I have absolutely no idea what it would be like to wake up in the middle of the night to missile attacks or military shakedowns. I heard my fair share of gun shots between rival gangs in my former neighborhood in New Jersey, but they were few and far between and my family and I were never the target. It is near impossible to have any understanding of the magnitude of living through war all unless you have experienced it.
Khaled and I arrived in Sweden from different sides of the globe only a few months apart, but while I came from the US by plane on a family visa, Khaled travelled from Syria using smugglers and claimed asylum from war. We met in our Swedish language class (SFI) and became instant friends. It wasn’t long before we were sharing our life stories in our own immigrant versions of our new common language of Swedish.
Khaled grew up in Harasta, a suburb in East Ghouta just outside the capital of Damascus. He described his childhood to me as “normal”, meaning as normal as any childhood can be living under a dictatorship. Before school, all students had to stand and sing the national anthem. Around the city, giant propaganda billboards and posters of Hafez al-Assad and then after his death, Bashar al-Assad, were everywhere. Smaller versions hung in stores, offices, and hospitals.
A Syrian national flag with the image of Bashar al-Assad flying at a checkpoint in Ghouta in 2018. Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File/TT
Negative talk against the president could lead to an Assad loyalist reporting you, and the military kicking down your door in the middle of the night and the men of the household taken to jail for speaking out against the government. The walls had ears. One of Khaled’s uncles was taken to prison three hours after saying in a barber shop, on the day of Hafez al-Assad’s death, that he hoped the next president would not be an Assad. He spent eight months in prison.
When I asked Khaled what exactly the majority of the Syrian people wanted for their country, he said: “We wanted a functional government for all the people of Syria. We wanted a democracy. Government corruption was the biggest reason for the protests. The ruling Baath Party of Assad had monopolies on our resources and used them for their greed. There was no fair treatment or equality among the different ethnic or religious groups in Syria.”
Khaled was 19 and studying business at university when the protests broke out in the southern border town of Daraa. He remembers how his house was searched many times during the raids: “Our door was kicked in and the house searched many times. My family tried to hide me the first time they came in a cupboard in our kitchen, but the soldiers found me. Another time I woke up with an officer pointing his Kalashnikov in my face and asking me if I wanted freedom. I had to say no otherwise he would have taken me to jail,” he said.
Protests soon spread to other towns in Eastern Ghouta, and Assad’s army responded by surrounding the area with soldiers and snipers and shutting off electricity and communications. As the situation became more chaotic and dangerous, Khaled was forced to give up on his studies: “It became impossible to travel through the checkpoints they set up to cross into Damascus. Because my ID said I was from Harasta meant that I would be harassed or possibly jailed if my name was on a list. I saw others trying to cross who were beaten and taken away.”
A Syrian boy passes by government army soldiers in Harasta in early 2012. Photo: AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman/TT
When the protests arrived in his town, only one member of Khaled’s family joined the marches, but that was enough for members of the military to arrive at their family home the following day at 6am and interrogate all of the men: Khaled, his father, three uncles, and four cousins.
“Because we all share the same last name, we were all being accused of anti-government actions since someone reported seeing my cousin in the crowd of the protest. We insisted we were not involved and begged them to spare my father as his health was not good but they did not listen. We were all guilty in their eyes and we would pay for it.”
The men of his family were blindfolded and taken to prison, where they lived in a small cell shared with over a hundred men, were fed just one bowl of bulgar each day, and beaten by the soldiers “several times during the day and night.” After 13 days of interrogations, Khaled and his father were released, followed by their family members over the next month, but Khaled’s father’s health had deteriorated in jail.
“He was beaten so badly that he had terrible pain in his kidneys. We took him directly to the hospital and the doctor told us both of his kidneys were completely broken and they needed to be removed and replaced,” he said. Although his uncles were willing to donate, the necessary blood tests needed time, and the hospital was busy with treating the war-wounded.
Over the next month, Khaled saw his father suffer and die. “I can’t even describe to you how this felt. I love my father so much. He was a good man. My family and I felt such pain in our hearts and I became so lost and so angry,” he said.
This was the catalyst for Khaled’s decision to leave his country. But after bribing his way out of Harasta to reach Jordan, he struggled with not being able to keep in contact with his family left behind, and after six months risked his life to be smuggled back into Syria.
Syrians removing debris from a damaged building in Eastern Ghouta. Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar/TT
“It felt so good to be with my family again and was absolutely worth the risk. Electricity would come on every couple of days for a few hours but the internet was still completely gone. Mobile phone networks were only accessible sometimes if you were able to go up to a high building and hold your phone up in the air, but this was not a good idea because of snipers. Many families stayed behind because they had nowhere else to go, like us. By this time the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was there also and helping fight off the regime. I had a car so I volunteered to help.”
Despite the severe conditions, Khaled remembered how the families that stayed behind worked together to help each other survive, with bakers making bread, carpenters building shelters, mothers sharing childcare, and student doctors and civilians including Khaled training to give first aid such as removing shrapnel from the wounded.
