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Syria: a mother’s desperate choice

An estimated one million people have fled Syria to neighbouring countries (Luca Kleve-Ruud/Save the Children)

We arrive at the small Syrian refugee settlement early in the morning. It’s too early for most of the families living there to be awake, so we wander through the tents and broken buildings, waiting for signs of life. A couple of children have woken early and are wandering around aimlessly too.

The research team is unusually quiet – we’ve spent the week listening to refugees tell us what they have been through in Syria, and it’s playing on all of our minds.

One boy starts playing a harmonica, a jaunty tune that carries on the still morning air, jarring oddly with our mood.

New arrivals

The self-styled leader of the camp appears from between two tents. He is an intelligent-looking man, with glasses resting on the tip of his nose. He beckons us over and I ask about the settlement. More people are arriving every day he says.

He takes us over to one small tent on the outskirts. The family within arrived very recently, and he thinks they will want to speak with us. The tent is shabby and lopsided, with peeling bits of plastic flapping in the wind. A large dirty puddle blocks the entrance.

In broken Arabic, I introduce myself and shake hands with the family. We’re invited to sit inside the tent, and I struggle to maintain my balance (and my dignity) while simultaneously removing my shoes, avoiding the puddle and stepping inside.

Three families to a tent

Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can see that I’m surrounded by three families, all sharing the same tent.

We take some time to explain our reason for being here. I explain that while the news often covers Syria, most of the stories we hear are about military movement, the loss and gains of the two sides, the death toll.

What is missing – I think – is ordinary people’s voices, from both sides of the conflict. What does it feel like to be a human being, struggling to maintain normal life in the face of such adversity? What is it like to be a mother in a warzone? What is it like to be a child?

The mother we are speaking to nods slowly. She understands all too well what it’s like to be a mother in a war. I explain where the stories I hear will end up, and why it’s important for Save the Children to speak out about what families are going through.

“Very human”

“Thank you for doing this,” one woman said, “it is very… human.”

It is such a powerful thing to say that for a second I’m lost for words.

The families all want to speak to us, and I ask if the first mother would be happy for us to film the interview. She would be happy to be recorded she says, but not her face. She is still terrified of what might happen to her family in Syria on their return, so she can’t be identified.

We agree to film only her hands (she has such expressive hands) and we show her the angle of the camera to check she’s happy. She is, and we change her name for good measure too.

We all sit in a small circle on the floor. I ask some general questions. I’m curious to know why, after nearly two years of war in Syria, what it was which finally tipped Wadha* over the edge into leaving her country.

A split-second decision

“The moment I decided we should leave? Yes I remember it. It was 1am and the snow was falling heavily. Bombs were falling around us.  I opened the door and I saw people running away as the bombs were getting closer.  Each one tried to save himself and they took their children and ran.”

I ask her if she also had her children around her, if they all decided to run together. Wadha pauses, and when she starts to speak, her voice cracks.

“I had to decide – my son was not with me, but we could not wait and find him – I had to leave to save my other children’s lives. I do not know where my son is now. My heart aches at this memory.”

Barefoot in the snow

Wadha continues her story – they fled barefoot in the snow, running for hours until they reached safety.

She worries every day about her son. She talks more about her family, and the situation inside Syria. She plays fondly with her children while talking, but the sadness on her face that appeared when she spoke of her son still remains.

The enormity of that split-second decision will haunt me.

Before the conflict, Wadha worried about which school to send her children to, whether to move to a different town, whether her husband would earn enough in his job to afford their house. Big life questions and decisions. The kind of decisions you ponder, discuss and finally agree on.

Those split-second decisions that come out of nowhere at 1am on a snowy Wednesday morning… you can never be ready for them, and yet they change absolutely everything.

One million refugees have now fled Syria. Half are children. The crisis is outstripping even the most pessimistic assessments.

Save the Children is working across Syria and in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to provide support to families affected by the conflict. We are delivering food, warm clothing and helping children come to terms with their horrific experiences.

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