Children of Syria

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Marcel Mettelsiefen


Stephen Ellis

Aleppo 2013


INTERVIEWER: Do you love Syria?

SARA, 4: Yes.


SARA: You mean this much or that much? This much. I love the little children. I love the kids that play with me. What I love most is my mother and father, only my mother and father.

NARRATOR: Sara lives with her three siblings, her sisters, Helen and Farah, and brother Mohammed. They live with their parents here in this middle class suburb that’s now a front line in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. It’s 2013. Some 200,000 residents have fled the brutal fighting.


HELEN, 10: We are in an area called Seif-al-Dawle. These houses— these houses were abandoned a year ago. This is where the army is stationed. It’s right next to us. So there’s not much distance between us and the army, just a wall this big. There’s hardly anything. So we’re here, and at any moment, the Syrian army could attack us.

SARA: When a shell fell here, I died. When they threw the missile on that house there, I died one big death. I died and then lived again.

Once someone shot rockets and one got stuck inside a stone. It exploded and shrapnel went everywhere.

Mister, how much longer until we finish? This long?

NARRATOR: The children’s father, Abu Ali, used to be an engineer. When the war began, he was one of the first to join the rebel group, the Free Syrian Army.

HELEN: [subtitles] See my dad. He my dad. This is my father a long time ago, when he was young.

NARRATOR: He controls a battalion of fighters. They hold a strategic position on a hill overlooking the old citadel of Aleppo.

INTERVIEWER: Is Dad a leader or what?

SARA: A leader.

INTERVIEWER: A leader of what?

SARA: A leader of the entire front.


MOHAMMED, 12: We decided not to leave our dad, not to leave him, but to stay with him by his side, to resist with him. Whatever happens to the men or to my father happens to us, too.

ABU ALI: [gunfire] Take them inside because of the firing. Come on!

HELEN: Dad, are they firing here?

ABU ALI: It’s OK. Come down! Come down!

[transferring munitions] Just these two, what they asked for. Be careful with this. It lights up from here.

INTERVIEWER: What do you like to do most here?

FARAH: The most is to go and help my father. I stay with my father in his office, go down with him and make bombs and pick up the shrapnel for him. Then he makes them.

I collect red ribbons for him, so he can put them— so he can light them. When all the ribbon lights up, the bomb explodes.

HELEN: Look at me! We will study mathematics now.

NARRATOR: Many schools in Aleppo have been destroyed or closed. Helen gives lessons to her sisters and their friends.

HELEN: When I’m teaching, I don’t want to hear a sound. I want complete silence. I’m trying not to shout, but— it’s all well and good. Qusay, stay there, but don’t make a sound.

Come on, Dad. Please, nobody approach me during class. Dad. Dad. The folks— Dad, none of your men are allowed to come here now. It is forbidden.

HALA: They want to stay with their dad. I tried leaving with them for two months, and I suffered a lot with them because they wanted their dad.

In the beginning, I would stay at home in case someone got injured. I would put the kids in one room, but they couldn’t sleep. I gave them a lot of cough syrup so they wouldn’t notice anything. But when the shelling got heavier, I would tell them it was fireworks. They love them a lot. I’d say those things, but then I couldn’t lie any longer.

Abu Ali is at the very heart of our lives, at the center of our attention. He’s our reference, and he’s everything in our life.

NARRATOR: Mohammed sneaks through the front line to explore his friend’s home that’s been almost totally destroyed by shelling.


MOHAMMED: The sheets act as blinds so the snipers don’t strike. Someone will walk into a sniper zone without knowing, and then while he’s walking, he’s shot.

FRIEND: Look what happened to our house. I was born here.


FRIEND: Here. I was born here.

MOHAMMED: Human beings have become cheap. They cost one dollar. If I get hold of Bashar al Assad, I’ll turn into Hitler. I want to torture him. I don’t want to kill him, but to torture him. I want him to have a taste of what he’s done to us, the bitterness of the torture we’ve endured.

