Gabi and Rama: “We’re proud of being Syrian”

Taking a sip of water, Gabi Issa lowers his eyes and sits in solemn silence. “I don’t know exactly what it was, but something strange came to Syria. It entered so swiftly, injecting itself into our society and poisoning the people’s minds. I never would have thought that this could happen to our country.”

His sister, Rama, nods in agreement. Before the war, life in Al-Qahtaniyah, in the north-eastern part of the country, was close to idyllic for the two siblings, who worked as English teachers at public and private schools, tutored on the side and taught their native Aramaic language to local children in the summer.

“Life was beautiful,” says Gabi, who’s 32 years old. “I graduated from the Al-Furat University with a degree in English literature and I was planning to open up my own language school. With a help of a friend, I got some teachers together and we began drawing up ideas. It was my dream.”

When the first protests erupted in the capital of Damascus in 2011, life in the eastern part of Syria continued relatively unabated. But what began as anti-government demonstrations, quickly turned into a full-scale civil war that has engulfed the entire nation, displacing or killing more than 11 million Syrians.

“I can’t call any of it a revolution,” says Gabi. “I love my country and I’m proud of being Syrian, but these people, whatever side they’re on, they’re destroying everything.”

Before the war, he adds, people in Syria interacted freely with one another. “Not Muslims with Muslims, or Christians with Christians. We were a very open and accepting society. We used to live and work along Muslims, Kurds and Jews,” says Rama. “Their religious beliefs made no difference to us.”

In 2014, as the war dragged on, another threat began looming on the horizon. In June, a militant group known as the Islamic State proclaimed itself to be a worldwide caliphate and declared war on the Iraqi and Syrian societies.

As members of the Christian minority, Gabi and Rama feared the worst. They’ve heard of the persecution and mass murder in the territories under the group’s control. “If they ever reached our province, we would find ourselves in grave danger,” says Gabi. As the war continued to ravage the nation and threat of Isis grew ever closer, the siblings couldn’t even go out of the house, let alone work. “And there wasn’t any food for the baby,” says Rama. “We were struggling a lot.”

Eventually, the siblings decided to flee. Gabi was the first to go. Their family is well-travelled, with one sister living in Sweden and another in the Netherlands, but most of their extended family lives in Belgium, so he decided to join his aunt in Evere, Brussels.

With their parents, he crossed the border with Turkey and boarded a plane for Germany. “I was really nervous because the whole journey was illegal,” he says. “We paid off a person at the airport to let us through.” He applied for asylum immediately upon arrival in Belgium. While staying in a refugee centre in the south of the country, he began volunteering with the Red Cross, acting as a translator and assisting other new arrivals with their paperwork. “It was a way for me to keep myself from worrying too much,” he says. “I also worked in a library and read a lot to keep my mind off of things.”

Then came the news from Syria. In May, 2014, Isis militants attacked Rama’s house, threating her husband and stealing their car. Soon, the threats escalated and the family began receiving letters telling them to convert to Islam or face repercussions. “We couldn’t leave together because we risked getting caught at the airport,” says Gabi. “But when I heard the news, I knew they had to get out right away.”

Rama and her family took a plane from Lebanon to Germany and covered the rest of the way to Belgium by car. Along the way, they were assisted by a smuggler, who took their passports as payment. Upon arrival, they turned themselves in to the police and told their story. In November, 2014, they were granted political asylum in Belgium; Gabi’s application was approved back in August.

For now, Evere is their new home. Gabi takes care of their parents; Rama and her family live just down the road. Their aunt and uncle from Schaerbeek are never too far away. “Back home, we knew all our neighbours,” says Gabi. “Syrians are social people. We used to go out and have dinners together all the time.”

The siblings brought part of that life with them. They meet for lunch and dinner on the weekends, and, in July, their youngest sister, who lives in Sweden with her husband, visited them in Brussels. “We’re so grateful to have our family here,” says Rama. “I know others aren’t so lucky.”

