Picturesque landscapes of Syria are traumatic scenes from refugee’s memory

By Dr. Abdul Mannan, April 2019

Imagine the fields, meadows, and woodlands or whatever 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 violence and devastation, people being massacred with no consideration for man, woman or child. Relentless killing. Sounds like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie, right?

Unfortunately, this is all too real for a wonderful man that I met at a medical mission in #Lebanon. Hakeem Raheem is from an affluent family who, for generations, were involved in farming and livestock wholesale. The youngest of four brothers, Hakeem ventured away from the family business, having others look after his family interests. Hakeem graduated as a teacher from Damascus 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.

Hakeem’s family were hoping to ride out the storm. They lived in the country and surely the peace of his village would be immune to the troubles in the city. However, as time would bear witness, they could not be further from reality. He recalls the moment clearly when deafening jolts and fizz of artillery, bombs, and shells started falling all around his home in 2012. Hakeem escaped with his brothers, their wives, and children. His mother and father were in their 80s and too frail to travel, they kissed their children goodbye. They died within a few months from what Hakeem believes were broken hearts. As his eyes glaze and tears start 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, sitting 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 Turkish Haribos, the Halal ones! Hakeem calms down and begins to smile. He resumes the story about his journey from #Syria.

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 he could recall in detail.

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 stream 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. 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 – 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, 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 serves little to soothe his memories, his nightmares, his broken life.

News reaches them later that their village had been flattened completely by Assad’s forces, there is 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 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 or charity. He is a qualified teacher with great entrepreneurial abilities, 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 he and his wife, also a teacher working shifts for a local charity group on top of looking after their children. They do long hours just to buy food and pay rent. Life is tough as they are scrapping the barrel.

Hakeem is a most remarkable man, he typifies human resilience and endeavor. In the most desperate times of his life, he is stubborn in maintaining self-reliance, 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. These stories make me reflect deeply on life. Where have I come from, where am I now, and where am I going? What is life about? I don’t have the answers but I do know that you and I need to see, hear, and be with refugees. They are not just numbers, not just ‘refugees’. Like you and I, 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.

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