His fingers tremble slightly as he hastily stubs out his fifth cigarette of the morning, his free hand rolling down the sleeves of the navy-blue jumper he had hurriedly donned on a few days earlier in Syria. Spring is still a distant dream as my family and I huddle inside my grandmother’s cold living room, the scent of post-breakfast Turkish coffee battling to strangle the stench of tobacco that clings to almost everything.
My grandmother watches the husband of her first cousin’s daughter carefully — his physical appearance showing the exhaustion that came with arriving in Egypt a few hours earlier — as silence drapes over the room like a heavy curtain before the showing of a play. She remembers last seeing her female cousin when she was a child in Syria leaving for Egypt, her cousin’s family choosing to stay behind. Never did they imagine she would be joining them in Egypt eight decades later, forcibly leaving Syria on her crutches, accompanied by her middle-aged daughter and husband Majed, with two children in tow. “We won’t leave Syria until we are forced to,” she would tell them. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” It wasn’t long after that they had to flee.
With the only startling noises drifting into the living room coming from perfectly harmless car honking and wheels screeching to a halt, Majed recalls how different life in Cairo is to live in Homs. Their home, only a mere few hundred meters from Baba Amr, meant the only sounds the family heard were the bombs that were dropped, continuous gunshots fired too close for comfort, chaotic shouting from men, and high-pitched wails from frightened women and children.
Majed’s tired Syrian dialect fills the room like a sad birdsong as he recalls being trapped in his own home for weeks at a time, not able to restock his dwindling supply of food and water. “And then it got worse,” he says, shaking his head at the memory whilst taking a sip of his coffee. “I received news that my entire office building had been taken over by the army”. In a prime location in Homs, the Syrian army had forcibly turned his building into their headquarters. “They barged in and shot my security guard, his wife, and two young children,” he angrily tells us, his voice quavering. “This is when I knew we had to leave; it was only going to get worse.”
Not only did Majed and his family have to endure the terrifying street battles, the air strikes, the shortage of water and food, the freezing winter with little electricity to keep them warm; they also had to deal with daily interrogations from soldiers searching for resistance fighters taking refuge in civilian homes. They’d bang on the door at all hours, tipping the house upside down, taking the family’s weapons and anything else they felt like. “I still have siblings in Homs who couldn’t escape with us,” he smiles sadly. “They don’t have the means to make it to Egypt, so they’ll be attempting to travel to a city in Syria that doesn’t have any fighting. It’s too unbearable to stay in Homs.”
When he came to leave Syria, Majed couldn’t cash out his money from the bank. He felt a growing anger towards “the Arab and Western world for not doing anything concrete to stop the massacre” as he watched young men and children die in the streets, crimson blood staining the once grey roads. His family packed light, with only the cash they had promising to take them to Cairo where their relatives lived. It was a dangerous trip, but Majed knew the right people to help them escape under the cover of darkness. For Majed’s family, Egypt was a distant lighthouse, its lamp shining a beacon of hope, offering them refugee from the horrors of Homs.
Weeks later we find Majed and his nine-year-old son walking around the neighborhood during a cold winter’s evening. Offering them a lift home, Majed shakes his head, “We’ve been cooped up in our house in Homs for months,” he tries to make us understand. “We enjoy taking long walks; it’s freeing; it’s therapeutic.” It’s clear from the sadness in his eyes that there are many memories that Majed can’t bring himself to share with his relatives; memories that he will keep locked away until he can find a way to put them into words.
Although the family has settled in Cairo, their Egyptian-Syrian cousin insisting to pay the expensive rent, they are unsure of what the future holds. A rich businessman, Majed is now counting the money he has left, while their daughter had her final year in middle school cut short. “I’m not sure where I’ll have my exams, but it’s not like I’ve been studying,” she smiles, relieved, like any normal young girl, that she doesn’t have to go to school, but worried that she’ll have to re-take the entire year. Though they put on a brave face, Majed’s wife and children look traumatized, having their private moments to grieve for the homeland they feel they have lost.
Asked whether they’d ever go back to Syria, they look at each other, unsure. “There’s nothing like home,” Majed’s wife tells us. “But if the war ever ends, will there be a home left for us?”
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