Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Nottingham via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme
The family I lost
My brother was a very educated kind of person: open minded, very friendly, and helpful to everyone. My sister loved the Arabic music and played the Oud which is like guitar. She also played the accordion and the clarinet.
Since a peaceful protest for democratic reform turned into Civil War, Syria has been decimated. According to Shelterbox.org, one in four schools have been damaged, half of the hospitals no longer function, and millions of hectares of farmland have been destroyed, forcing half of the population to flee their homes. Some have arrived in Nottingham via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme (VPRS). Others through sheer will and determination.
In this reflection, Maamon, the narrator of our comic, shares his memories of the three family members he lost in a short space of time during the Syrian Civil War.
My brother was a very educated kind of person: open minded, very friendly, and helpful to everyone. When he worked at an oil company in Yemen, he would call and ask if I knew anyone who was struggling for work. He used his position to help people. He was particularly keen to help single men who needed to save up money to provide for a future wife and family.
He loved music. I remember him spending long nights in his room practising the guitar until he reached a professional level. He started off by learning ‘Hotel California’. Then he learned songs by Fairuz (1934 -) who is a Lebanese woman who imitated the Western style. He wanted todo similar but in reverse – to learn a Western instrument, like the guitar, and play Arabic music so that it sounded unique. He was an incredible musician who could play everything from classical music to traditional Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi songs.
My wife Tahrir and I got married on 23 January 2011. We are cousins. All my team-mates came, and we cooked for everyone. It was a lovely day, although it rained for 15 minutes and we all got wet. The war started a few months later when the government opened fire at protesters.
My family is four brothers and three sisters. He was the eldest brother, and I the youngest brother. When our father left for work, he would take charge and allocate jobs for us to do: Check we have enough bread at home; do we have enough vegetables and fruit? Can you check the water? - because in our city we struggle to get water and so there needs to be enough for washing, cleaning, drinking - for everything. He was full of instructions, explaining, ‘Your father is not here now, so I am in charge.’ At the same time, he would show us how to do things.
When my mum’s health deteriorated due to cancer, she was bedridden. The cancer controlled her whole body, meaning she was unable to move. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t hear. It was very difficult. One day I left her alone for one hour, so I could play in the garden with my friends. My brother came home and found my mum crying in bed. He was furious. He came out and smacked me in front of my friends. He said, ‘Your mother is person number one to look after, not your friends’. I can’t forget this. I can’t forget this moment.
When my mother died he gave us all something to do so we were all involved. I can see now that this was his way of helping us to mourn together. To do one last thing for her. He asked me to go and buy the cloth that you use to wrap the body and he sent my other brother to printthe papers to announce her death. My father was unable to do anything. He was devastated. He just sat on the chair next to her body, crying. My brother took control. He did everything. In Syria, the body must be buriedwithin 24 hours, so he had to organise many things in a short time while my father was having a breakdown. My brother taught me many things, especially the importance of responsibility.
My brother lived in Yemen but moved back to Syrian when the Sa'dah Conflict (18 June 2004 – 16 September 2014) intensified around 2010. Then the war started in Syria too. He was shot in the head by a sniper ashe walked down the street.
My youngest sister
When my youngest sister Ria was born, everyone called her ‘little Maamon,’ because she looked like me. We were so close. I was the youngest brother; she was the youngest sister. Our mother spent about three years in bed struggling with cancer, so Ria was used to seeing her being still in bed. She died when Ria was about six and a half and Ria just kept sitting next to mum waiting for her to wake up. It hurts to remember this because she was so innocent and didn’t understand. I was worried she would think mum was ignoring her and that she had done something wrong. I was ten years older than her, so I said, let’s go out. We went to the shops then the playground. I used to be athletic, so I took her for a jog. I don’t know why.
Comic art panel from What is Coming
From that point onwards we became so close. When she finished school, she wanted to study music for two years, so I worked hard and paid her fees. She loved the Arabic music and played the Oud which is like guitar. She also played the accordion and the clarinet. I bought her these instruments. Music is important in my family.
She was a very delicate person. Whenever I returned home, the first thing I would do is say, where is Ria? And if I don’t see her in the living room, I know she is in her bedroom and that means someone has annoyed her. I was ready to cause any problem with the family who upset Ria because she is like my daughter.
In Syria we have this kind of shy culture where it is difficult to know if someone is in love with someone because they will not say their feelings loudly. When Ria found love she didn’t tell my dad or the other brothers and sisters, she only told me. We had a special place where we shared secrets together. She took me there and told me she loves some person and I said ok, that’s fine, can we meet. I arranged to meet him so I can check he is the good person. He was a really good one - a teacher of maths. They worked in the same school together and he loved her. Thenshe got this cancer, like our mother, when she was 19. We managed to do this operation for her, but the disease started to get back and then the problems started in Syria and she couldn’t get out of our city to Damascus to see the doctor.
