By Vincent Lyn
Ibrahim (Abraham in English) was born March 28, 2011 and has known of only war. Another orphaned child of the remnants of a bloody inhumane war. Ibrahim was nine-years-old when I met him in October, 2019 and he was born when the Syrian conflict began in 2011. He has vague memories of his father who was killed in action fighting for the Syrian Army.
The astonishing story of this boy you will about to read limits my input, as his life’s story is above anything I can add, certainly not to comment on his experiences few of us will ever know. I am aware he has left our author, Vincent Lyn, with memories that will certainly be with him forever. This story, told by this boy, should haunt all of us into acknowledging the blessings of how we live, and the day-to-day challenges of how a 12-year-old Ibrahim lives. A casualty of being a child in a war selfishly fought by adults, he remains powerless to change the course of his life, and except for the occasional visits by our lead-author, love and affection will rarely be dependable for him for a long time. Of course, war is wrong, but it’s worse when it affects the welfare and healthy mental growth of children caught up in something they can’t control. This is not “rocket science;” children need our protection, especially when their parents aren’t there for them. Here is his story…
On my way from Damascus to Aleppo, an 8-hour drive, we made a pit stop at the half-way point in a small town near Salamiyah. Ibrahim was hanging around a rest stop-snack bar owned by a jovial proud handsome man Abo Shadi. Ibrahim was carrying a big potato sack. I asked Mohammad who he was? He told me the story and that the owner of the place allowed him to hangout and scrounge whatever he could, especially aluminum cans to sell nearby. Ibrahim smiled at me and though somewhat shy, was very sweet. He never begged or asked us for food while we sat there for more than an hour having a drink and snack. We left and waved goodbye and continued our journey onto Aleppo. Two days later, heading back on our way to Homs, we stopped at the same snack bar and there was Ibrahim wearing the same t-shirt and jeans carrying the same sack, larger than he was. He recognized me and smiled once again. Only this time I offered him an apple juice that I was given from the hotel. He thanked me, accepted and drank it. Mohammad and I sat down and chatted with the owner Abo Shadi. I went to the car and got a pack of candy and my baseball cap. I gave him the candy and he sat down between the both of us. I adjusted the cap and placed it on his head and he smiled. I had many questions that Mohammad translated to Ibrahim. Sadly, when he took the cap home his grandpa took it from him and sold it.
(From the lead-author, Vincent Lyn) I have seen several photos of Ibrahim and they are of a child who rarely smiles. His story, as I tell here, is heartbreaking, and one of millions of stories of children who have lost parents in an unforgiving war, wherever conflict is fought, but who are searching for stability, an education, and a little attention and affection. How does it feel to grow up in the absence of love? A selfish grandfather willing to sell Ibrahim’s baseball cap, probably the only “gift” this child has ever received, is cruel and completely unnecessary. If Ibrahim can scrounge for something to sell and then give the meagre proceeds to his grandfather, surely that older adult can do the same!
I had planned to return to Syria to try and find Ibrahim in June, 2020 but COVID-19 hampered those plans. In the meantime, I spent more than a year trying to locate Ibrahim with the help of my close friends and colleagues who live in Syria. I never gave up the good fight and last year April, 2021 with the help of the café owner Abo Shadi, colleague Mohammad Khair Al-Khousi and friend Remy Haddad, we were able to locate Ibrahim’s whereabouts. He no longer lives in Salamiyah, but in a small town south west of Hama called Ttelff, which is 213 km north of Damascus and 46 km north of Homs. We now know that Ibrahim’s father was a soldier in the Syrian Army killed by ISIS on April 13, 2016.