I’m surprised that the chandelier didn’t fall with the rocket.

FARAH: One day, my two cousins and I, we were walking and my cousin was in front of us. The army surrounded us.

[loud noise] That was close by! It didn’t explode. It didn’t explode. That was a missile. No, a projectile from a tank, but it didn’t explode.

NARRATOR: In parts, the city has become a ghost town. The girls go exploring in abandoned homes.


FARAH: Maybe I’ll find a rifle or something.

SARA: [finding toys] Look Mister, look! Wow! They are like my bear. They’re so lovely. We won’t take any of them. And we won’t take any of these. Let’s go. That’s enough. Can someone help me carry these? Farah, can you carry that ball and that bear? Put them in a bag. We’ll only take these. Look at them! Only these, OK?

HELEN: You shouldn’t do this. It’s wrong.

SARA: I’ll give them back to them.

HELEN: No you shouldn’t take them. It’s shameful. It’s wrong.

SARA: But they are really pretty, aren’t they? Let’s go. We’re finished. You and I can go downstairs on our own.

HELEN: No, no. No, it’s wrong. These are the people’s things.

SARA: But should we hide them from the sniper? Shouldn’t we hide them in our house?

HELEN: No, we shouldn’t.

SARA: Look at these! She got these from people’s houses!

MALE RELATIVE: No, we got them from the library.

SARA: Those are from people’s houses!

MALE RELATIVE: No, darling, honestly.

SARA: No, they are from other people’s houses!

MALE RELATIVE: Look, look!

SARA: But you’re taking things from houses! You just got some coffee kettles. They were from other people’s houses!

MALE RELATIVE: Darling, we got them from your other house.




MALE RELATIVE: No, no, darling. It’s not right.

SARA: All these are from people’s houses!

MALE RELATIVE: Look, when you want a toy, we’ll go and buy you a toy.

SARA: No! Where’s that outfit you said you’d give me?

MALE RELATIVE: I’ll give it to you soon, my sweetheart. You shouldn’t say that. You know we’re not taking anything from people’s houses.

SARA: Well, that’s it! I don’t want anything!

ABU ALI: [to fighters] You have to fire from the other window.

HELEN: We’re resisting with my father to the death. Either we die or we’ll be victorious, God willing. I have my family here with me. My siblings are here with me. We aren’t scared because we’re with our father.

We die with our father. We live with our father. We’re victorious with our father. We eat and drink with our father. Why should we leave him?

FARAH: She’s got fever.

ABU ALI: Where does she feel hot?

FARAH: Her face.

ABU ALI: [with wet cloth] Is that better?

I am tired and this[indicates an old wound] is burning a lot. We had an operation today.

My and I wife couldn’t conceive for eight years. We suffered for eight years. We went to doctors all over Syria, all over the Arab world, and we even sent tests to Europe. We stayed eight years without children.

After eight years of patience, God granted us with children.

God gave us Hammoudi [Mohammed]. That’s why they’re special.

I’m responsible for destroying my children’s future right now. I have sacrificed my children for the revolution, possibly with their lives. Here they could get killed at any moment by the shelling or by flying bullets. And the I also sacrificed their future education. So they have been wronged greatly.

I hope this will count. It’s all a sacrifice for the revolution.

One year later, 2014

HALA: [during bombardment] They got the ambulance! Don’t be scared. Please don’t be scared. Nothing happened, my dear.

Enough, enough! Enough!

You didn’t used to get so scared. What’s wrong with you? Come on. Get up and take your medicine. Stop crying!

An aircraft is coming! Come here. Come here. It’s here. Farah, come next to me.

FARAH: My tummy hurts!

NARRATOR: In the space of a year, life in Aleppo has grown increasingly desperate. Islamic extremists have taken over parts of the city. And before Christmas, in the middle of the night, the family says ISIS fighters kidnapped Abu Ali They haven’t seen him since.

INTERVIEWER: Where is your father?



FARAH: [shrugs] They just appeared suddenly.

HALA: When ISIS came to take him, he was down at his headquarters. And I heard shots being fired. They covered his face like this. They were kicking him and beating him. When I tried to come closer, they threatened to shoot me, to shoot me and my children. I couldn’t see him. They took him right in front of me, promising to slaughter him, and I couldn’t do anything. That’s the last time I saw him.

HELEN: I’m not scared of anything anymore. There’s no need to be scared of anything because there’s nothing left in our lives. Sometimes I get a moment of hope that my father is coming back. And sometimes I lose hope that my father is ever coming back. Then I cry a lot.

My brain sometimes tell me this, and then something else. And my conscience tortures me. I don’t know what’s happening to me. We suffered a lot, a lot.

SARA: Farah is here. Move. I’ll let her in. How are you, my sister? Really, sister, I will slaughter you! Sit on the floor, sister!

FAMILY MEMBER: Lay her down and slaughter her.

SARA: I’m an ISIS girl.

HALA: If your dad knew you were playing ISIS, he’d kill you. He wouldn’t know it was you, Sara.

FARAH: Get a knife and start!


FAMILY MEMBER: This isn’t good.

FARAH: Do this from my eyes and do this. [gestures throat cutting]

FAMILY MEMBER: This isn’t good, right?

FARAH: Come on! Or you could put me in a cage and set it on fire.

HALA: Daesh [ISIS]— the ugliest word I’ve ever heard in my life. These people have stolen our entire lives.

SARA: [kicking Farah] You killed a member of ISIS!

HALA: This is not religion. This is not our religion. They have deformed the image of our religion in front of the whole world. Our country has been destroyed. Everything good has gone, everything. So I’ve decided to leave.

NARRATOR: Hala has heard that she might be able to get asylum in Germany, which has announced it will take 20,000 Syrian refugees.

FARAH: How do you spell Germany?

SARA: A-L, and A and l-a-m—

I don’t really know how to draw an airplane.

INTERVIEWER: What will you do in Germany?

SARA: I’ll play. What else would I do? What will I do? I’ll just stay at home.

INTERVIEWER: You’ll study.

SARA: I’ll meet people because I don’t know how to speak French.

INTERVIEWER: Why did you do this drawing?

SARA: So that Dad sees it and comes to us in Germany.

NARRATOR: Tomorrow, the family will leave Aleppo. Abu Ali’s mother is too old to make the dangerous trip. She is staying behind with other relatives.

MUSTAFFAH, Abu Ali’s Brother: Your blood, God willing, will be protected by God. And God will bring you success.

FAMILY MEMBER: Relax and laugh, and let us remember you when you are happy.

FAMILY MEMBER: Yes, Grandma. Don’t make us feel guilty.

HALA: We can come back. We’ll have a passport like anyone else.

MUSTAFFAH: Within six months, they’ll have a passport and they can come whenever they want. In three months, they can come to Turkey and ask for you. And we’ll see them.

FAMILY MEMBER: God willing, you will smell him soon. God willing, you will hold him in your hands and smell him.

HALA: [to grandmother] Don’t cry. Please don’t break my heart. Imagine that we’re going away to the country for a few days and then we’ll be back. I swear we’ll see you again, God willing. Just take care of yourself so that we can see each other again.

GRANDMOTHER: God be with you. Oh, God! What will I do with myself?

HELEN: Hammoudi! Farah! Get up, Sara, Hammoudi! Farah and Sara, get up!

SARA: Can I take the toys with me?

NARRATOR: Hala has hired a driver to take her and the children to the Turkish border. The only way out of the city is a treacherous road through areas controlled by ISIS or the regime.

HALA: Come on!

MOHAMMED: I’ll miss going to the playground every day with my cousins. I’ll even miss eating with my sisters. I’ll miss my life in Aleppo when the electricity and water turn on and off. I’ll miss my school and my friends so much.

Good-bye, Aleppo. Good-bye to my school, my friends, my cousins, my grandma. I will miss you so very much.

