“Our life before the war was very ordinary,” says Wazzam, thinking back to the years his family spent in Raqqa, Syria. “Our doors were open all night. We feared nothing. It was difficult at times to find work, but our minds were at peace because it was safe.”
The long journey he has since made with his wife, Ayesha, and their six children from their home in eastern Syria to a refugee camp in southern Turkey traces the arc of the country’s devastating conflict, which is now entering its fifth year.
Raqqa, their former home and the provincial capital of Syria’s oil-rich eastern province, has been engulfed in unrest for well over a year. There were months of bombardment from the air and land as opposition groups fought street battles with government forces. Then those groups turned on each other, fighting for months for dominance.
Wazzam remembers those days and nights vividly. As fighting spread and intensified, he says, the city of 500,000 people descended into lawlessness.
Pulled in Two Directions: Wazzam’s family fled Raqqa time and time again, driven out by conflict but drawn back by the pull of their beloved homeland.
One night, just over a year ago, bombs started to rain on the city shortly after midnight. The noise woke the whole family.
“The children were crying, screaming ‘Daddy, Daddy,'” Wazzam recalls, thinking back to the beginning of what would become a yearlong journey to safety. Ayesha held the children and cried with them.
“I said to myself, ‘As soon as the sun rises I am leaving this place and never coming back. That’s it, I will never come back.'”
The next morning they fled.
But life on the move was difficult, with few prospects for steady work in neighbouring Turkey to support his family. In Raqqa, they had somehow managed to survive with very little. But as refugees in Turkey, where they had no family networks to count on for support, providing even just the basics for their children became a struggle.
“We started to hate our lives,” Wazzam says. “For the rich, those with money, they have something to work with, they will survive. But for poor people like us, it’s death.”
Every time there was a lull in the fighting, the family gravitated back to Syria, only to flee again.
“What made us go back again is our homeland,” Wazzam says. “It’s the land, it’s the place of our birth. That was pulling us.”
They fled and returned at least five times, bouncing between Syrian and Turkish towns straddling the border. Once, they even went back to Raqqa.
“Women must cover up, they cannot be without a veil,” Wazzam says. “All shops selling things the militants disapprove of are shut. All coffee shops are shut down.”
“What made us go back again is our homeland. It’s the land, it’s the place of our birth.”
What really made life difficult in Raqqa was the city’s plunge into poverty. “There was no work and my children were hungry,” Ayesha says. “We had no money to even buy a bag of bread. Death would have been easier.”
Just over a month ago, the family gave up and fled again. They piled their children, ranging in age from 18 months to 13 years, into a compact car and took off in search of safety in Turkey.
After a week on the road, they reached the gates of Suruc refugee camp, a sprawling compound in southern Turkey. They appeared dazed as they registered with Turkish authorities. Wazzam, Ayesha and the older children sat quietly and appeared exhausted while filling out paperwork. The younger children had more energy, playing and wandering around the hall.
Once inside their tent, surrounded by new mattresses, blankets, pots and pans, Ayesha looked more overwhelmed than relieved. She said she felt that her family was in limbo once again. But as long as they are together as a family, she added, the children will feel safe – even if their home is now a tent.
“Sometimes when the children sleep I just sit there, crying,” she says. “I think: ‘How did we end up here? What’s this situation we are in? Why have we been so humiliated?’ “
“I want to touch the Syrian soil. I want to taste it.”
The family are among more than 3.9 million Syrians who have registered as refugees in neighbouring countries.
Despite it all – the violence, the poverty, the lawlessness and the tyranny across the border – Wazzam and Ayesha say the pull of their homeland is still strong.
“I want to touch the Syrian soil,” Wazzam says. “I want to taste it.”