"I can’t say I had a bad childhood. Of course, there were problems; our society wasn’t open like it is here in the Netherlands. I can’t compare it to a life here in the Netherlands. But it was OK. I went to private schools and studied Accounting at the university.
In Syria, men ruled society. For instance, women were not allowed to wear summer clothes if it was hot outside. And I’m not talking about short dresses; you had to be dressed properly. Covered. Not necessarily veiled, but you also weren’t free to wear what you wanted.
In Syria, it doesn’t matter whether you are Muslim or Christian. I am a Christian myself. In that respect, people were kind and open to differences. But in my opinion, that was the only thing they were broadminded about.
Some people say that Syria was a free country before the war. But that was not the case at all. You couldn’t just say what you were thinking. If you were critical of the government, you really couldn’t say so in public. That was very dangerous, and it could result in your family simply disappearing one day. To me, in that respect, there is no difference between before and after the war. There were many dangers before the war, and they still exist today. There were so many rules. Not only regarding what you can wear or say, and not only coming from the government. The entire community was made up of rules. It was not a very nice place to live. Moreover, always and everywhere, there were secret agents who knew what you were doing. In Syria, we always say: “the walls have ears”. And that’s literally how it is.
For example, any contact between people with different religious backgrounds had to stay strictly friendly, love or marriage was impossible. I knew a girl who ran away from home because she was in love with a Muslim boy. They ran away together. Her family could not find her for a year and a half, and when they found her, she was pregnant. They killed her. Her father only had to serve 3 months in prison. That’s not what I call freedom; that girl did not live in freedom.
I’ve always wanted to leave Syria. Ultimately, the war was the reason to actually do so. I always felt I was just surviving there, not living. Most of my friends and I were against the regime. Before the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, we didn’t speak of that yet. What happened in Tunisia was the reason to start talking to my friends about politics.
We spoke about this in secret; we whispered. Until the revolution also began in Syria that is – from that moment on, we spoke out loud, because we didn’t care anymore. But I also have childhood friends who I do not agree with politically, but do not want to break contact with for that reason alone.
My parents, too, were not against Assad. They didn’t mind that I was, so long as I kept my opinion to myself. They didn’t want me to be public about that. They were afraid to lose me. And I understand that, because I could have disappeared or be raped, or even killed. They knew that some of my friends were activists. Some of them wrote blogs on the Internet, others demonstrated on the streets. Some of them disappeared or died, but most of them fled. I didn’t protest myself; I was far too scared for that.
Expressing your opinion was life-threatening before the war, and now, during the war, it still is. You can be killed for having an opinion. The only difference is that now it is happening publicly.
I lived in Aleppo opposite a government site. That is one of the reasons we left Aleppo so soon. There was a lot of fighting near our house. My mother saw a man get shot and heard him die. This was so intense for her that it traumatised her. She didn’t eat for days, and we organised for her to leave Aleppo.
I couldn’t go outside anymore, it was too dangerous. We were inside for weeks. Fortunately, people in Syria keep a lot of supplies in their home. One day, we heard men shouting “Allah Akbar”. The soldiers in front of our building warned my father and told us to leave. He called me and said I needed to come downstairs with the dog, and not bring anything else with me. We ran away, my father behind me so that he would get shot before me if we came under fire. I was crying the entire time.
There was something about the men who invaded our neighbourhood. Maybe they were on drugs. I’m not sure. I saw a soldier shaking one of those men and heard him shout: “What are you doing, why are you shooting civilians?” The man replied that he was in my neighbourhood to free Palestine… He didn’t even know where he was, and was shooting randomly.
My father and I fled to Qabasin, a city roughly five hours from Aleppo by car. On the way, the rebels at the checkpoints were very kind. I was afraid of them because I was told they raped women and killed people, but they didn’t. From Qabasin, we went to Beirut, and later to the Netherlands.
I try not to think of Aleppo. Of course, I do have some beautiful memories there. I used to visit the castle (Citadel) with my brother a lot. There were beautiful cafés in that area. I don’t want to go back, not even for a visit. I do not miss a life in which women have no rights. I recently saw a video of a devastated Aleppo on the Internet, and I saw my house. It wasn’t difficult to look at it; it wasn’t the house I loved, it was the people. And they were no longer there."