Imagine the Fields, the Meadows, the Woodlands or what natural habitat you may pass through as you drive out of town on your way to work every day. Imagine one day these very Meadows are the scene of devastation, people massacring each other from both sides, mindless zombies fueled with rage and hatred, no consideration for mankind, man, woman or children. Killing relentlessly. Some scene out of an apocalyptic movie right?
Well, this, unfortunately, came real for this wonderful man I would like to mention tonight. Hakeem Raheem heralds from a well off family, generations of his family were involved in farming and livestock wholesaling. Youngest of four brothers, Hakeem ventured away from the family business with having three others looking after family interests. Hakeem graduated as a teacher from Damscus University in 2011. He had a bright career ahead of him, life was going well. Things were about to change however, the Syrian revolution was building steam.
Hakeems family were hoping to ride out the storm. They lived in the country, surely the peace of his village would be immune to the troubles in the city. As time would bear witness, they couldn’t be further from the reality about to hit them. He recalls the moment clearly when deafening jolts and fizz of artillery, bombs and shells started falling all around his home sometime in 2012. Hakeem escaped with his brothers, their wives and children. His mother and father were in their 80s, too frail to travel, they kissed their children goodbye. They died shortly after within a few months from what Hakeem believes was from broken hearts, his eyes are glazing, tears are forming. We decide to take a break.
Gummy bears are a great conversation starter, I offer some to Hakeem as he seems deep in his thoughts sat on his own outside the clinic. As he munches on the gummies, he almost chokes when I tell him they were ‘Haram’! I make him laugh as I explain they are the Turkish Haribos, the Halal ones! Hakeem calms down and begins to smile. Time to ensue part two of our conversation.
A few days here and a few days there, these people who once lived a content life with a full complement of staff to attend to all their needs found themselves hiding and slipping between farms, barns and sometimes animal sheds, all the time trying to find safety beyond the Mountains into Lebanon. Hakeem cannot recall how many close encounters they had but one day one such skirmish was one too many and sadly came at a major blow. As they drove in a small convoy of cars, bullets and shells rained down around them. The convoy sped out into the meadows in the hope of escaping into the next village. Hakeem remembers seeing a flash ahead of his car, the trailer in front of him falls under a steam of bullets. The vehicle comes to a standstill. The drill is not to stop, the remaining vehicles must continue without stopping to rescue survivors. If you stop, the same fate may find you also. The remaining vehicles did get to safety except for the trailer and all that rode within.
Hakeem and his family knew the devastation that had consumed them, shell shocked and miserable, they couldn’t get back to the trailer for two whole days, *that’s two days! When they did, they were able to collect the bullet ridden bodies of their loved ones, one was the body of his brother.
The beautiful meadows, the hills and nature of Syria are scenes in Hakeem’s nightmares these days. Even now, Hakeem prefers the middle seat in the van as I noticed on our way to the camp. He cannot face looking out of the car anymore, the picturesque landscape of Lebanon serve little to sooth his memories, his nightmares, his broken life.
News reached later that their village had been flattened completely by Assad’s forces, there was no turning back now. Hakeem and the remaining members of his family reached Lebanon safely in 2014.
Whilst safe from Assad’s brutal oppression in Lebanon, Hakeem and his family struggle on a daily basis. They do not get any support from anyone as they refuse to live in the refugee camps. Like so many Syrian refugees hailing from well off and educated families, they are proud and self sufficient people. Hakeem reminds me how he and his family only knew how to give (zakat, sadaqa, charity) and never had reason to receive aid nor charity. He is a qualified teacher with great entrepreneurial ability but he feels handcuffed and noosed here, he cannot work legally and cannot even have a bank account. He still refuses external help and instead both he and his wife, also a teacher work shifts for a local charity group in between looking after their children. They do long hours just to buy food and pay rent. Life is tough, scraping the barrel time.
Hakeem is a most remarkable man, he typifies human resilience and endeavour. In the most desperate times of his life he is stubborn in maintaining ‘self-relience’, ‘self-worth’ and ‘servitude to God’. This triad of quality in a person is the most powerful expression of ‘Dignity’.
My heart feels heavy when I speak to refugees like Hakeem. Sometimes I kick myself for even coming across these stories. Not sure why but I seem to attract so many of these stories when I’m working with these people. Perhaps they just want someone to talk to, perhaps I’m a nosey bugger, I just don’t know.
On a personal level I must admit, these stories make me reflect a lot on life. Where have I come from, where am I and where am I going? What’s life about? I don’t have the answers but I do know that me and you need to see, hear and be with these refugees. They are not just numbers, not ‘refugees’. Like you and me, they are people, fellow mankind who need us to stand up for them in whatever capacity we can.
God bless Hakeem, God bless Syria & God bless Humanity.
‘Reflections of Dignity’
Multi Aid Programs – MAPS
##Name, details changed for Data Protection.