IDLIB, Syria ― The streets around me are barely recognizable. Armed checkpoints dot the crumbling landscape. Everyone moves at their own risk, most during daylight hours. We are all targets.
Like the remnants of the roads I once knew, the people too have become a shell of what they once were. They are not coping ― they cannot cope. Instead, they wander around here in liberated Idlib, many displaced from my hometown of Aleppo after its fall three months ago, disoriented. It’s as if they’re living in a nightmare, only I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to wake up and walk away.
It’s been six years since conflict struck this country. The revolution quickly turned into civil war, and now many of those who once fought for freedom feel the nightmare may never end. They no longer feel they can hope for a future where they can walk down the streets in safety. There seems to be no light at the end of this tunnel.
When I’m here, I try to ease the pain. I hand out toys to the young ones, and distribute aid and the money I have raised for school facilities ― just as I have done on my 29 other trips into Syria. Each smile and thank you warms my heart as I witness the momentary sparkle in their eyes. But my mind can’t help but wander to the images of all the other children in Aleppo and elsewhere that I left behind and that I wouldn’t be able to visit this time. Did they make it out during the siege? Or are they still there, trapped in a city that is no longer theirs?
One moment on my 29th trip gave me a glimmer of hope.
“Uncle Finland!” “Uncle Finland!”
The voices in the distance are familiar ones. Twins, 9 year-old Ahmed and Mahmoud, I had met in Aleppo who had given me the nickname of the place in which I now reside ― I am Syrian-Finnish and based in Helsinki. They approach me and hug me as if I am their father. I hold them tight, so happy to see that they are alive and doing well.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey. One of them can’t stop telling me about how he misses his SpongeBob blanket ― the one he used to snuggle in each night as the sun set. I ask him if he has other blankets, offering to find some to keep him warm in this harsh winter cold. But his only reply is that those aren’t “like the SpongeBob one I had in Aleppo.”
They were smuggled out of their home in the back of a truck, their father said. He couldn’t send everyone at once, so he separated the family ― first the mother and daughters, then the men. As they crossed the checkpoints manned by regime forces, the men hid under blankets and clothes so only the females were visible. And all they heard was chanting against the Free Syrian Army as they drove farther and farther away from the city border, from their home.
“In America, people are up in arms about the ban of Syrian refugees ... But in Syria, it doesn't really matter.”
In the weeks and months since the siege of Aleppo, countless people have asked me what I think. I have watched as the world suddenly paid attention only to forget once it fell.
In America, people are up in arms about the proposed ban of Syrian refugees under the new president, Donald Trump. They march on the streets and argue in the courts, debating and protesting about the legal, the ethical.
But in Syria, it doesn’t really matter. Not for the people I meet. Many barely tune into the news either because they don’t have access or because they have more immediate things to worry about. Many have lost friends, family and loved ones. Others are separated or missing the home that is now destroyed. Some say they want to escape to neighboring countries, but even those have put restrictions on Syrians. Liberated areas like the ones I visit are scattered around the country and heavily populated. People here don’t really have a choice at leaving ― they are pretty much on lockdown. Going all the way to America is the last thing on their minds.
But Syria is on my mind. And even though I’ve lived in Finland for years, it always has been.
Memories of a Lost City
I’ve watched my country crumble from the outside, from my home in Finland, with my wife and children. By the time of the uprising in 2011, I’d lived outside of Syria for decades. But the distance did not lessen my affection and empathy for the country I still consider home. In fact, the distance only sent my stomach into knots as I thought about how helpless I was from so far away.
I remember Aleppo before the war. In recent trips there I would remember the good old days of my childhood when I saw the playground I used to play in or the restaurants I once ate in with old friends. But as bloodshed and destruction gripped the country, it became more and more difficult to go back. Eventually, those nostalgic moments were replaced with something else.
Frustration. Despair. Anger. The emotions drained me. I couldn’t eat, sleep, communicate with anybody. All I did was watch the 24/7 news coverage and message people still on the ground.
There is a video of a child that replayed in my mind over and over. The boy, tears streaming down his face as he speaks, wonders what he, we, have done to deserve this evil in Syria. “Does Assad want to kill us so bad? he asks.”
It still torments me to this day.
A year into the uprising, fear overtook me ― fear of losing my country as body after body piled up with no sign of letting up. The only thing I could think to do to reconcile the horrid events unfolding back home was to dedicate my life to helping as much as I could, in any way that I could. And so, SSYRELIEF was born.
I founded the charity with the aim of providing food and other aid to those still left in the country. And I wanted to give the children of Syria education and toys. It was the latter half of this that gave me the nickname of “the toy smuggler.”
The Evolution of a Charity
In 2012, I returned to Syria, taking with me all of the money I had saved over the past years. As I prepared for my trip, my wife and I sat down for dinner and talked to my kids about the reasons I was traveling to a war zone, trying to get them to understand that there are thousands of kids just like them that had lost everything in the war. Yasmin, my daughter who was three and a half years old at the time, couldn’t understand.
