was difficult and urged them to go to Europe. They planned the journey to Europe together. Ahmed’s father had diabetes, which made it harder for him to travel. Eventually, they all left together from Izmir, to take a boat across the sea to Greece.
“First, they put us in a van. So many people we were suffocating. I was scared Mira would die because she couldn’t breathe. The sea was quiet that night, and I thanked God for that. But the police caught us, and detained us for 24 hours. The second time we tried, the boat was broken and the rubber was unsafe to travel. We were not aware of this, but the smugglers knew about it and didn’t care.
We found out later that one man, who wanted to cross but couldn’t afford to pay, had volunteered to drive the boat, but he had never driven a boat in his life. When he found out that the boat was unsafe, he started to argue about the fact that the boat should be changed, but the smugglers put a gun to the driver’s head and ordered him to drive the boat anyway, and not to tell any of us that it was unsafe.”
Miraculously, the boat held up and Aiesha and her family reached the shores of Greece after a two and a half hour journey in the water.
“When we arrived, the driver explained everything and begged for our forgiveness. But, finally, we were safe at last. We had finished the ‘journey of death’.”
Photo: Clara Veale / Story: Voices of Refugees
“We arrived in Greece in April 2016 and tried to get through the border in the north, to Macedonia. The police caught us and transported us to a refugee camp in the north. When the winter started to arrive, we moved to a camp in the south, with caravans or ISO-Boxes instead of tents.
Now, my daughters are tired of moving, packing bags, and not having a stable home to live in. Yesterday, Sham asked me, “Mommy, where is our home?” and I couldn’t answer the question. Right now, we are all prisoners of the camp."
Mira celebrated her 1st birthday at the camp recently. Aiesha organised a small party with her friends and bought cakes and sweets to make the day special. “In Syria, we would have had a lot more to eat and the party would have been a lot bigger,” says Aiesha.
“We are waiting for our relocation interview... We don’t know where we are going. It is very stressful and living here has been the most difficult time of my life. Ahmed and I are always fighting because I am constantly stressed and angry. It is not a good life here. I just want a safe place for my daughters to grow up.”
“I never imagined Europe like this, but now I see what it is like. They always talk about human rights in other countries, and how countries in Europe help people around the world, but here, in the camps, it is a terrible life. Maybe we took the wrong road to Europe. I hope that we can meet kind and good people when we go to our host country.”
Photos: Clara Veale / Story: Voices of Refugees