Left jobless, family patriarch Abu Wael, 52, and his son-in-law, Abu Hafez (not nicknamed after Hafez al-Assad, they’re quick to tell me) are home with their women and children, reclining on floor mattresses and mulling bleak employment prospects.
The tight-knit family fled their country two months ago, traveling from Homs to Damascus, and then on to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which has been flooded by Syrians. There they took refuge in the lower-class neighborhood of Al-Riva. They thought the apartment would be a safe haven. But once again they file themselves in the line of fire, perilously close to newly-violent sectarian clashes that have engulfed the neighboring districts of Jabal Mohsen (predominantly Alawite) and Bab al-Tabbaneh (predominantly Sunni).
Today, Abu Wael sits ramrod straight on the floor mat alongside his wife, Um Wael. At 38, she’s already a grandmother. They’re joined by their daughter, Alaa, their son-in-law, Abu Hafez, and their grandchildren: five-year-old Reem, two-year-old Hafez and three-month-old Yamen.
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Abu Wael and Um Wael raised their children in the Khaldiyeh district of Homs, a diverse religious area where many of their neighbors were Alawite and Christian. “We didn’t even know who was who,” Um Wael says.
In March of 2011, news broke that teenage boys from Daraa, largely thought to have instigated the conflict’s first act of protest, had been tortured. All of Khaldiyeh took to the streets in protest. “Everyone joined the sit-in,” says Abu Hafez. Soon after, regime security services went to work. “A security vehicle came to our street and distributed arms and ammunition to our Alawite neighbors,” says Abu Wael. The family blames the regime and its media outlets for pitting Syrians against one another. “From day one, any [neighborhood] holding protests against the regime was considered a terrorist area,” Abu Wael says.
Their daughter Alaa and her husband Abu Hafez lived in the battered Homs district of Baba Amr, which early on became the site of fierce fighting between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces. They escaped with their children, but they lost their business in the conflict. Abu Hafez says security forces raided peoples’ houses and stole his company’s desktop computers. “If it wasn’t electronics or something they could steal, they just broke it anyway.”
As checkpoints mushroomed across the city, arrests and death became a daily threat.
“If you do something wrong, they’ll take your brother, your father, and so on… if they don’t kill you right away,” Abu Wael says. “This business of raping the women and girls in front of their families, arresting men and returning the bodies to their families two days later, this made us move from place to place, neighborhood to neighborhood. Khaldiya to Baba Amr; Baba Amr to my uncle’s house.” Meanwhile, Abu Hafez and Alaa fled from Baba Amr to the periphery of Homs, where they found shelter in a rural farming village. Their main reason for fleeing was that supplies had been detained by the regime checkpoints that surrounded swaths of Homs. Alaa is unable to breastfeed, and the couple was desperate for milk for their infant.
Abu Wael and Um Wael fled Homs to Damascus province, and they were soon followed by their daughter and son-in-law.
“It got to the point where anyone from Homs was considered a terrorist,” Abu Hafez says.
Stories of arrests and killings scared the family, but the biggest warning hit closer to home. Two sisters, close friends of Alaa and Abu Hafez, had been traveling down the Homs-Damascus highway in separate cars when the first sister was stopped at an army checkpoint.
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“The sister in the car behind saw them put weapons in her trunk when she was stopped for inspection. She called her right away to warn her so they could throw them out when they reached the second checkpoint,” Abu Hafez says. The fear stemming from that incident pushed the couple, whose official IDs bear their incriminating neighborhood address, to get out of Syria.
Under Fire in Tripoli
The family escaped to Lebanon and set about to find an apartment, with little knowledge of their new city. The outside walls and balcony door of their new home are riddled with bullet holes. “The landlord and the real estate agent both told us these were very old bullet holes and not to worry,” Abu Wael says.
But only five days after they moved in to their new apartment, fierce fighting broke out in the adjacent Sunni and Alawite districts. Both can be seen from their balcony.
“We had furnished everything and bought the refrigerator. We had to pay three months rent—almost $1,000—in advance. And five days later we hear gunfire,” says Abu Wael. “The children were so afraid. In Syria they had to listen to air strikes and gunfire. They say, ‘we don’t want to die.’”
When a bullet flew through the balcony and out the other side of the house, the family fled once again—this time to a relative’s home in a safer part of the city. They lived together with 15 people — in just two bedrooms — for a week.
“We felt at that moment like all of the problems from Syria were coming here,” says Abu Wael. “I think the problems in Tripoli are going to get worse.” The family moved back to the old apartment after a few days in this shelter; housing is at a premium now in Tripoli and there were no other options. Abu Hafez lost his job as an accountant the same week, when the store he worked at in Tripoli caught fire from a gas pipe explosion.
The family relies on money sent by Abu Wael’s son in Libya, and even their family members back in Homs.
The United Nations gives them a food coupons worth $100 each month. But “that doesn’t even pay for milk for the baby,” says Abu Hafez.
The family is also aware of the legacy that their country’s government has had on Lebanon. “The Syrian regime occupied Lebanon for a long time and it screwed with the country a lot. We know the Lebanese have this legacy and they associate the Syrians with this oppression, or at least some of them do,” Abu Wael says.
The children in this family have been affected as much as the adults. Nearby, five-year-old Reem plays with her baby brother. “I want the doctors to take all the bullets out of people,” she tells her grandmother, referring to the wounded back in Syria. In turn, he produces the bullet that came through their window—his evidence of their violent surroundings. At first she’s afraid to touch it, then holds it for my camera.
“In Syria, if we did this interview, we’d all be dead. Not just me and my family, but also my parents, my brothers and sisters. This is freedom—the ability to express myself, to speak out if something is wrong,” Abu Wael says, as we part. Walking me out, his son-in-law admits that not all rebels represent his views.
<div> “I know that the revolution has made some mistakes,” he tells me. “Jabhat al-Nusra is a bad development. But I worked in aid distribution. Those FSA guys protected us, and they are the majority in Homs. For the first time I feel like we have a real national army that is loyal to the people. We all feel like this.” </div>