From Aleppo to Istanbul to Denver: “We had to get out for our children.”

Giving By Emily Larson Feb 20, 2018

For two years, a mother and her children huddled inside their dark home, only venturing out when it was absolutely necessary. And when they did, it was dangerous. Planes flew overhead, barrel bombs and missiles rained down, and snipers took shots from inside ruined buildings as those who were left scurried past the piles of rubble where homes, schools, offices and shops once stood.

The following story, written for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) by freelance writer and IRC volunteer Anita Hutner, provides a detailed account of a family from Syria who are now resettled in the United States. This story is republished with permission from the International Rescue Committee, a Western Union Foundation* NGO grantee.

Assad and Sabah owned a modest home in Aleppo, Syria, where they lived with their six children, including a young son with autism. Their neighborhood was a lively one, made up of many family members and friends. “We lived a normal life, it was a safe place,” said Assad. “Our parents, aunts, uncles and cousins all lived in the same neighborhood. We supported each other,” Sabah chimed in. “We were happy in Aleppo,” she said wistfully. “Back then, I never thought that I’d live anywhere else. This was my home.” In 2011, their peaceful, safe and happy life began to change.

“At the very beginning of the war, it wasn’t too bad. There was some fighting and unrest, but life was fairly normal,” said Sabah. Assad left to go to Turkey for a few months to work with his brother who was already established in the country. He talked to Sabah about joining him, but she didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to leave her home, her family or her friends, and assured Assad that everything would be fine. She thought that the unrest wouldn’t last and that everything would return to normal. But sadly, that was not the case.

“As the months went by, it started to get worse. More and more people were being killed. And then, the airplanes came with barrel bombs, wiping out full blocks and apartment buildings, many with entire families inside,” she continued, her eyes filling with tears. “One day, I sent my older son to the bakery to get some bread. A neighbor came running to tell me the bakery had been bombed. I ran outside crying and as I looked up, my son was walking toward me.” It was during this time, she realized she was pregnant with her seventh child.

Sabah was scared. When she heard the sound of airplanes and missiles, she would gather all six children and hide in the bathroom. There was no electricity. It was dark. Everyday living was becoming more and more difficult. And the stress was becoming unbearable. Assad rushed home, determined to bring his family back to Turkey. At the same time, Sabah’s parents who still lived in Aleppo, were begging her to stay. With things just getting worse, and a baby on the way, Sabah finally realized it was time to go.

Although many people went to Turkey without documentation, Assad wanted to make sure his family had proper paperwork and passports—a decision that proved to be helpful in the future. The process took time and there was extreme danger involved in getting to and from government offices. He and Sabah dodged sniper bullets and bombs as they gathered the documentation. And each time they went out, they weren’t sure if they would ever make it back home.

“I knew in my heart that we had to get out for our children, but leaving my parents and other family members behind was very difficult,” Sabah explained with tears in her eyes. “While it was hard to go, we couldn’t stay. This was no way to live,” said Assad. “We wanted a future for our children, so they could grow up without the fear of losing their lives and their home.”

In 2014, with passports in hand, the family left for Turkey. They lived with Assad’s brother and his family for a short time, and then moved into a nearby house, where the baby was born. It was hard. And although registered Syrian refugees had access to public education, like many others, the family faced obstacles. They didn’t speak the language and Assad had lost the job he had prior to coming back to Turkey. At the time, Turkey didn’t provide Syrian refugees with work permits, forcing Assad and his older children to all work to support the rest of the family. For the younger children, and their son with autism, school was simply a luxury the family couldn’t afford.

And while the situation wasn’t easy, many people in the local community came forward to offer their help. “I met a woman who spoke Arabic and she equipped our kitchen for us,” said Sabah. “Others helped clean the house and bought a crib and clothes for the baby,” she continued. “This wasn’t an organized effort. It was just people in the community, coming together. There are good people everywhere, and even though life was hard for us, this gave us hope for the future.”

After registering with the United Nations (UN), and a Turkish organization to try to help treat their autistic son, the family was contacted by the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), an organization that processes the applications of refugees referred by the UN. They went through an arduous interview and paper collection process that took more than a year to complete. Then, two months after the process was over, the family was told they would be coming to the US.

On January 19, 2017, several days before the first US government ban prohibiting travel of refugees and citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen went into effect, the family arrived in Denver. Through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Denver, the family was quickly settled. The children were enrolled in school, including their son with autism. Assad got a driver’s license and the IRC helped him secure a job. They rented a home in a nice neighborhood and were given a vehicle, thanks to their new friend and landlord, Steve. And although it took time to adjust, like in Turkey, they found good people who took the time to help them begin their new life.

Today, the US is starting to feel like home for this family. Assad has a new, better job, and when he’s not working, he’s taking English classes. His dream is to someday be able to earn a living as a metal worker—his specialty back in Aleppo. Sabah is a part-time, stay-at-home mom. When the kids are at school, she’s learning how to sew, recently graduating into the second level class. Her dream of becoming a seamstress and starting a sewing business became a lot more real when Steve, once again, found a way to help. He recently stopped by with a sewing machine that had belonged to his mother.

At first, it was difficult for the children to adjust to a new culture and language. But now, Denver feels like home. “Our kids are doing well in school. One of our sons wants to be a computer engineer, one wants to be a policeman, and the other dreams of becoming a musician,” said Sabah with a smile. “And after nine months, our son with autism who never communicated, can now speak to us with the use of flash cards,” Assad continued. “After going through so much, it makes us happy to see our children learning and succeeding, with hopes and dreams for the future.”

“Although we had to start over again, we are grateful that we can rebuild our lives,” said Assad. “We appreciate the opportunity we’ve been given, and know that with hard work and patience we will get there.”