Through the Eyes of War
Ibrahim and Dalia's Harrowing Journey of Resilience Amidst Syria's Unending Conflict
"In the echoes of a war-ravaged Syria, there reside stories of resilience, hope, and heartbreak. This narrative follows the young lives of Ibrahim and Dalia, Syrian children who have grown up knowing only the throes of conflict. The tale stands testament to the unimaginable horrors they've faced, from IEDs to carpet bombings, and the relentless impact of these experiences on their physical and mental health. Yet, amidst the ashes of their tumultuous lives, glimpses of resilience and hope shine through, reminding us of the enduring spirit of humanity in the darkest of times."
The Syrian conflict has caused unimaginable devastation and hardship, particularly for children like Ibrahim and Dalia who have known nothing else. The ongoing conflict has shaped their lives, inflicting physical, mental, and emotional damage.
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”
Unseen Battles: A Reunion Amidst Ruins - The Return to Syria and an Unexpected Spark of Joy
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).
IBRAHIM’S STORY — PART 2
It has been precisely 18 months since I last saw Ibrahim on February 22, 2022. During that time, there have been significant changes in his life, some positive and others deeply saddening.
I had the chance to meet him again on July 18, 2023. Since my last encounter with Ibrahim, his mother, Nouha, aged 33, has remarried her high school sweetheart, Jemma, also 33. They now have a newborn baby born on July 19, 2023.
Custody Crisis: Ibrahim's Battle
Jemma, a Sargent in the Syrian Army, was already married and had three children before marrying Nouha. His children include a 13-year-old son, the same age as Ibrahim, and two daughters, with the youngest being 5 years old and having a disability that prevents her from walking. In accordance with Islamic customs, it is acceptable for Jemma to have more than one wife. Interestingly,
Ibrahim’s late father was friends with Jemma, and both wives were also friends.
However, due to Syrian law, Nouha had to give up all rights to custody of Ibrahim until he reaches the age of 14, at which point he can decide whom he wants to live with. Sadly, Ibrahim had to return to his Grandpa in Salimiyah, a man who has tormented and abused him since I first met Ibrahim in 2019. In the past month alone, Ibrahim’s Grandpa taught him how to smoke cigarettes and neglected to provide him with regular meals. As a result, Ibrahim’s physical condition has deteriorated, and at the age of 13, he appears to be the size of an 8-year-old due to malnutrition and severe vitamin deficiencies. Additionally, his mental health has been deeply affected, and he has become quiet and withdrawn.
During my visit, Ibrahim was asked with whom he would prefer to stay, his Grandpa or his mother, and he initially said both, seemingly out of fear and intimidation caused by his Grandpa’s cruelty. However, after spending some time in a safe and comforting environment, he changed his mind and expressed his desire to stay with his mother.
I’m grateful that I have never met Ibrahim’s Grandpa, as the mere thought of encountering such brutality would be difficult for me to control my temper. Nevertheless, I brought several gifts for both Ibrahim and his 7-year-old sister, Dalia, some of which were donated by my friends, while others I purchased myself. It brought joy to see them smile and laugh upon receiving the gifts. Jemma appears to be a kind and genuine person, and I sensed a positive connection with him.
However, Jemma’s responsibility now extends to supporting two families and a total of five children, including his daughter with a disability who will require significant medical care. Financially, this will be a considerable challenge, as Jemma, despite being in the Syrian Army for two years, does not receive government aid for his daughter’s medical needs.
During our time together, we shared a meal of chicken with seasoned rice, wheat, and French fries. Ibrahim ate only a few bites and claimed to be full, but I insisted that he finish the entire plate of food, promising him a special gift if he did so. Reminding him of the Great Famine in China, stories that I heard from my father when I was his Ibrahim’s age so I urged him to finish every grain of rice on his plate. Eventually, he did, and I rewarded him with a traditional Middle Eastern ring I had bought in Iraq — a silver ring with a large agate center stone and two small turquoise stones on each side. It fit on his middle finger, and he was told that as he grows, it will eventually fit on his little finger. He expressed gratitude, and we took a photo of our fists together, showcasing our rings.
Homecoming: A Glimpse of Joy Amidst the Rubble
After spending the day with Ibrahim and Dalia, we dropped them off at Jemma and Nouha’s home in Tleff, a small village outside of Hama. Nouha was eagerly waiting for them, and Ibrahim excitedly showed his mother the gifts he had received,
including a soccer ball, something he had never had before. Their home was also severely affected by the recent earthquake that occurred on February 26th.
The suffering in Syria has been unimaginable, with a conflict now in its 13th year, a recent destructive earthquake, and an ongoing economic crisis marked by hyper-inflation. The average Syrian family struggles to have even one decent meal a day. The country’s population has reduced significantly since the pre-conflict era, with millions displaced, many of whom are children living in poverty. Many Syrians have become desensitized to their reality due to the ongoing atrocities committed on the civilian population, including children. The use of banned weapons by the Geneva Convention have been used indiscriminately on the civilian population, and other forms of violence have worsened the already dire situation.
The Syrian people have been enduring a “Revolution for Hunger,” as it appears that the country is being intentionally starved to death. The motives behind this remain unclear, but there are suspicions and speculations about who might be behind such actions.