Naif and Fahtma

80 years is a long time. It is a lifetime of application, sustained growth and development, of yourself and that which is around you.

Imagine, then, in one quick moment, having to leave all that behind?

I want to share the story of Naif and Fahtma with you. Naif is 80 years old, and his wife Fahtma is 65. They have both lived in the same village, the size of around 100 families near Aleppo, for their entire lives. They owned about 20 sheep in this village, with whom Naif spent time in the countryside everyday, and harvested olives for a nearby factory.

This was true until about 5 months ago.

Barrel bombs landed on their village. One landed in between their house and the house of Fahtma’s brother. Luckily they were not home. However, the damage caused to their livelihoods was devastating: two of Fahtma’s nephews died and all 20 sheep died. Their house destroyed, their village in ruin. Fahtma saw a pregnant woman, two weeks from birth, lying dead in the street.

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In that moment, they had no choice but to leave everything behind. Their home of 80 and 65 years respectively. With no sheep, and no house, they could not continue their life as before. In the cold of winter, they left with just the clothes on their back and a small amount of money in their pocket; all other possessions discarded as well as 20 bags of freshly harvested olives, and the income that could have brought, gone to waste.

In escaping, “you walk one way, thinking it is safe, then you see a bomb ahead, so you have to quickly change your way.”

They made their way to their border at Al-rai in northern Syria, with several other families. In trying to cross the first time, Naif and Fahtma were driven back by the Turkish border patrol – in the process, a 16-year-old girl and her father were shot and killed. The devastation continued.

For one month, Naif and Fahtma stayed at the border – with only a tree for cover, the winter weather, including snow, bore down upon them. At all times, they simply longed for the simplicities of their old life, in their old village with their old sheep, where Naif could spend his days wandering the countryside.

However, they pushed onwards, finally managing to cross the border unseen. For three days, they trekked through a mountain region in Turkey, in a group of 10 men and 3 women. Progress was slow: Fahtma said she would walk a bit, then fall down because she was so tired. She said that she thought that she would die on those mountains.

Desperate and lost, they came across a group of Turks who demanded money from them in return for a lift to Gaziantep in Southern Turkey. The Turks also
threatened to inform the police of their illegal crossing if they didn’t comply. Naif, Fahtma and those they were travelling with were forced to give everything they had, which amounted to 800TL (about £187). Despairingly, the promise of a lift to Gaziantep was dishonest, and they were abandoned, more desperate and lost than before.

Thankfully, Naif and Fahtma, along with their group, came across a Syrian man as they finally neared Gaziantep. They were fed and, from there, were able to organise transport to make their way all the way up to Izmir, where I met them as part of ReVi’s daily visits in the city.

I continue to be utterly humbled by the courage of these people that have had their entire livelihoods dismantled. Naif and Fahtma are extraordinarily warm-hearted and welcoming, dearly thankful every time we visit them. They live with their daughter’s family in Izmir, all in a small room with an adjoining kitchen and bathroom, while another daughter still lives in Syria with her family, and their two sons and their families live elsewhere in Turkey, barely getting by themselves. They have 19 grandchildren.

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Naif and Fahtma waved away our commiserations on their story. They said that, compared to most people, their trip was easy. Bombed from their home, having lived there for a lifetime, livestock and family members killed, a month sleeping outside in the cold on the border, treks and exploitation in the mountains and no future to speak of in Izmir. This has become normalised to the extent that it is an ‘easy trip’. Imagine what other people must be going through?

Naif steps out the house daily to go for his walks. He’s used to open countryside, fresh air, early mornings, the sheep at his side. Now, with poor eyesight, he has to walk through the steep, dense, noisy streets of Basmane in Izmir. Fahtma says she often doesn’t want him to go: “it’s dangerous, because he can’t see well.” With everything they’ve been forced to go through, danger has taken on a new meaning.

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