SARA: We love you Syria. Forgive us. I took a piece of my heart and put it on the door of our house for him, for Daddy.

NARRATOR: After a three-hour drive, the family arrives at a refugee camp on the border.

By January 2015, more than one-and-a-half million Syrians have fled to camps like this, and there’s hardly any room for newcomers.

SISTER: There are rats here!

SISTER: Really?

SARA: You feel that people are frozen, walking around like this, walking like this on the ground. And when you step on the ground, what happens? Your boots sink.

I felt so sad. How am I going to leave my friends and travel? If Dad returns, Mom said we’ll go back.

HALA: Sometimes I envy the dead because they’ve finally found somewhere to settle down. Even though it’s in a grave, at least they’re no longer thinking about where to live.

NARRATOR: After two days in the camp, Hala and the children cross the border into Turkey. Their life as refugees has begun. They are heading to Istanbul, where they will apply for asylum at the German consulate. Hala has used her savings to take a mini-bus across Turkey.

HALA: For a while, my husband and I forgot the children and we gave our attention to the revolution, the fighters and the people. But my children also have the right to get something from me.

These children, if we give them a future, they will benefit their homeland. They will rebuild it.

HELEN: [playing on the beach] I am not afraid! I am a champion!

We’re now in Turkey, playing in the sea. We’re not afraid of death. We’re very happy because we’re having fun. This scene reminds us of our lives, reminds us of Syria, reminds us our country’s sea. And here, now, we’re not swimming, we’re dreaming. The waves are eating us as if they miss us. Now we’re going to play.

NARRATOR: It’s February 2015. The family is staying with a relative in Istanbul. They’ve been waiting to see if their application for asylum in Germany will be accepted.

HELEN: [airplane overheard, Sara screams]_ Why were you scared of it, Sara?

SARA: It sounds like it’s going to shell us.

HELEN: So you’re scared of it dropping bombs? It doesn’t have bombs. Are there bombs in Germany?

SARA: No, never! And there are no planes, only pink ones.

HALA: Throughout the 21 years of marriage, for Abu Ali and me, coffee in the morning was sacred. If one day he woke up and went to work without us having coffee together, I’d call him and tell him to come back. I’d get the coffee ready and we’d drink it. And now I make coffee for both of us and drink it.

Even Sara knows I get her father’s photo up and sit. And if she makes me coffee, she brings two cups. Sometimes I talk to him in the morning while drinking coffee. Once one of my daughters woke up thinking her father had returned because she heard me talking to him.

See why this phone is so dear? It has everything. [showing pictures on the phone] All my family, all my world is here. That’s why I’m always holding it. I’m holding onto it like I’m holding onto an address of my own, to family. This metal device has become my whole world.

March 2015

NARRATOR: After three months in Turkey, Hala and the children have some good news. They’ve been granted asylum. With refugee passports, they can now travel safely and legally to Germany. They will be supported financially and given a home in an historic mountain town called Goslar.

GOSLAR VIDEO: Good evening, my friends, from the city of Goslar. I have very good news for the refugees. You’ve heard a lot before about a city with many elderly residents and that they want new refugees because the citizens are aging and dying.

MOHAMMED: This town looks so pretty and calm. Mom! Come, come! How pretty Goslar is!

GOSLAR VIDEO: Every day, an elderly person dies. In a matter of days, its population will be in the dozens.

SISTER: That’s a bell.

GOSLAR VIDEO: They will give 350 euros monthly per person and an apartment and furniture.

HELEN: We have neighbors who have relatives in Germany. Our neighbor told us that in Germany, they love Syrians. I want to go to a school to speak German to my friends. This is what I want, to be a German.

NARRATOR: Compared to most Syrian refugees, Hala and the children are lucky. With their refugee passports, they don’t have to pay smugglers to get into Europe and they can afford the flight from Istanbul to Germany.