Belgium reminds them of home. “A few weeks ago, we went to see the flower carpet in the centre,” says Gabi. “As we sat down to have dinner, we began noticing parallels everywhere. Brussels shares so many similarities with our capital Damascus, for example. There are always people eating outside, you have the different shops and restaurants, muted conversations linger in the air. That day, it felt as if we were back in Syria.”

Until recently, neither of them could find paid work, as their Syrian degrees aren’t sufficient for teaching in Belgian schools. When a compatriot friend told Gabi about VUB’s plan to let refugees study at the university, he quickly jumped at the opportunity.

From September, the siblings will join VUB in its translations programme. They hope to find work either as teachers or in the social sector, helping other refugees. In Syria, Gabi finished school long before his sister, but they’ll be taking classes together. “We can help each other out,” he says. “She’s raising two kids and has a family. It will be easier this way.”

Throughout the conversation, Rama remains more reserved, sitting quietly on the sofa. At one point she offers us traditional pastries and coffee. Then, her older son comes in from another room, sits with her for a while and leaves. “He was only a year old when we fled,” she says. “It was a difficult decision, but we had to do it.”

When I ask her about her time as a teacher, she quickly lights up. “I would always tell my students to be active members of society,” she says. “To love it and to care for it because we are the ones responsible for building it. I miss that very much.”

At the end of every school year, instead of taking a break from teaching, the siblings used to organise lessons in their native Aramaic to local children. The language, which dates back to nearly three thousand years ago, is spoken today by Christian minorities in the Middle East. “It is part of our identity and culture,” says Rama. “And we love speaking it. It’s essential for the world to preserve ancient things,” adds Gabi. “There are seven billion people in the world, and some three million of them speak Aramaic, but only a third is fluent in it. Why wouldn’t we try to save it? It is ancient, but it is also our mother tongue, so we need to keep it alive. Without our history, we cannot begin imagining the future.”

At one point, we hear the sound of children playing in another room. Rama’s older son, who’s now three years old, goes to a French-speaking school, while the younger one, who was born in Belgium, stays home with her. When she begins attending VUB, her husband will be the one taking care of him. “I kind of didn’t give him much of a choice,” she laughs.

When I ask them about the lives they left behind, they both turn solemn. There is a sense of longing in Gabi’s voice as he explains that they hope to return there when the situation is calmer. “Every night I dream that when the war stops, I’ll go back there and help rebuild my country,” he says. “Reconciliation begins with us teachers. You can destroy a country in no time, but bringing it back from the ashes can take an entire generation.”

Recently Gabi talked to an uncle who still lives in Syria and asked him about the school where they used to teach. “He said the building has been closed for good and no one goes there anymore. I fear that the war will result in a lost generation of Syrian children who have stopped going to school. Their mentality has been completely changed by the senseless fighting. It makes me really sad.”

A day doesn’t go by, he adds, without him worrying about what might come next for Syria. “Last month I went to Rome and visited the Vatican. I kneeled down and prayed. I asked God to make peace in our country, and all over the world.”

After a while, Gabi smiles again and tells me there is only one place he’s never been to in Syria. “Daraa, because it’s too far. But I’d love to go there one day. Travel for me is about discovering the unique things about each place. If you’re ever in Syria, go to the beach in Latakia or see the Naweer water wheels in Hama. In Aleppo, visit the famous citadel and try the food, it’s amazing. And in Al Hasakah, the province where we’re from, you’ll see the farms for which we’re famous.”

For now, they’re both adjusting to a new life in Belgium. They’re learning French and Gabi is already thinking about taking some classes in Dutch. “We need to know how to speak both to even hope of having any kind of life here,” Gabi says.

As for his dream to open up a language school in Syria, he says it’s very much alive. “When the war is over, why not? We’ll go back with the lessons we’ve learned and give it another try.”

Originally published in VUB Today

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