To Stay or to Flee: A Syrian Mother’s Impossible Choice

This is the first dispatch from a project following a mother and her four children who fled Syria in 2015 and are now rebuilding their lives spread across four European cities. Read more about the project here.

At the end of her shift in January 2019, Suhair was listening intently to Bjorn Muller, a former line chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant Inter Scaldes, as he explained in Dutch to her and the other kitchen trainees what each did well that day and what they could improve upon. Though she was not 100 percent sure what was being said, Suhair laughed when the others did. She had been studying the language for more than a year, but those lessons about van Gogh and Rembrandt, Dutch birthday traditions, the Netherlands’ history and the requisite forms for navigating its bureaucracy weren’t proving entirely relevant here at Orionis, a work-placement agency in Vlissingen, a seaside town in the southern province of Zeeland. Muller was talking about menus, work flow and hygiene as he gestured to notes he had made in washable marker on the stainless-steel countertops, where they prepare each day’s lunch.

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The kitchen at Orionis is a vocational-training site, the heart of a fully functional restaurant and a cafeteria for the agency’s employees and students. The goal is to make the people who train here, who now include Syrian refugees like Suhair, employable in any restaurant. “I’ve never done this before; all my life was house and kids,” Suhair said in Arabic. “The last thing I thought about was Suhair. But it’s not wrong to try new things.” (Out of concern for her security in a new country and the safety of her relatives in Syria, Suhair asked to use only her first name.)

Though Suhair, 55, looked the part in chef’s whites and a long black apron, it was only her third day, and she was still learning her way around the kitchen and the pantry, taking cues from watching what others were doing. Since arriving that morning, she had served soup at lunch, washed the knives piling up in the sink and scrubbed down the counters and cabinets with soapy water, which she carried around in a plastic container that originally held satay sauce.

Work in the food industry is not what Suhair would have chosen for herself, but the way she calculated it, given her age and the level of Dutch she thinks she can reach, it was the fastest way to join the labor force and get off welfare. Like her decision to risk the sea crossing to come to Europe — and like most decisions Suhair has made since becoming a mother — the change was for the sake of her four children, so that they might have better lives. But leaving Syria has also forced her to think about herself for what she says is the first time. In the Netherlands, she is asking herself who she should be, could be and wants to be — beyond mother to her children. It’s a time in her life that she sees as full of both opportunity and costs, and she is approaching it with excitement, some trepidation and plenty of pragmatism. She remains sober about the chances that she will ever feel as if she really belongs.

In Syria, Suhair, had stayed with her husband long after their relationship had gone bad. Even as she became increasingly unhappy in her marriage, she told herself she could wait it out until her youngest made it to university. And when Suhair left Syria for good, it was for the children as well. Had it just been her, Suhair most likely would not have gone, even as the country unraveled; she was not afraid to die there, and she was wary of the indignities of displacement and of the loss of the only home she’d ever known.

Suhair and her children first left Syria in 2013 and tried riding it out in Jordan, while her husband stayed in Damascus. In Amman, the two eldest daughters both paused their university studies and started working, but with Jordan’s restrictions on the kinds of jobs Syrians are allowed to do, they found they couldn’t afford a protracted stay. The family had to go back to Syria. By then, according to Suhair and her children, her husband had abandoned them, having also spent all of their savings. Souad, Suhair’s second-oldest daughter, remained in Jordan to help support them financially. She passed out samples at a mall, while her mother and siblings squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment in Damascus.

[For Syrian refugees, there is no going home.]

Suhair wasn’t sure what to do next. While in Jordan, she had applied to the Australian Embassy for immigration visas, but she received no reply. Then in summer 2015, Souad called from Istanbul, where she had gone to look for better-paying work. She confided to her mother that she planned instead to cross the Aegean Sea to Europe. Suhair tried to dissuade her, fearing the dangers of sea and smugglers. When Souad called from Amsterdam a few weeks later, she urged her mother to follow with the others.

With her eldest daughter, Naela, 26 at the time, Suhair agonized over the decision to flee. They especially worried about the sea crossing between Turkey and Greece, and the risk of drowning in those waters. Suhair’s son, Yousef, who was 13, still didn’t know how to swim. But Suhair reasoned that outside Syria her children might at least have a chance to actually thrive. “I’m their mother; I brought them to this world, to this life,” she says. “They’re my responsibility.” Finally, convinced that there was nothing left for them in Syria, they sold everything they owned to raise the money needed to pay the smugglers who would transport them to Europe. They told friends they were taking a short trip to Lebanon, and Suhair burned whatever family pictures they couldn’t take with them. Yousef began studying swimming by watching videos on YouTube.

A few weeks later, they were on an overloaded raft on the Aegean Sea. The motor stalled halfway through their crossing, leaving them adrift. They made it to Kos, a Greek island, but their plan to be together in the same country was wrecked soon after.

[What refugees face on the world’s deadliest migration route]

Telling them that the less they knew initially the better, Souad had withheld essential details about how she made it to Europe. Only when her family had been cleared in Kos to leave for Athens on the large ferry picking up refugees from the different islands did she finally explain by phone that they could skip Athens and the grueling land route because they could all pass for Europeans. (With fair skin — and in Suhair’s case, blue eyes — their appearances aren’t what most non-Syrians imagine Middle Easterners to look like.) She told them they should buy fake ID cards from the same smuggler she had used, and then book plane tickets for direct flights from Kos to the Netherlands or any Schengen Area country, from which they could reach Amsterdam without leaving the border-control-free zone.

