Syria refugees in Lebanon share stories of pain: Nahlah Ayed

CBC's Nahlah Ayed is in Lebanon where she has spoken to many Syrian refugees about their lives now, conditions at home, and what they left behind. Here are two of the stories she has heard.

Syrian refugees share stories of family members lost and flight from war

CBC's Nahlah Ayeds speaks with 'Abeer,' a Syrian refugee currently living in Lebanon. (CBC)

CBC's Nahlah Ayed is in Lebanon where she has spoken to many Syrian refugees about their lives now, conditions at home, and what they left behind. These are two of the stories she has heard. The names and some of the details of the people she talked to have been withheld out of fear of reprisals against them or family members in Syria.


In the back room of Abeer’s apartment, there are dozens of packed bags waiting for another move.

Just a few weeks after she moved to Lebanon and into a derelict concrete building, the landlord sold it and now wants her out — along with the 12 other family members who fleetingly called the place home.

They still can’t find a replacement and the move is a handful of days away.

Terrible luck is something that Abeer now simply embraces as an inevitable part of her life as a Syrian refugee.

Her family were first displaced last year when the constant shelling made their life in a Damascus suburb unbearable. They didn’t venture far, sharing space in an orphanage for a few months.

But the situation seemed to only deteriorate and they decided it was best to leave.

She arrived in Lebanon with her husband’s family, her children, and another baby on the way.

Her sisters stayed behind. And so did her mother, who refused to leave even after a rocket damaged her house, forcing her to live in just one room.

When I met her Abeer was heavily pregnant, and she had just been to the hospital. It hasn’t been going well since one traumatic day late last month.

"The day it happened I was watching television, and it looked like a mess in [the suburb] where my family lives. I was very nervous," she told me.

She walked the several flights down to find a phone. She could reach no one in Damascus. Eventually one of her sisters called to give them terrible news.

Abeer’s eldest sister, and all her children, had died. In their sleep. Her sister’s husband found their bodies in a local hospital. It was Aug. 21, the date of the presumed chemical attack.

Her mother survived and left the family house.

Abeer caught sight of the horrific images of the aftermath that dominated the newscasts.

"I was shocked. Shocked. My sister was killed in that, in a chemical attack," Abeer said. "I never imagined my sister would die. And she died. God take revenge upon whomever was behind it."

Overcome with emotion, Abeer collapsed and ended up in hospital.

She hadn’t seen her sister in months. She doesn’t have a single picture in that mound of belongings waiting to be moved yet again.

"Her image doesn’t leave my mind," she says.

Neither do the images of their growing up in that leafy, breezy suburb. The crisp, sunny days as children. The family home she’s now sure she will never see again.

"We wish it would go back to what it was. Go back home to our life, to go see family without fear," she says. 

"It’s true that we didn’t die in a chemical attack or bombing, but … we are dying bit by bit, slowly."


With a boyish, toothy grin and gentle voice, Ammar looks more like the student he once was, than the army defector he became after walking eight hours to escape a role in Syria’s bloodshed.

Ammar had interrupted his college degree to finish up his military service — which is compulsory for Syrian males. But the unrest started and he was not allowed to leave the military as scheduled.

An extra year went by. Then, he says, his superiors asked him to go on a mission related to the unrest. He would not provide exact details out of fear of being identified.

"I don’t want to carry weapon to kill anybody with, I just can’t handle that," he said in an interview.

Had they ordered him to kill?

"Something like that, yeah," he said. And he was threatened: if he didn’t accept the mission, he would be sent to prison, where he was certain to face torture, if not worse.

He says that at that moment he decided he had to leave. It was his last day in the military.

It was a decision that could not be undone and it would change his life forever.

Carrying almost nothing, he was smuggled through the mountain range that separates Syria from Lebanon. His parents remain at home and he worries they would pay the price. Officials had already come looking for him.

He has no passport. Lebanon is as far as he can go, perhaps for several years.

"I can’t go to Syria again because you know I could be arrested from the Syrian forces. And you know in that situation I would be a dead man for sure."

He regrets joining the army. "I used to have a regular life, used to be a student, and I crushed everything."

Ammar says there have been many defections from the army. He says there are also many who remain out of fear. He believes that the Aug. 21 presumed chemical attack was almost certainly the work of the regime, and is likely to lead to yet more defections.

"That’s completely savage," he said. "I think it’s not the last chemical weapon in Syria. They will do it again."

He also said he’d been told in the army that Syria had the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world.

Ammar says he believes in the cause of the rebel Free Syrian Army but not their methods. And yet he says there’s a good reason why Syrians opposed to the regime decided to pick up arms.

"I think the solution is not everybody [to] kill each other. I am against the idea of carrying a weapon from the first day, but when any demonstration attacked by weapon, real weapon … they must in the end to carry weapon, definitely."

In those early days of the uprising in Syria, Ammar says he participated in the protests against the regime.

He would finish his shift at the military, change into civilian clothes, then join in.

But those altruistic days are long over, he says.

"It’s war. It’s not about revolution anymore."