Ibrahim’s father, Rami was originally from Salamiyah while his mother Nouha’s family were from the small village of Ttleff. The conflict was so devastating in that area she hadn’t heard from her parents in two years. The lines of communication were completely severed and so she didn’t know whether her parents were dead or alive. Upon hearing that her father had passed away she wanted like any good filial daughter to pay respects, even knowing that she possibly could get kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered by the terrorists. Her husband, a very brave soldier, knew the imminent dangers so he forbade his wife to go. The daily sound of gun-fire, mortar rockets and fighters jets from above was always a constant reminder that your life could end at any second. Rami’s mother was very sympathetic to Nouha’s loss of her father so she helped find a way to get her too Ttelff, but without letting her husband know. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to get to Ttelff because it was under siege so she got stuck at her Uncle’s home only 5km away. This lasted for seven months, stuck in no man’s land only a stone’s-throw from Ttelff, and now not being able to get back to Salamiyah. She was two months pregnant and by the time she could actually move from her Uncle’s she was ready to give birth.
There was a 48-hour cease-fire and so her mother ran from Ttleff to get her daughter. Once her husband found out he told her don’t bother coming back to Salamiyah. Nouha gave birth to Dalia on January 19, 2016, left in the lurch not being able to get back to her son Ibrahim and then Rami telling her not to come back. The conflict erupted yet again and now 15 months passed without seeing her son Ibrahim. Rami requested a 48-hour temporary leave that was granted by his superiors so that he could visit his daughter. He called his wife and told her to bring his daughter and return to Salamiyah. Within several hours of the call Rami was killed in a terrorist attack. Nouha not knowing this as she was already in-route, a two-day journey arrived only to see her dead husband and view his funeral. After the traditional Islamis funeral lasting three days her father in law gave her a choice, either marry her husband’s brother to keep the children or leave her children and return to Ttelff and start a new life. She refused, and was cast out having to return to her village without her children. After 3–4 months she became so depressed that she had a nervous breakdown. Dalia was also near death not having been fed from her mother. Her mother-in-law told her that Dalia is dying and to come and get her, but they refused to give Ibrahim back to her. Nouha was shocked to see the way her children had been treated, Ibrahim now seven-years-old looked like he had been starved, emaciated and sallow, had been enslaved and made to beg and scrounge for his grandpa. Nouha had tried to find a way to get her son back but having no identification papers to prove that Ibrahim was her son and a war raging on and no support mechanism everywhere she turned the door was slammed in her face. Finally, she decided to go to court but spent the next three years dealing with the bureaucratic proceedings and the grandparents never showing up to court when requested. Finally, Nouha was granted full custody of her children in April, 2021.
(From the author) As I mentioned above, the baseball cap in safekeeping, was discovered by his grandfather — and sold! And for what? What extraordinary amount did the grandfather make? Can we assume the proceeds were shared with Ibrahim? (Of course not!) And what about the boy’s feelings about this gift from a stranger, now sold? Everything of value was taken away from this innocent boy. (Anger comes over me now.)
Since COVID-19 traversed the globe having now taken approximately 10 million lives the situation for the Syrian people got even worse; stringent sanctions, limited electricity supply, hyper-inflation, sporadic on-going war in certain pockets of the country and COVID-19. But we were able to contact Nouha and speak with Ibrahim and Dalia. We were able to get him a new baseball cap with the BMW insignia on it.
I received a letter from Ibrahim written in Arabic. Here is the translation:
“My name’s Ibrahim Rami al Mohammad
My mother Nouha
I am 10 years old
I am in 3rd grade I’m behind my age’s grade as I should be in the 5th grade
But my circumstances force me to be in this situation
The future bothers me because my study situation is deteriorating and there is no teacher in our territory and the situation is not good
My mother’s financial situation is so bad
I don’t see that I have a good future
All I wish is that our financial situation would be better to enable me to make my dreams come true when I grow up, to help my sister and my mother
To be a good doctor who help poor people
That is my ambition in life”
As I mentioned I never gave up the good fight and so I returned to Syria on February 19, 2022 and made it my first priority to see Ibrahim. With the help of my colleagues the meeting was to take place at the Orient House Hotel in Hama. I had not slept a wink the previous night as a million scenarios played out in my head. Flashing from one extreme point to another. Mohammad picked up Nouha, Ibrahim and Dalia from the bus station and brought them back to the hotel. Mohammad knocked on my door and said they are here, I said, “Already”. Again, I had nervous sweats. We walked downstairs together and the moment Ibrahim saw me all my worries and concerns were washed away in a split second. He knew exactly who I was, having remembered our first encounter 28 months before. It was wonderful to see his beautiful smile as wide as the deep blue sea. He walked towards me and we shook hands, and as is customary in Islam he kissed my cheek. We all sat down to have lunch with Mohammad and Remy acting as a go-between to translate. I sat in the far corner next to Ibrahim and across from Remy who sat next to Nouha and Dalia. Mohammad sat on the other side of Ibrahim. No doubt I had a million questions but we broke the ice by Mohammad ordering lunch. Ibrahim asked for pizza, something he knew about but had never eaten before.