SARA: I’ve never got on a plane, but I tell myself— I talk to myself and say, what if a rocket hit it? Then I say, what if it fell down? I’m scared that it’ll get shelled while we’re in it. I’m scared of that.

HALA: I fear so much that I won’t be able to see my country again. I know that I’m going to have a better life. And I hope there will be better people.

FARAH: Do you know what Germany looks like? It looks like Syria a long time ago.

SISTER: That’s right. What’s nice about Germany is—

HALA: This is a small town. You can’t talk about Germany in general.

The only thing I fear is religious intolerance. People say that here, Muslims are seen as terrorists. Let’s be honest about it. This frightens me. If I feel this happening, I may be forced to return. This is the only fear I have.

MOHAMMED: We’re now in Goslar!

HALA: Welcome. There isn’t a single shelled house.

MOHAMMED: Now we’ve arrived!

HALA: It smells like soap.

SARA: This room is nice.

FARAH: Is this a room or the whole thing?

SARA: We’re not leaving this house. This house is very nice. What’s there?

FARAH: There are two million beds upstairs.

HELEN: The house is lovely and we’ll go to school and everything. It’s safe and we won’t be afraid anymore. When we first came here this morning, the birds were saying. “Welcome to Germany.” They’re talking strangely. I think they might be happy. They’re happy we’re here in Germany.

HELEN: [exploring the town] Good, there’s no one laughing in our face.

SARA: All the people here got old and died.


SARA: Yes. They are under threat. Extinction. Like dinosaurs. Dinosaurs!

MOHAMMED: Come on, let’s say morning prayers, the prayer for when you go to a new place.

NARRATOR: Hala and the children have been in their new home in Goslar for two weeks. The family is given 1,900 euros, around $2,200, per month, and free health care and education.

HELEN: Hammoudi, I feel foolish.


HELEN: I don’t know.

NARRATOR: This is the first day of school for Helen and Mohammed.

MOHAMMED: Come here. We need to hurry. Come on. Come on! Helen, what are you waiting for here? Your nerves! They’ve opened the door. Come on!

HELEN: I don’t want to.


[in English]

GERMAN SCHOOL TEACHER: These are the four classes, and here is your classroom.


TEACHER: Come on in.

HELEN: It’s beautiful.

TEACHER: OK, don’t be afraid. Everything’s fine. They’re all very nice, I promise.


HELEN: When I first went through the door, the feeling was indescribable. I was scared they would criticize me and that no one would like me because of my hijab. But when I first walked in, they had written “Welcome to Germany” on the blackboard.

TEACHER: Mein name ist Helen.

HELEN: Mein name ist Helen.

TEACHER: Ich heisse Helen.

HELEN: Ich heisse Helen.

[in English]

MOHAMMED: [to school children] In Syria, we run out from the school. The school is like prison, big, big, big wall around the school. And we make this— OK, 1,2,3, and jump!

SCHOOLGIRL: She loves your shoes!

HELEN: A-ha!

MOHAMMED: I love the school more and more and more. I have three monkey sisters. I don’t have any brothers, three monkey sisters. They always jump on me. Wow. They always punch me, pow! Give me your phone! No. Pow, pow!


MOHAMMED: I didn’t expect to make friends on the first day. I swear.

HELEN: We don’t need to write in Arabic anymore.


HELEN: Only when we learn German—

MOHAMMED: No, don’t forget at the mosque.

HELEN: I’m not enrolling at the mosque.


HELEN: Mom will think I’m an infidel. Let her think that.

January 2016

NARRATOR: The family have now been in their new home for six months. But since they arrived, the mood in Germany has started to shift against refugees like them. Far-right groups are protesting against so many Muslims coming to Europe. More than a half million Syrians fled to Germany in 2015, and the country is struggling to cope with the thousands arriving every day.

MOHAMMED: [at refugee center] Hello. Are you new Arabs?

NARRATOR: Most refugees are kept in reception centers and hostels while their asylum applications are considered. Mohammed and Helen have volunteered with some fellow students to help out at one of these centers near Goslar.

MOHAMMED: From Syria?

1st BOY: Yeah. From the middle of Syria.

MOHAMMED: No problem! Where from?

2nd BOY: From Iraq.

MOHAMMED: I’m honored. I’m Syrian, so we’re neighbors.

HELEN: Since we first came to Germany, people have arrived in the millions. So in Goslar, we used to hear German talk. Now we hear Syrian talk. So there’s a lot of Syrians now.

Here in Germany, it’s not just the Syrians who’ve changed. Germany has even changed. At school, my brother Mohammed and I hear a lot of things, like “Get out of our country” and things like that. “Why doesn’t your mom work,” and “Why are you taking our money?” That makes us uncomfortable. But it’s not all of them, of course.

HALA: My life ended on a day like today. Abu Ali and I were drinking coffee together. Then he went down to his office, and they were waiting for him. And then they took him.

It’s been two years now, and every day, I get some news. Every day. One person tells me he’s alive, and another one tells me he’s dead.

A week ago, I was woken up by the sound of lots of messages. I opened them and saw they’d sent me a photo of a dead person. I thought, “That’s it. That’s him. “ But Abu Ali has smaller nostrils. This man has black hair. My husband’s hair is not black, it’s brown. His moustache has a lot of gray hair. This is all black.

When I sit and check a lot, I get scared. I don’t want to. When someone is lying down, might their nose look different and— that is not Abu Ali. That is not a photo of Abu Ali.

But inside, I know that although this isn’t the photo, I might get another photo that actually is of Abu Ali, that shows he’s been killed and maybe in a more horrific way.

I’m now dead. I’ve been dead for two years. But anything new must be built on ruins, and the people you’ve lost in the past. I let something very big inside me die for them.

FARAH: Sara, see you in the morning! Mohammed, see you in the morning!

[on Skype] I’m here. I’m here.

MOHAMMED: I swear I miss you a lot, Grandma.

FARAH: I write in German now. [in German] “Have you a notebook, a small notebook?” I know German swear words!

SARA: Mom isn’t happy here. You can see it on her face that she’s not happy But everyone else, the naughty ones, they’re happy.

I like Germany. What I like in Germany are my school and my friends. And the friend I like most is Francesca. And I like Soweela and Julius and Willa and Joyce and Ibrahima and Colin and Edison

FARAH: That means the whole class.

SARA: Here the roads are clean. In Syria, they’re not clean. Here they don’t shell. In Syria, they shell.

Of all of us, Helen has changed the most. She used to wear the hijab. She wouldn’t show a single strand of hair. Now she goes out on the street with her hair out.

HELEN: [at skating rink] I have to laugh. I’m falling down all the time.

He looked at us. Look, he is looking at us. Oh, dude, he’s so hot. Let’s skate past him. We shouldn’t be like this!

When you move from one life to another, you change a bit. I now have new friends, a house and everything. Even my future is new. A girl doesn’t have freedom in Syria. But here in Germany, a girl is not ruled. She has her freedom

I haven’t forgotten where I came from. I haven’t forgotten that, that I’m from a homeland, from Syria. I’m not from Germany.

MOHAMMED: It’s sad what has happened to us, the people of Syria. It’s sad we had to cross the seas, crossing European countries to reach Germany. Sometimes, I think it was wrong for us to come to Germany and that we should have stayed in our country.

I will certainly return to my country, whether it’s rebuilt or not. I only came to Germany to secure my future and continue my education. Because I’m not German. After we learn German, we will no longer need their money or anything. All we’ll need is our hard work.

No one can ever completely leave their homeland.

HELEN: When I was in Syria, I didn’t appreciate, I didn’t know what family is, what’s mom or dad. Dad said he had ruined his children’s future. And I was thinking about this. Mom endured the four of us for the last two years, and Dad sacrificed everything in his life for his homeland, for us.

Now I know the value of a father, and especially my mom. Now I know that homeland is everything.

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