The refugees of the Syrian war and the land they never knew

Abu Hafez has been a refugee living in Sidon in the south of Lebanon after fleeing fighting near his home in the village of Hawija in Hama

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“There was a hill near our house, totally covered in flowers, flowers like I’ve never seen before. We would take meat to grill and we’d bring soda, we’d build a bonfire and make tea,” remembers Abu Hafez, a Syrian man in his mid-forties, as he reclines on cushions on the floor, smoking cigarettes. “Now, we sit around and reminisce about those times. Our children gather around us and hear what it used to be like,” he explains.

For the last four years, Abu Hafez has been a refugee living in Sidon in the south of Lebanon, after fleeing fighting near his home in the village of Hawija in Hama province. He has been living in a half-built university complex, the bare concrete classrooms giving each of the 170 families a home. Abu Hafez has nine children, aged between one-year-old and 18. Today, he’s talking about how the now five-year Syrian war has impacted them.

“I’m telling them the stories of their grandfathers. I tell them about the ruins of Qalaat al-Madiq [a medieval fortress in northern Syria]. I used to take the kids there, up to the dam during the summertime,” he explains. He prefers to keep repeating the happy stories and shielding them from the current, much more violent times. "They don’t know,” he says, “I just distract the young ones, the ones that are three or four years old, with the television. They need to grow up a bit so they can handle it, then I’ll tell them,” he explains.

But the children know more than Abu Hafez cares to admit to himself. Many of the toddlers in the camp can barely remember Syria. Some have never seen it. Still, they know it is at war. “The kids know everything, TV hasn’t left anything to the imagination,” explains Dawlat, Abu Hafez’s cousin. Mother of two boys and two girls, all under seven, Dawlat fled Syria and lives in the same building as Abu Hafez. “They know the airplanes, they know shelling. Nour was born during the war but she didn’t live in Syria. Even she knows what a tank is, what a shell is, what a barrel bomb is.” Nour is now three years-old -- a life-long refugee. She knows the stories even though he hasn't lived the reality. Her 7-year-old brother, Moussa, on the other hand remembers the war vividly.

“In the beginning there were very few planes, but when the plane hit our home Moussa was there. He saw the blood, everything. He saw the blood spurting out of her leg,” says Dawlat, whose sister was injured in the airstrike that hit their home. She is now living in a camp in Turkey with other members of the family where she received medical treatment, but both her legs have been amputated. As she talks, Dawlat’s youngest daughter gurgles in the background. At six months old, baby Syria doesn’t yet know the world she’s been born into. “I will tell Syria everything. I’ll tell her I named her because of Syria’s land, Syria’s dignity,” promises Dawlat.

‘That’s what killed Baba’

Umm Mahmoud and Abu Hafez are from the same small, close-knit farming and agricultural village. When she fled Hawija in 2013, after her husband was killed in a mortar attack, Umm Mahmoud came to the same complex where Abu Hafez had been living for a year. She lives on the fourth floor with her two sons and four-year-old daughter, Rawan. Umm Mahmoud and her children run a small shop to make money. “I tell her about her village, her father. I show her pictures of her father,” says Umm Mahmoud. “Yesterday, she said ‘I hate shelling. That’s what killed Baba.’

“I tell her about Syria before the war, what it used to be like. There was a garden near the house that all the kids went to. It was covered in flowers, it was beautiful,” says Umm Mahmoud wistfully. When asked where she’s from, Rawan smiles and speaks shyly, “I’m from where Baba is from. It’s beautiful there,” before running off to play with friends.

At this point Abu Hafez also begins to reminisce and talks about the hunting trips the men from their village would take. All day they would hunt birds and in the evening they would sit around for hours eating and drinking tea into the small hours, each night at a different house in the village. “We’d come in and the heater would be on, everyone drinking tea. We’d be safe and warm. It was a different world,” says Abu Hafez, smiling at the memory.

Abu Hafez describes the community they are from, explaining that there was no sectarianism. “We would celebrate every holiday with our neighbours, regardless of sect. Christians, Muslims, Alawites, all together,” he explains, adding that this is the Syria he wants to tell his children about, one without sectarian divisions. “What I tell them is how we used to live, how the situation changed from the best to the worse. I’m dying to teach my kids, why? Because ignorance is injustice,” he says.

Even though Abu Hafez tells his youngest children some of the things about their homes back in Syria and shows them the pictures of it, he says it’s hard for them to understand. He doesn’t show them the video he took on his phone before he left his house, of the empty looted rooms and the door smashed in where a shell hit. “Yes, I show them pictures, I say this is our house, this is the old stone it’s made of. They don’t believe that I have a house that was destroyed. The ones that were born here think this is their home,” he says, pointing to the bare walls of the unfinished complex, the only home his youngest children have ever known.