“How can kids not have toys?!”
Even at such a young age, I could see the sadness and empathy across her face.
The next day, as I was finishing my packing, Yasmin came to me and asked me to take something with me: her toys and barbies. I agreed to her request, and it turned into the best thing I have ever done.
The faces of the kids I met on my first toy trip made it all worth it. Their joy over the small token of barbies hit me deep in my soul and made me think about how little it took to make kids happy. The feeling was so overwhelming that I knew I would only be able to focus on this from now on. So I decided to come into the city and back to Syria every two months.
Before my current trip, I made 29 trips delivering toys and helping where I could, and 27 times I had no trouble entering Aleppo. But on the 28th, I was not able to enter ― I had to smuggle myself across the border. The siege, and the heavy bombing that came along with it, forced me to wait on the outskirts of the city, hidden just to the north of the city, watching warplanes bombing my people with all kinds of heavy weapons, and helplessly trying to connect with my friends and activists inside who promised me passage to the city.
My heart sank back then as it does now as I thought of the hundreds of orphans I would be letting down. They had gotten so used to my trips; to seeing my green bag and an abundance of toys, and I had gotten so used to seeing the excitement on their faces as I walked through the destroyed suburbs they lived in. But I had let them down this time. And I had lost not only them, but my city.
Aleppo doesn’t look like the city I was born and grew up in now, at least from the pictures. Almost none of the buildings I had walked by as a child or before I left for Finland in 1989 are still standing.
Fellow Aleppans still there during the fall were forced to take the terms of evacuation and leave the city in complete control of the Bashar Assad regime and his allies. Those who had fought to defend East Aleppo ― the most beautiful corner of the ancient city ― were forced to head to the countryside and scatter. And other civilians are now trying to cross the border into Turkey, a trek that many of them will have to make illegally.
Right after the evacuation I received so many calls from friends and family leaving the city. Every phone call broke my heart just a little bit more, but one reduced me to tears. When my friend Nagibe Al Ansaari called, I found myself bawling in a way I had only done as a child.
Nagibe had worked as a White Helmet in Aleppo for many years. He had been displaced from Aleppo and had gained strong ties with some Turkish officials who had placed him on a list that they said would grant him safe passage into Turkey. But when he had tried to leave for Turkey, he had been informed that his name was no longer a part of that list and instead, he would now be forced to smuggle himself into Turkey, just like any other refugee.
My heart broke for him. This man had given his life to make sure that he could help as many people as possible, and yet, when it came down to it, no one was willing to help him in the same way. And as I thought about the injustice, he told me that none of that really mattered; what mattered to him, what crushed him, was that he could no longer serve as a White Helmet. That there was nothing else that he could do. And now, with the ban on Syrians entering the U.S., he’s unlikely to be able to participate in peace talks or lobbying to help his people from outside of the country.
“I feel useless, I am just another refugee now,“ he had told me.
Having just completed my 30th trip without a glimpse inside Aleppo, I understand his sentiments. I, too, feel desperate and helpless. I, too, would give anything to help my hometown people in person. But right now, there is no way left to work in Aleppo. I have lost my city, but more than that, I have lost the right to help the people of my city. And that will not change until Assad is no longer in power.
No matter what happens in the coming months and years, I will never stop making trips to my country, even if it means risking my life to do so. I will continue working there until the day that I am no longer needed. And the rest of the international community should do the same.
It is not okay to stand idly by as city after city crumbles to pieces, only pausing to lament over an iconic photo and never taking concrete action.
The world cannot afford to let a generation of Syrians lose their childhood, their futures. It’s not okay for us to watch almost live as one nation is almost exterminated. We do have the power to stop this.
And after six years, we have an obligation to stop sitting by as though we are mere bystanders in this atrocity.
“While Trump has lived in towers engraved with his name, the people he is trying to keep out have been living under a regime that has killed those closest to them.”
U.S. President Donald Trump and many other world leaders have turned their back on Syrians. In Europe, populist leaders have favored anti-Muslim and anti-refugee messages in their rhetoric. Some governments even helped boost the Assad regime. Let’s not forget Russia, whose strikes hit the people directly under the cover of battle against the so-called Islamic State.
So President Donald Trump, I may not be able to come into the United States now to deliver my suggestions for the future of your policy toward my country, but I have a message for you that I hope you will listen to carefully.
I implore you to genuinely take into consideration the root cause of the Syrian war, not just the easy way to appease your party and supporters. While you have lived in beautiful towers engraved with your name, the people you are trying to keep out have been living under the dictatorship of one regime, one family, that has dictated their future by killing hundreds of thousands of those closest to them. And while your focus is on ISIS, the Assad regime continues to be the force most dangerous to Syrians, and the one that will continue to destabilize the region. If this does not end with the removal of Assad, the crisis will not just stay in Syria, it will expand even further than it already has.
It’s time to end this. For Syrians. And for the rest of the world.
Here is my full message to President Trump and Europe’s populist leaders: