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Love and kindness of strangers gives hope to a Syrian fleeing war

A Syrian refugee from Aleppo tells of how, amid the horror of war, the amazing kindness of strangers has restored his faith in humanity
Muhannad Qaiconie in forest in Macedonia where he was able to help struggling families carry their children (MEE/Muhannad Qaiconie)

My story started when the apartment I lived in with my mother and sister in Aleppo was bombed by the Syrian regime in the summer of 2013. We had to move to a more expensive neighbourhood and after a while it became clear: I had to leave and work abroad. My first stop was Lebanon and there I suffered.

For four months I was sleeping on piles of wood in a carpenter's shop. It was a better option than sleeping on the even harder concrete floor. It was winter, and I was having to wash with cold water from the sink since there was no shower available. Moving from job to job, from construction worker to delivery boy, life was tough until finally a hairdresser took a chance on me, trained me and paid me a little money. Hairdressing was not my dream, but I thought OK – at least it's a practical and clean job I can do for the rest of my life.

Then I met 18-year-old Noell Azzi, who was working next to the carpenter's shop. Noell insisted on inviting me to his house to meet his family. I was too shy to accept his kind offer at first, but one day I woke up and I could not find my things. My clothes were gone too. “I took everything to my place,” Noell said with a smile. “You have no choice but to come with me now.”

He was a very religious Christian with strong morals. He visited the tombs of saints every day, and attended church service every Sunday. I went with him. He told me all the stories of the saints and how glorious the Christian religion is. I was very happy to have met him.

Living in someone else's home, with someone else's family took a little getting used to at first. When I started living with Noell and his family, I did not want his warmhearted mother to put herself out by washing my clothes. So I waited until everyone was sleeping and then I would wash my things by hand. But she insisted on taking care of me. One night she tricked me, waiting until I fell asleep, and then, like her son had done before, took my things and washed them. “You are like a son to me,” she said insistently.

Despite the fact that the Azzis' were poor people themselves, they never wanted anything in return from me. The little money I was making did not allow me to support my own family, never mind pay my host family back for their kindness. Eventually I decided that I could no longer be a burden and despite their generosity I really did not want to put even more pressure on them than they already had. With hugs and sad smiles, I left them all in tears and moved on to Turkey.

35 rejections, but one big Yes

I arrived in a small village called Tasucu with $50 in my pocket. It cost $15 to travel to Mersin, I spent another $5 on food, and then I found a room that cost $25 a night. The next morning I started looking for a job. Thirty-five shop owners said “No.” I did not speak any Turkish and could only communicate through hand gestures – but then, when I was almost ready to give up, I met Ebru Aytas.

“Wait,” she said, and called a friend from Antakia who spoke Arabic. She then offered me a job there and then. “I will give you 15 Lira ($8) a day. Come tomorrow at 7 am.” I was still not a fully trained hairdresser, so she accepted me as her assistant, teaching me the job and Turkish too.

I had started to feel rather numb at that time, being stressed and knowing that the money I was making was still not enough for me or my family back home. Back at the hotel though, the owner turned out to be another helpful person on my journey, reducing my accommodation fee to just 15 Lira a night and saying: “If you can't pay it, be my guest for the next month.” Why did he do this? I hadn't even been very friendly towards him. But in that desperate moment, his act of kindness restored my hope in humanity.

In the hairdresser's shop, Ebru guzellik salon (MEE/Muhannad Qaiconie)

After three weeks, I finally managed to speak a little bit of Turkish, and today I am fluent. When I told Ebru that I could no longer afford my hotel, despite the owner's generosity, Ebru immediately offered to let me sleep in the shop. It seemed as though I was bringing out the maternal instinct in many of the kind women I met who were so generous with their assistance. 

I was taking a shower in her house every two or three days and was able to wash my clothes there too. All of my time was spent in the shop, cleaning and washing, drying and colouring hair. In addition to shelter and work I found companionship too. One day she invited me for dinner and we started playing backgammon.

We watched Turkish TV shows together; she loved them, although at the time I did not understand a word. Three weeks later she let me move into her house where I ended up staying for a year and a half. I did not have to pay rent and that freed me up to send some money to my family. I was feeling bad, though. What could I do for her? How could I repay the generosity people like Ebru had been showing me when I had nothing to give back? We became friends, sharing everything: work, food and hanging out together.