In Kos, Suhair and her children followed the smuggler’s instructions, splitting up and buying separate plane tickets on separate days. Naela and Maisam, Suhair’s youngest daughter, then 19, were relieved when their fake papers worked at the airport in Greece for their flight to Switzerland. In Zurich, they boarded a train to cross Germany to Amsterdam — and during an unexpected ID check, the authorities detained them for traveling with false documents. The German government was allowing Syrians to travel to Germany and onward; had the sisters shown their Syrian IDs, they might have been allowed to continue to the Netherlands. Instead, they were forced to ask for asylum right there in Germany.

Suhair and Yousef were immediately discovered while checking in for their flight in Kos, and they watched in humiliation as the airline agent destroyed their boarding passes in front of everyone present. With no more money for new IDs and plane tickets, they had to travel to the Netherlands overland by train, bus, taxi and on foot — a journey Suhair still remembers with a shudder — but after a week they made it. Arriving in the last days of September 2015, they were reunited with Souad at Central Station in Amsterdam. It was the first time Suhair had seen her daughter in more than a year. By that point, she knew Naela and Maisam would be required to stay in Germany. The family would not be reunited after all. (No one would be able to travel until they obtained official residency papers — an unpredictable process that could take months or years.)

Suhair and Yousef would spend the next 12 months crisscrossing the Netherlands north to south, east to west, uprooted each time the Dutch authorities told them to pack whatever belongings they had and moved them to yet another reception center. They were housed in everything from a tent to gyms, where they showered in the locker rooms, to slowly sinking trailers erected on muddy fields. With Souad already processed as an individual adult and her other daughters in Germany, Suhair focused most of her efforts on keeping Yousef safe from the daily danger of their first refugee camp, then keeping him in some sort of schooling as they were shuttled all over the country. In that time, Suhair also bought a bike, made some Dutch friends and even had a piece of art she created in collaboration with a local artist exhibited at a museum in the city of Nijmegen.

In July 2016, almost a year after they arrived, Suhair and Yousef were granted five-year residency permits in the Netherlands. In October, they were settled in Vlissingen. Suhair rented a sunny two-bedroom apartment in public housing, across the street from a canal surrounded by a park and a 10-minute walk to the beach. With the help of Syrians already living in Vlissingen and with a starter grant from the Dutch government, she repainted the apartment and installed parquet floors. After a few trips to the secondhand store in town, she adorned a small bookcase with tchotchkes — what she saw as the critical first steps to making the place feel like a home, one all her children could visit in the future.

They fell into a routine: Yousef started attending high school, and while Suhair waited for enough new students to fill a class at the local language school, she started following Dutch language lessons on YouTube. She would also walk and bike around the city, frequently passing by a grocery stocked with ingredients and foods from home, opened by another refugee who arrived a year earlier and who had been an engineer in Syria. He and his wife became Suhair’s friends.

After a year of formal language classes, she passed the civil integration exams, and the social workers at Orionis asked her what she might like to do. She kept her dreams to scale. “I’m not going to become a minister or director of something or have a company,” Suhair says. “I want to work. I want to get off public assistance, and whatever I reach, I want it to be out of my own labor.” She sees no shame in working in the service industry — something that middle-class housewives like her would never have done in Syria. “People here don’t have complexes about being the boss of others,” she says. “Here, I’m not less than people who have better-paid jobs than me.”

A couple of weeks ago, at the end of April, she took a job at a resort village about 12 miles up the coast as they began staffing up for the coming summer season. The Egyptian-Dutch man who hired her speaks Arabic, though most of the tourists speak Dutch, German or English. Suhair is finally earning a salary. She also adopted Moosha, a mutt who loves to walk with Suhair along the canal and especially in the sand dunes near the beach. And she still drops by the cafe at the language school to practice Dutch with retired folks; the conversation is mostly about elections and taxes. Suhair has even gone on a few dates — though she wants love, not just something casual.

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Still, she remains skeptical about whether she’ll ever feel that she truly belongs. Her parents were Palestinian refugees in Syria, and though Suhair was born there, she became Syrian only when she married a Syrian man. It meant she breathed more freely — finally replacing the laissez-passer papers she had with a passport — and assuaged a lifelong anxiety she held about being restricted in her ability to travel. But even as she loved Syria and loved the life that she lived there — “It wasn’t all tragedy,” she says — she had the sensation that it wasn’t fully hers. And if she couldn’t feel it in Syria, then she doesn’t know how she will in the Netherlands.

Throughout this new phase in her life, Suhair has recited to herself a verse from Al-Mutanabbi, a 10th-century Iraqi poet, lines that have become a common saying in Syria: “Not all that one longs for can happen; the winds do not blow in the direction the ships desire.” Suhair recently found verses online written by an anonymous poet riffing on and answering those famous ones: “The one who hopes for something with not just his wishes but also his labor, will find it, even if he is opposed by humans and the Jinn. So aim for the heights and you will get there. Then the wind will blow the way the ship desires.”

“Nothing is impossible,” she said, switching to English. “Nothing is too late.”

Alia Malek is the author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria,” the editor of “EUROPA: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees” and the director of the international reporting program at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. This dispatch is part of a reporting project intended to span 10 years.

Peter van Agtmael is a member of Magnum Photos and the author of “Buzzing at the Sill” and “Disco Night Sept 11.”

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