Ibrahim, now 12-years-old, it was plainly obvious that he was vitamin deficient, frail and underweight with a physique more of a 7–8-year-old boy, not a 12-year-old. In fact, the pullover that was donated for him, was for an 8-year-old child but it fit him perfectly. I had bought two New York baseball caps, one for Ibrahim and the other for Dalia. I then made a quip to Ibrahim and asked him where his wrist watch was. I proceeded to take off my black divers watch and put it on his wrist. The moment I did this his sister started having a tantrum and crying fit, putting her face in her mother’s lap. Mohammad got up and went to the gift shop and came back with a wristwatch for Dalia. Dalia, a rather naughty young girl of six-years-old, seems to have her little finger wrapped around her mother. What was most endearing though was Ibrahim constantly clinging to me. Either, affectionately holding my hand, hugging me and constantly wanting to take photos together. It was difficult not to start crying but I held it in until I was alone in my hotel room. I became awash with emotion.
I asked Ibrahim about school and his classes and daily routines. About the family’s present circumstances and Ibrahim’s ordeal not only while with the grandpa but his life in general. The mother was very forthcoming and laid out everything from his birth throughout the war until now.
Ibrahim and Dalia are two children out of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian children who have grown up knowing only war! I’ll say that again, “They have grown up knowing only war”! Experiencing unimaginable horrors, IED’s (improvised explosive devices), snipers, suicide bombers, sarin gas attacks, barrel bombs and probably the worst of all, the sound of screaming fighter jets, night after night carpet bombing the city. And then when the sun comes up, they apprehensively crawl out of an underground tunnel or bunker, and only then to witness the aftermath of carnage it leaves in its path.
Not since WW2 has the earth seen such a destructive and bloody conflict destroying this once beautiful country, desecrating ancient archeological sites of antiquity. This terrible war has displaced millions of Syrian nationals, torn families apart and destroyed the lives of over two million Syrian children.
Someone once said, “Enjoy the War while you can, because the peace will be terrible!” No human being let alone a child should have to experience this, it’s not normal. Yes, they both physically survived but they are merely trying to survive the day to day anguish, pain, suffering, torment and grief. The mental and psychological toll it has taken on them and will continue for many weeks, months and possibly years to come.
It is so heartbreaking the horrors that Ibrahim has had to endure. How can we in the west have an inkling of his suffering? We simply can’t! Ibrahim is etched into my memory. He’s not just a name, a face, but a young boy I met back in 2019 and can never forget. Ibrahim is just one of the tens of thousands of children who have known of only war. A crime against humanity. If only to help him then it’s worth it, no matter what the cost. You begin by saving the world by saving one person at a time. Most people don’t understand that, and I can never make them understand.
God Bless Ibrahim and Dalia and keep them safe. Salaam, Inshallah.
HOPE IS WAITING FOR SOMEBODY ELSE TO DO SOMETHING.
Even as I write this I can’t help but cry. I pray to see Ibrahim again very soon. He will always be in my thoughts and will always be able to count on my help and care.
Dear readers, after reading this, I, too, am in tears. God bless his family. God watch over Ibrahim. Please.
(The above article will be part of my upcoming new book “Generation Hope” published in June, 2022 the follow-up book to “Childhood Lost”. Like the format of “Childhood Lost” in italics is my co-writer William A. Verdone’s thoughts).
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Editor in Chief & Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts