ALEPPO/GAZIANTEP — Every morning, Ibrahim takes his lunch box, leaves his modest apartment, and heads for work. Back in Aleppo, the 38-year-old was a lawyer of repute; here in Turkey, he is a laborer, struggling to keep his family out of the camps.
Ibrahim arrived in the Turkish border town with his family 10 months ago, fleeing Aleppo. There, he was one of most prominent lawyers; his office was always swarmed with visitors and his monthly income was 200,000 Syrian pounds; then the equivalent of $4,000. With that income, Ibrahim was able to provide the best for his family of eight and invest in several side projects that generated extra income he put away as savings.
But all of Ibrahim’s hard work went down in flames. He lost his home, his business and his savings. His assets were frozen as a result of his decision to side with the revolution against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Ibrahim now earns a measly 400 Turkish pounds ($200) per month, half of which he uses to rent a tiny flat of only 50 square meters. His family now struggle to make ends meet on the remaining money. It’s petty cash compared to the $10,000 average yearly income in Turkey.
Today, Ibrahim’s calloused hands are evidence of his manual labor in a building and refurbishing workshop that specializes in clay work.
A Man of Law Turns to Smugglers
Ibrahim’s fall from grace began when his contracts with government institutions were suspended; he had been detained by the Syrian authorities for 50 days due to his participation in pro-revolution protests.
“I thought I could live off my savings and the small business I set up in areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army. But two months later, regime forces took over my hometown in southern rural Aleppo, forcing my family and me to flee with nothing but the clothes on our backs … I lost everything,” he said.
Ibrahim and his family returned to the rebel-controlled neighborhoods of Aleppo, but were unable to weather the harsh living conditions there. The scarcity of basic needs pushed prices to an all-time high, compounded by the army-imposed siege. Meanwhile, regime forces constantly raided the neighborhoods. The sight of so many civilian casualties, including large number of children, compelled Ibrahim to take his family to safety across the border.
The former lawyer borrowed $500 from some of his friends, hired a car and drove with his wife and six children to the Turkish border.
He and his wife carried valid passports to cross into Turkey, but their children did not have the necessary papers, forcing Ibrahim to pay smugglers.
Despite the fact that Ibrahim was a lawyer and a law-abiding citizen, he feared going to state institutions to obtain needed documents where the Syrian security apparatus arrested wanted people or those whose loyalty was questioned.
Ibrahim said he was ecstatic when he was able to cross into Turkey without any problems with the Turkish border guards. At the same time, he felt two contradictory emotions: happiness because his family had reached safety and would not perish under the random shelling, but powerlessness when faced with the countless responsibilities he now faced in a country he knew nothing about and whose language he does not speak.
How would he provide a home to shelter his children? How would he be able to provide for his large family? How long would they be forced to remain there, away from home? Where would his children continue their education? These questions and many others were on Ibrahim’s mind, but he had no easy answers.
An Offer He Must Refuse
Two hundred thousand Syrians live in pre-fabricated housing units within the confines of designated refugee camps established by the Turkish government across the border. Syrian teachers, who are refugees themselves, volunteer to educate children in these camps.
But Ibrahim vehemently refuses to head for the camps, saying he cannot stand the thought of being a refugee living in a gated camp and taking welfare from the Turkish government or donations. He says he would not be able to bear people’s looks if he moved into one of those camps.
The former lawyer, who never dreamed of doing anything but practicing law, thus accepted work as a laborer digging ditches, transporting soil and building material, venturing to dangerous heights on the job and carrying heavy loads for long distances. He has changed in appearance, shedding the weight of a white-collar worker, now lean from physical demands and pressures of providing for his family.
Ibrahim strokes his eldest son’s hair, Mahmoud, as he thinks about a job offer one coffee shop owner made. The small boy could work for $100 a week at the coffee shop.
The distressed lawyer has been thinking about the offer for three days now, knowing it could resolve many of his current problems. The extra money would allow the family to buy some chocolate for the little ones, to buy shampoo for showering and improve the quality of the family’s simple, drab meals.
But every time Ibrahim thinks about the offer, he decidedly refuses it. Mahmoud is only 11 years old. In spite of everything, he knows his family is better off than millions of other displaced Syrian families that live in tents or destroyed homes and lack the basic necessities. He sheds some tears, then holds his son and goes to bed.
This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.