Most of the people in Syria have this cancer case. Why? Because the government. It happened in the 1970s with the Russian nuclear experiments, what we call the waste of nuclear, they went to get rid of it and put it in some place like Palestine. They refuse. Iraq. They refused. And then the Syrian government, or rather the ministers who do the advising, like the vice president Abul Haleem Khaddam and his sons, they were paid to let the waste be buried near our city, Deir ez Zor. Everyone in Syria knows this but they can’t change it because if they say anything they will be arrested or killed. Now there is nuclear waste about 100km from our city in the desert and now the cancer is spreading.*
I was in Britain by the time Ria got engaged. We spoke all the time on the phone, and she told me her fiancé still wanted to get married even though she had terminal cancer. He was a very honest person. When she passed away, they were unable to bury her in the graveyard because it was outside of the city and the army had sieged the city. Instead they buried her in a neighbour’s garden.
My step mother
I was in the UK when my father met her, so I never met his second wife. But I talked to her on the phone. When things started getting worse in my city, my eldest brother, before he died, said that our sister would eventually die from the cancer and our father would remain in the city on his own. My brother explained that he could not stay with him because he needed to take his own family away as his wife was pregnant. So, he began the search for a new wife who could look after him.
In our culture, it didn’t matter that our father had been married before because our mother had died. So, remarriage is ok. But it was hard to find a woman who would accept a husband who is in a wheelchair and whose daughter is dying. Eventually my brother found this lady who was also a widow. Her husband had been in the government army. He was an honest person who said, ‘I love my people, why would I kill them?’ When he refused to shoot other people, they shot him. The lady had two children who were seven and five and so she needed security. My brother told her: live your life together, look after your kids and each other, find the happiness together. He agreed with her that if my father died and my sister died, she could keep the house.
Money is always a problem is Syria. Her own family were out of the city on the Iraq border, so they couldn’t support her. People were unable to move around due to different cities being controlled by different groups, so the financial security was very welcome.
When they had the marriage in 2012, I called my father and he sounded younger. This is the effect of a woman on the heart. My mother passed away in 1993 so my father was a lonely man for 19 years. I could tell the change straight away. He was speaking with some jokes on the telephone. He was a changed person. She cooked lots of different food for him every day, and I could feel he was alive again. But this only lasted for two months.
My brother was killed first and after 18 days my sister died. Then the army started killing all young people. I was told they killed about 325 young men on the same time. They just took them out of their houses and killed them. They were Irani militias. His wife was scared and so my father agreed she had to escape and so he arranged a good taxi driver for her. Usually the taxi drivers know the checkpoint people so they give them bribes and they let them escape. She took her children to Raqqa and went to stay with my other brother, who was a doctor. Then after twodays she said she wanted to take her children back to the family of her dead husband where it was safer and then she would return back to my father. She was successful in getting her children to the grandmother’s house but on the way back she was killed by a rocket.
My father cried on the phone and said I don’t have my children with me and now I do not have my wife.
She was a funny person and very friendly on the phone. She told me about all of the different food she was making my dad and how he loved his belly. She was what we call a hard-working wife. She loved to keep her house tidy and clean. She would get annoyed when my father forgot to put his clothes back in the right place in the wardrobe. I would explain to her ok, he is 75 years old. He lived without a woman for a long time and has forgot many things. She felt like she was trying to organise and help his life. This is how you show love.
During the final moments of my sister’s life, she called me and asked what to do with the body because in Islam only a woman can wash another woman and wrap the body in the cloth. But she hadn’t done this before and did not know what to recite from the Koran. And I said give me two seconds, so I called a friend who is well educated in Islamic issues and he told me what to do and I told her over the phone. When I had finished she said thank you, you have helped me to handle the situation but I will ask you, and I remember the question, do you have a heart? You are telling me how to wash your dead sister and you never cry on the phone. And this time I did cry. Then I said, how can I cry when I am trying to help you? It is different use of the heart and I love my baby Ria. She is my sister. My daughter.
And then my step mother died a few days later by the rocket. I found out on Facebook. There is a page where they put up the names. They tell you their age, when they were killed, how they were killed. Like all Syrians, I check this page every day.
Maamon spoke to James Walker over a two year period between 2016 – 2018 due to the traumatic nature of his recollections.
* Accounts of nuclear waste being buried near the city of Deir ez-Zor are difficult to prove and may be related to Israeli news reports. 'On 28 June 2006 The Jerusalem Post reported that Syria had accused Israel of using the Golan Heights as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. However, in 1999 the International Atomic Energy Agency approved a project to assist Syria in establishing radioactive waste management technology and infrastructure at Der Al-Hadjar. Syria's Department of Radiation and Nuclear Safety and the Radiation Protection Division also contributed to this project, which concluded in 2007. On 6 September 2007, Israel destroyed a facility near Deir Al-Zour (the Al-Kibar facility). U.S. and Israeli intelligence claim it would have been capable of producing enough plutonium for one or two weapons per year'. (Source: www.nti.org)
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