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Midnight in an Istanbul park: Syrian children play in the shadow of war

In between the peals of laughter and the occasional bike collision as Syrian children play in a park in Istanbul, the echoes of the brutal six-year civil war their families fled never seem far away.

Echoes of brutal 6-year conflict never seem far away

Eight-year-old Kais plays with other Syrian children in a park in the Fatih neighbourhood of Istanbul. (Julian Sher/CBC)

It's nearing midnight in a dimly lit park in Istanbul, not far from the sea, and eight-year-old Kais is scooting around on his new bike. He's joined by a dozen other Syrian boys and girls, scampering on the slides and laughing on the swings under a full moon.

The night air is warm in the Fatih neighbourhood, one of the many communities where refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria have found a new home — and a friendly welcome — in Turkey. 

At a table nestled under the trees, Kais's father, Jawad Muna, rolls another cigarette, chatting with several mothers in head scarves as they clutch their warm glasses of tea.

"Our families used to always play late into the evening when we were in Damascus before the war," says Muna, an exiled journalist who says he faced jail and torture under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and now runs a pro-democracy newspaper smuggled into Syria every week.

Syrian refugee children play in Istanbul park 0:17

"So now the children play here and plenty of Turkish children have joined them."

In between the peals of laughter and the occasional bike collision, the echoes of the brutal six-year conflict never seem far away.

Muna introduces me to Myassa, a petite woman with large, expressive eyes. She's scrolling through photos of her 16-year-old son on her cellphone.

Brooding eyes 

In the first ones, he's staring at the camera with that defiant gaze typical of teens, his dark eyes brooding and a thin moustache trying to proclaim his manhood; next there is a series of snapshots showing him in rebel fatigues, brandishing a rifle; and then finally a graphic photo of his corpse. 

He was killed in fighting a couple of years ago, Myassa says quietly.

"What is a mother to do without her son?" she asks, flipping faster through the memories as if that somehow might bring him to life.

Myassa looks at photos of her 16-year-old boy who fought with the anti-regime rebel forces in Syria and was killed in fighting a couple of years ago. (Julian Sher/CBC)

Across the table sits an elderly woman with those smiling eyes and creases of wisdom etched on a wizened face that you associate with grandmothers everywhere. 

"Um Joseph" is the nickname everyone knows her by — the mother of Joseph — and she has become everyone's mother in the community, helping families in need and solving disputes.

"She takes care of everyone here," says Muna.

Hiding the rebel guns

But not long ago, Um Joseph was taking care of war — running guns, she says, for the rebels in the Damascus suburb of Darraya, smuggling weapons and medicine during some of the most intense fighting.

"I used to hide the guns under my robes," she says with a laugh. "They would never check."

But if they did, she says, at times she carried a grenade with her hand on the pin if necessary to take any government soldiers with her if it came to that.

A grandmother known as 'Um Joseph' says she smuggled guns to Syrian rebels. (Julian Sher/CBC)

Growing impatient with all this adult talk of war, the children come over to interrupt, before running off to play again.

"It's such an important refuge for them here," says Muna, smiling as his son dashes away with his friends.

Muna knows all too well the need for that refuge from the war raging just 1,000 kilometres away, a bloody six-year conflict that has killed nearly half a million people and displaced more than five million to other countries.

Jawad says he endured 144 days of torture in Assad's prisons for being a democracy activist, even before the war broke out in 2011.

Wanting an ordinary life

Once released, he joined the rebellion and spent three years on the run, hiding from the regime and hardly ever seeing his son, who was sheltered in a safe town near the border.

Reunited recently in Istanbul, Muna and his son are trying to build a semblance of an ordinary life.

At school, Kais is learning Turkish and English. And like all children, he often poses those imponderable questions.

Surrounded by the fiercely patriotic Turks, Kais asked his father one day why Syrians don't sing the national anthem the way all the children at his school bellow out their country's song.

Jawad Muna, editor-in-chief of Souriatna, stands in front of photos of children whose stories his paper has chronicled. (Julian Sher/CBC)

"Because our anthem sings of the military — and the military is killing the people," Muna told his son.                  

When he is not taking care of his son, Muna works in a cramped second-floor office not far from the park as editor-in-chief of Souriatna, one of several opposition papers that have flourished in Istanbul.

Relying on a range of correspondents reporting from battle zones across Syria, Muna and his staff have never missed a Sunday deadline in six years, getting the paper across the border and into the hands of thousands of Syrians desperate for news —​ and a perspective free of "inciting or harming people" through religious or political intolerance, as Souriatna vows. 

Long hours, little money

Fiercely independent, Souriatna has faced scorn and repression from both the Syrian regime and radical Islamic opposition forces — reporting on everything from human rights abuses and the tens of thousands of civilians who have "disappeared" to children with autism and women with breast cancer who are going untreated as the hidden casualties of war.

Working long hours with little money to keep his paper — much less his family — alive and well, Muna admits many an evening he wants to give up.

People inside Syria read smuggled copies of Souriatna. (Souriatna)

"It is very hard. But then in the morning, Kais comes in to my bed and jumps on me full of energy, and I have some hope," he says.

"I can't give him money for a good life yet," Muna says. "But I can teach him how to fight for what's right, to build his life with a free mind, with free thoughts. This is more important."

The shadows grow longer in the park and as the night wears on, one by one the children depart. Kais and his father are among the last to leave.

As they head home, the parents clutch their children, tousle their hair or lay a protective hand on their shoulders.

All they can do is hope that these children at least will grow up happy and safe and don't end up as ghosts, captured on a cellphone as painful memories of an endless war.

Julian Sher is the senior producer of CBC-TV's The Fifth Estate. He was in Istanbul last week to train exiled Syrian journalists on behalf of Canada's Journalists for Human Rights.

About the Author

Julian Sher

the fifth estate

Julian Sher is the senior producer of CBC TV's investigative program The Fifth Estate. He is also the author of Somebody's Daughter: The hidden story of America's prostituted children and the battle to save them. @juliansher julian.sher@cbc.ca