After one year in Turkey, I decided to leave for Europe. This time it was not just about sending money to my family, but rather the wish to finally reunite and live with them again. I somehow had to get them over to Europe to be with me. But how could I possibly afford that? Six months later I started my journey to Germany with the little money that I had saved with the help of neighbours, friends, and even customers. They all wanted to help me start a better life.

Walking to Germany

I arrived in Greece after a rough trip over the Mediterranean, and after that I could only make it as far as Serbia. Then out of the blue, my friend Amr Kharrat called me. I had met him only a few times in Turkey. His mother offered to give me 800 euro, even though I had never met her in my life. “You must continue,” she said. At this point I had been caught by the Macedonian police at the border between Macedonian and Greece three times and I was in very bad health. Without her help I would have never made it to Germany, where I arrived in the summer of 2015 and where I still am living now. 

I know it seems as though I talk about money a lot, but the lack of it was my biggest problem. Being a refugee is expensive. Ironic, right? And all the people I met understood this.

'Be proud!'

While I was in Greece, I met an American journalist, Kristen Chick, who was living in Kosovo covering a story about the Balkan route. It turned out that she would be another wonderful woman who would help to change my life.

Kristen wrote about me in one of her articles and on the back of that a reader sent me this amazing email: “When I read Kristen's newspaper story about you,” Dorothy said, “I thought: this young man is very special, I want to help him and his family. You seem like a very proud person (as you should be!), so I hope I do not offend by asking to help you. I am old enough to be your grandmother. I live in Arizona, USA. Today it is snowing and very beautiful outside. I am not rich, but am happy to share with you. When you are my age, you can pay it back by helping someone else, OK?"

Can you imagine! A woman living in the US being so generous after just reading an article about someone she has never met! 

Finally, I arrived in Germany where I was in a good camp at first, but was still very confused. During that time, I read an article by a German journalist, Ines Kappert, which had been translated into Arabic. It was critical of Germans who did not care about the war crimes being carried out in Syria. I loved it. When I looked at the journalist’s Facebook page, I was surprised that she had been following the revolution in Syria from the beginning. I had very good experiences with many people, but was always wondering why almost no one in Europe was trying to stop Bashar al-Assad from killing. 

When I started chatting with Ines and she heard that I had ended up living in a gym with 400 other people, she became angry and put me in contact with Katharina Enzensberger and her husband Magnus, a famous German writer. At their house, I was so happy to meet Katharina - an impressive intellectual woman who is a writer and astrologer as well - and loved exploring her huge home library. I learned a lot from her and we talked about Nietzsche and Kafka for hours on end.

In Munich, I also met Dietmar, another person who had read Kristen's story and who reached out to contact me. Because of him, I am now the very proud owner of very nice, expensive shoes. “Please don't think that you owe me. I'm very to happy to do that. I'm not rich, but please if you find a way to bring your family, tell me, I'm ready to help.”

At a protest in Berlin marking the fifth anniversary of the revolution in Syria (MEE/Muhannad-Qaiconie)

These were just some of my experiences in totally different countries and with totally different people not connected to each other apart from through the shared bonds of love and humanity. It sounds kitsch, maybe, but for me it was a wonderful reality to experience, within a very bad one.

About a month ago my mother and sister's house in Aleppo was bombed to the ground. It was pure luck that they were outside at the time. My mother was working in a vegetable store, and my sister was still at the university where she was studying agriculture. They have survived in Aleppo alone for five years, always working to have an open door to the future. But on that day, they went home and their house was gone. I had run out of time. Now I had no choice but to get them out of Syria. Ebru Aytas, my dear Turkish friend, said they could stay in her house. “As you stayed,” she said.

I started looking for a way to get them out of Aleppo and without any hesitation the amazing woman named Dorothy sent me $3000 in order to help me find a solution. I was in shock. How can I ever reciprocate what she did for me?

Kristen Chick, the journalist, also helped me right away. 

All of these people who have helped me – and I know I'm not the only person with this experience – are allowing me and fellow Syrians the possibility to go on and not to lose hope. This world is continuing because of them, because of people who are working in silence, helping, and sending love. People like them are making this awful world so much better. Now I believe in helping people more than anything. To all of you, thank you so much.