Today, more than 6.5 million children in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid. The “Bayti” orphanage in Turkey, supported by Muslim Aid, accommodates 100 children who have lost one or both parents in the outbreak of conflict in Syria. This project aims to nurture the children left traumatised by the war, both with home and school life, so they are given back the opportunity to build their futures. Last June, a team from Muslim Aid UK visited the Bayti Project. MA staff member Nur Hannah Wan shares her experience..
“There was a rumour going around that our city had been sold… I didn’t know what this meant.” What Mayasa didn’t understand, she was to soon discover, amidst the concrete, rubble and chaos that would become the only memories of her past life. “Chemical barrels, the bloodshed…dead people”, she said. “This is the only memory I have of Syria”.
At seventeen, war and death had thrust itself upon this young girl's fragile, care-free shoulders. “Before the war, I wasn’t working; I wasn’t doing anything, I would just stay at home”, she said. “Then I became one of the helpers, carrying people, my neighbours, from beneath the fallen buildings.” Torn between her city and conflict, Mayasa soon learnt that safety and home were two words she could never again speak in the same breath. She knew the decision that lay ahead, and with that, she left her beloved city of Homms; Her home. Her life. Her mother. Escaping with her brother and close relatives, she walked into the distance - away from the carnage of Syria’s civil war.
“If you could see the state of my clothes when I arrived, they would tell you their own story,” she said, looking up to laugh nervously. Now sitting before me, Mayasa had been reluctant to speak. A timid girl, her nervous laughter was a diversion from having to re-live the nightmare of her journey; but eventually, she did: Mayasa and her relatives had escaped Syria on foot. Walking for days, they hid inside a tunnel for one month before crossing the border. She explains how they had survived on “anything we could find…grass, vermin…mice.” Eventually reaching Turkey, they had found safety at the cost of loved ones they had lost along the way: “To this day I do not know what happened to some of my younger relatives,” she said. “They just went missing”. Her journey eventually led her to the Bayti orphanage, where our paths had crossed that day.
Mayasa was not an orphan, but amidst the brick and bare-walls of this still semi-constructed building she had found hope that perhaps one day she could have her life back again. Though the building was still under construction, its gardens were luscious and green, boasting new-life; each unfurnished and empty room was immersed with the sunlight that would flood through its still bare windows. Downstairs in the food hall, a square, oven-shaped hole in the wall filled the canteen with the would-be smell of warm, freshly cooked bread. Above it, the words ‘“Bismillahirrahmanirrahim”’ - in the name of God, the Beneficent, the Most Merciful”.
“This is not an orphanage”, Zeina, the centre’s manager told me. “This is home”. In this place, Mayasa helped out with day-to-day chores whilst her brother assisted with construction work. As well as provide a home for children left orphaned by Syria’s conflict, the project provided a means for refugees like Mayasa and her brother, to earn a living - “The whole project takes into account everyone affected by the war” Zeina told me. “When Syrians arrive here, its very difficult to find employment - this project gives them work and an opportunity to make a living”. Everyday, Mayasa and her brother walked for two hours, from their makeshift home in an old abandoned warehouse, to the orphanage, helping to prepare it for the children that would soon arrive. Mayasa’s sandals clung to her feet, dusty and tired, paying testimony to the journey she had endured, to the orphanage, and ever since conflict had broken out in her home town. Though she smiled warmly, the stoop in her posture displayed the pain she still carried with her on her shoulders. “Would you ever go back to Syria?”, I asked, attempting to understand the reality of having to abandon one’s home. Painfully, she replied: “This is my life now, I would only return for my mother”.