Syrians in Serbia Looking for a New Home
I sat in the middle of the makeshift refugee camp for an hour and a half, just watching. Thinking of ways I could start a conversation. I was in Belgrade’s city center, in the park between the train and bus stations, but I could have been in a third world country among the war-displaced. The migrants here move on after a day or two and are fleeing some of the worst conditions, so I thought it would seem odd to walk up to a stranger and say hi. They might even get suspicious. So I waited.
Ahmad darted across the park every time a dog came by, a huge smile on his face. He would first reach out his hand to allow the dog to smell him and if it accepted, he gave the animal a pat on the head. He would start a conversation with the pet owner, asking about the name and habits of their pet. After watching this go on for over an hour, I knew he was the one I wanted to talk to. When I approach him, he was petting a blondish lap dog.
"You love dogs,” I tell him in Arabic.
"Yes, so much. I love dogs."
"I'm Anisa, what's your name?"
"Where are you from Ahmad? "
"From Syria," he said and then continued petting the dog.
"From where in Syria?"
"Idlib, the city," he makes eye contact with every reply. “Back home in Syria, I had five dogs,” he says with enthusiasm, holding up five fingers.
I notice a woman watching us, so I go over and introduce myself. Her name is Rouqayah, Ahmad’s mother. She seems to be hearing impaired because Ahmad repeats everything I say for her. She tells me the three of them will leave for Germany tomorrow, in sha Allah, God willing, she and her two sons.
I suddenly find myself surrounded by a group of people eager to speak to me. One man, also named Ahmed, asks if I know where a halal restaurant is. The road must have been hard and he wants to take his wife and children out to eat. I find his question endearing.
Um Abdurrahman hangs in the back, but I see she wants to talk. Dressed in a black coat dress typically worn by Syrian women and head covered in a black cotton hijab, Muslim head covering, I greet her and we kiss each other’s cheeks. She and her family arrived in Belgrade the night before.
She, her husband and two children are on their way to Germany to reunite with four of her children already there. Mother of eight, she leaves behind two adult children with families of their own. When will they return to Ghouta in the Damascus countryside again? The future is uncertain. That is the one constant for everyone, the uncertainty.
When I heard Um Abdurrahman is from Ghouta, I take out my phone to show her Abu Al Foz’s artwork. He is an artist from the same area. He turns munitions into beautiful bejeweled works of art. She looked at it and says, "Yes, they drop many bombs on us every day. “ She looks tired; she hasn’t given up, but you can see in her eyes she’s holding on.
People ask if I know how life in Germany and Sweden are, and do I think it will be a good place for them? I reply, “in sha Allah,” because anything has to be better than what they left. However, what everyone wants to know is how to get to America. Images of Rita Moreno in Westside Story float through my mind. America, the promise land. I know Syrians that made it to the U.S. Most aren’t doing well, not for lack of trying, but because of a lack of material and psychological support.
I’m not an immigrant or the child of an immigrant, or even the grandchild of an immigrant. I don’t know how it feels, but I have started over. I have felt loss and bitter disappointment in my life. I have also felt alone. So I can understand their human experience at some level.
* * *
Back in California where I first met Salma, fresh
from Damascus, she was escaping from home because the Syrian government was looking for her. She never traveled farther than her home city, but here she was, in the US, alone and without support. Mahmoud, Ahmad, Hazen, Ziyad and Yaman, they all have similar stories and are trying to start over, but it’s the guilt. It’s the loss that prevents them from enjoying their new home, while their families continue to suffer. A Syrian-Christian family of five, who wish to remain anonymous, literally relied on the kindness of strangers. The police picked them up and called the organization I work for to seek assistance for them.
The father, a man fascinated by our large parking structures and diversity, is certain his family is going to do well here, but still thinks about home. I’m also proud of my country’s diversity and how we all manage to coexist. Yet, there is no going home for me. This is home and I can’t imagine ever being force to leave it.
U.S. immigration policy towards Syrians makes it almost impossible for them to come here as refugees and if you are not a refugee, you have minimal to no support. It still takes over a year to bring an ailing mother, father or spouse. It is not only a fear of ISIS that brought greater restrictions; there is no clear policy. Now ISIS is being used as the reason, even though there is no evidence that the Syrian people support ISIS in anyway. They only have the misfortune of be invaded by them, insult added to injury.
* * *
Leela invited me for a late afternoon meal in her Belgrade apartment. She is an elegant and mature Serbian woman who holds herself with an air of confidence. Her warmth is felt though out her home and the décor reflects her interest in world cultures. She just returned home from a political meeting about government reform. She holds out an arm-full of papers for me to see, proud of her work to help improve her country.
We sit down and she is curious about the US political milieu. We chat about that for a while. Then we get down to the reason I’m there. She lives in the same building as Hostel Aleppo and she’s concerned about the refugees.
She tells me about a family she and her friend met in the park one day.
"In May, Oliva and I saw an Afghani family in a park near here. There was a mother, father and two small children. They were standing under a mulberry tree and the father was collecting the berries in his shirt. We went and asked him if they would like us to buy them cherries, strawberries and other fruit.
The father said no. He said that in the courtyard of their house they have the same tree and the fruit on it must be ripe now too. He said the children love to eat them and it makes them happy to eat this fruit and remember home. Then we all cried."
I can't imagine being forced to leave home. The place where I learned to walk, where I grew up. The place I had my first kiss. Home, where the memory of hotdogs on 4th of July makes me smile. As a child when I traveled the sight of my country’s flag brought me comfort. Even a McDonald's, a place I refuse to eat at, brings a flood of memories, of home. My country, a place my ancestors bleed for and bled on. Home, more nostalgia than a physical place. I can't imagine leaving, but if I did, I hope there is a country as good as this, to welcome me, home.
Photo Credit: Anisa Abeytia and Bassam Al Hakeem
Anisa Abeytia: MA, MS, USC and Stanford, is the California Director for the Syrian American Council.