“The car that I once used to get to university became an ambulance,” he recalled. “Whenever there was a bombing, shooting or missile attack and there were people hurt, the FSA called me there by two-way radio to give the wounded first aid and get them to hospital. This was not always easy because the second we got out of the car, we became targets ourselves.”
Throughout his years in Syria, some of Khaled’s friends and family members were killed, including an aunt killed by a missile in her own living room and an uncle who was in a mosque when it was bombed.
“A camera crew was filming everything and there is video from the news of me and my cousins mourning our dead uncle in the street,” Khaled said.
“I myself came close to death when a missile took us completely by surprise and hit the building my friends and I were sitting in sipping tea, laughing and trying to forget we were in the middle of a war. None of us died in that bombing but I have a four-inch scar on my forehead as a reminder.”
Then one night, the unthinkable happened.
“We heard the familiar sound of missiles firing on us, but this time we heard no explosion. No one understood what was going on but then we smelled something. We started to breathe in a little deeper trying to figure out what it was, but in an instant our eyes were burning and we were having trouble breathing,” said Khaled.
“Within a few minutes we heard screaming in the street so we rushed to the roof and tried our best to catch the wind. I was called to pick up people in the street who were dying. I waited about an hour for the gas to clear then I got into the car and made three trips getting people to the hospital until the gas got to me and I passed out while driving and had to go to the hospital myself. I woke up two days later.”
After a gas attack, Khaled’s mother travelled from Saudi Arabia, where she had been living long-term, and got him out of the country by bribing a general in Assad’s army to drive them out of Syria, through eight checkpoints to Lebanon. While his mother returned to Saudi Arabia, Khaled again stayed with friends in Jordan for six months, and this was where he began to wonder what he would do with his life.
A member of the Free Syrian Army puts up the flag of the FSA following clashes. Photo: AP Photo / Manu Brabo/TT
“I thought about Sweden because I read on the internet that it was a good place to start a life and that refugees were welcome,” he said.
After flying to Algeria, he took a roundabout route to Zuwara, Libya to reach a port where refugees could travel to Europe, avoiding areas known for armed militant groups on the way.
“I boarded a packed boat to Sicily and sat for 14 hours with my knees to my chest. I went to Milan to wait for transportation through Germany in secret. I was offered fake documents several times from the mafia but I declined. I hired a driver to take me along with other refugees I had met through Germany to Denmark. Within a few days I was in Copenhagen and on my way to Malmö, Sweden where I filed for asylum. I was processed and sent up north to Delsbo to await my fate. I waited almost one year for the decision and the wait was long and boring but I met so many great people there who, five years later, I am still friends with today.”
I asked Khaled what he thought of Sweden and if the differences between the weather and culture are easy to get used to. “Sweden is a great place to live. I really do love it here,” he answered. “The language is strange and a little hard to learn but I’m getting there. It's cold and rainy and snows a lot, but the freedom I have here is everything I dreamed of. I am able to study, work, and live without fear and I can sleep soundly. I do miss my family terribly back in Syria but they have since been moved out of Ghouta and up to Idlib where Inshallah, they can start to have a better life.”
After sitting with Khaled for many coffee conversations over the course of this year and hearing his story, I wondered how he could remain so positive and focused in the eyes of such overwhelming tragedy and loss. I learned amazing things about my friend: he is fierce, compassionate, brave, determined, humble, ethical, and unbreakable.
My final question to him in working on this story was: How many lives do you think you have saved risking your own life driving the sick and wounded to the hospital? He smiled like a schoolboy and looked away, as if my question had taken him by surprise, and he became self-conscious. After a few seconds he looked back at me with the same smile and said, “Only Allah knows that.”
As gripping as Khaled’s story is, it’s not an uncommon one.
Many of the refugees you pass on the street or six next to on the bus are unsung heroes, and every single one of them has loved ones who have been killed back in their homeland. I felt compelled to write Khaled’s story in a time of misunderstanding of culture and religion.
When I asked Khaled if I could write his story, I expected to write only a page or two about his journey from Syria to Sweden, but after 16 hours of “interviews” over meals and coffee, two months of constant writing, several boxes of tear-soaked tissues and countless hours of sleep loss, I felt the focus should really be on his life during wartime and his selfless actions to help save lives in his community.
Writing this article was not easy for us for many reasons. The research involved with verifying his story was grueling; so many visually distressing images of war from news clips, videos, UN documents, and articles. There were times where I could sense Khaled reliving some of the more emotional parts when reciting his story. With his native tongue being Arabic and mine English, we experienced frustration when speaking our second language, Swedish. Sometimes I had to ask him to repeat himself if I needed clarification and at times, we resorted to using Google Translate, but not before laughing at ourselves for poorly pronouncing a silly-sounding Swedish word.
But we trudged through it, two different people from two different worlds with two different beliefs to show you the human side of war and survival, and that people are people despite what you might have heard about Arabs, or Muslims, or refugees. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone should take the time to listen to each other.