Syrian Refugees in Egypt: “See the Sun Rising?”

Syrian Refugees in Egypt: “See the Sun Rising?”

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Heba is a beautiful young woman in her late twenties. A blue head scarf with flowers frames her soft face and her fierce light brown eyes, colored with eyeliner and mascara. She wears light jeans and a long blue dress. It is when she lifts her shirt and tucks up her pants that you realize what this woman has gone through. Her stomach, arms and legs are covered in pockmarks. Heba is tall and her voice is strong and loud when she talks about how her body was riddled by a dozen bullets. 

She and her seven-year-old daughter Eman were on their way back home from her mother’s flat. Heba had said her goodbye to her, because she, her husband and her daughter wanted to flee the war in Syria to Turkey. Together, as a family. Suddenly there was a barrier, a blockade. Behind the checkpoint, Heba saw “hell”, as she calls it. Tipped over, burning buses, dead bodies lying on the street and hanging out of the doors and windows. An attack, a cross-fire – Heba does not know what happened exactly. “I panicked and told the taxi driver to turn around immediately. That’s when armed groups opened fire on us. I covered my daughter with my body and told the taxi driver to drive us to the hospital in Aleppo. The last thing I remember was that I told the taxi driver to kill my daughter if I died. I thought it would be better for her than dying slowly and painfully in this hell on earth I had witnessed.” 

But Heba made it. After four days she woke up from a coma. Her daughter was lying in the hospital bed next to her. Like her mother, her small body was covered with bullet holes. They had aggressively penetrated the shield her mother had provided with her body and made it through her bones to her daughter’s. But surviving the bullets was not the end of Heba’s misery. Her husband divorced her, leaving her and Eman behind and fleeing to Turkey by himself. He did not want to be responsible for taking care of a wounded wife and daughter. The hospitals in Syria were not equipped for the treatment Heba and Eman needed. After 22 days Heba’s family had borrowed enough money to buy a plane ticket for mother and daughter so they could be safe in Cairo and receive the treatment they needed. 

It has been two years since Heba fled to Cairo. Since then life has been hard on her. In Syria, Heba was a driving instructor for women. In Egypt she cooks at home and sells traditional food on the street. Eman does not go to school, but instead to a nursery in one of CARE’s partner organizations. “The principal of the public school in our neighborhood told me that I should not enroll my beautiful, little blonde daughter. It would be too dangerous,” says Heba. In the beginning, Heba worked for a physiotherapist and could afford to send Eman to a better private school. But then her boss started harassing her after she had refused to become his secret second wife. “You are worth less than 50 Egyptian pounds,” he told her. The equivalent of five euros. The life of a single, divorced mother does not get easier far away from her home. 

Heba says the shock of what happened still paralyses her; not a single night passes without her waking up with nightmares. But she does not want to give up; she does not want her life and her heart and soul to feel as wounded as her body looks. Heba is attending CARE’s psychosocial sessions in Cairo. Together with other men and women, she has decided to walk the long path to recovery – step by step. “I want to heal, I want to feel good again,” says Heba. 

In a small room with big, open windows and walls colored in blue, she shares her story with people she has never met before. They come from Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. They listen to the psychologist who explains to them the symptoms of depression, isolation and trauma: rage, flashbacks, avoidance, insomnia, nightmares. The refugees nod their heads while he talks. It all sounds very familiar. “I wake up crying every morning and there is not a single night I don’t have nightmares,” says an elderly woman. “My husband is detained in Syria and I have not heard from him in two months,” cries a young mother with two small children on her lap. “I think about suicide every single second and minute,” says an elderly man. The psychologist explains the different phases of shock: denial, rage, depression and acceptance. “Depression leads to violence,” he writes on a flipchart and asks the attendees if they agree. Everyone raises their hand. “When you fix yourself, everything else will start getting better. Depression is a disease. We want to help you cross the line, leave the pain behind and find a safe place in your heart so you can heal.”

After more than an hour of talking, Heba and the other refugees listen to “Asfour”, a song by the famous Lebanese singer Fairouz. It talks about a little bird which fled from its cage to a neighbour and asks for help. While Fairouz sings about how the neighbour holds the wounded little bird to its heart, tears run over the refugees’ faces – men and women alike. They did not know each other before, yet they are connected through the mere fact that they are all refugees from Syria. They hold hands and pass boxes of tissues to each other. 

“Do not fear, see the sun rising,” Fairouz sings and Heba says: “The war is not only in Syria, the war is inside us. But I want to be like the bird in Fairouz’ song. I do not want to give up. I don’t just want to be alive, I want to live again.

Written by Johanna Mitscherlich

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Heba fled to Egypt with her little daugther Eman. Her husband divorced her and fled to Turkey. Before she left Syria, she was shot and still has bullet holes in her body. She is attending CARE's psychosocial sessions. (Photo: CARE/Johanna Mitscherlich)