In the fourth installment of our “Bags and Belongings” series, in which we ask refugees what they packed in their bags and what they left behind, we meet Ibrahim Jawdat, a humanitarian worker from Aleppo who fled to Gaziantep in Turkey. While he waited for his wife and children to join him, it was the “Iliad,” an epic Greek poem about the brutal siege of the city of Troy – one much like the siege of his own city of Aleppo – that brought him solace.
Humanitarian aid worker and news fixer, Gaziantep, Turkey
I was not in my native city, Aleppo, during the recent evacuations and forced displacement from opposition-held areas. But I have been carrying the story of another brutal siege that I smuggled across the border a few years ago – an Arabic translation of Homer’s “Iliad.”
I grew up in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and industrial capital – the grandson of a tribal elder from Jarablus and the son of a successful father who had even been sent to Yemen by the Syrian government to run a school.
I have two degrees from institutions of higher education and worked with a human rights organization since its founding in Syria in 2004. But I am currently without steady employment. I sometimes work as a translator or fixer for journalists in order to sustain myself and my family.
My brother was the one who pushed me to come to Turkey in 2013, after I helped him defect from military service in Syria.
My brother had been in the regime’s special forces when the war broke out. Initially, he was deployed to areas not close enough to enable him to flee to the other side. But when they [the Syrian regime] needed extra troops to fight in Aleppo, the opportunity arose. When he was injured slightly and allowed a few days’ medical leave, I found a way to take him to the other side [to Turkey].
I had been coming and going across the border for some time, and stopped only when the Bustan al-Qasr crossing point between the government-held and opposition-held areas of Aleppo was severed. I remember that day clearly, since I was going to get some toys for my children. I was on the phone with my father, on my way to the Bustan al-Qasr crossing point, when a woman near me was hit by a sniper.
On hearing the screaming in the background, my father urged me to go back to the Turkish side of the border and to stay there. I did so, and I have not been back to my family home since.
My son had been born shortly before the incident and my daughter was still a toddler, but I had already moved them to the opposition-held area to ward off the constant fear that we felt in the regime-held areas. Their mother had been pushing me to do so for a long time.
I entered Turkey with a pair of trousers, two shirts, a jacket, a notebook with my academic work and plans, two books, some papers and my laptop. I had to find someone to send me enough money to rent a flat in Gaziantep. My best memory from the journey was finally seeing my brother again, between Kilis and Gaziantep, after I was smuggled into Turkey.
Literary quotes now litter my small, rented home in southern Turkey, with post-it notes on walls and light switches and others that adorn my bedroom mirror.
I would like to find a way to enable Syrians to access affordable books. I use a Kindle now, since Arabic books are few and far between in Turkey.
I sometimes let friends who manage to get out of Syria stay with me for a while until they find a job or somewhere else to live. One of my friends, who had been working with a medical aid organization in the rebel-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria, crossed into Turkey in recent months. He brought nothing with him other than his identity documents and money.
The most challenging part of getting out was the obvious: money. But then it was a lot cheaper and easier than it is now.
Later, after hearing that a barrel bomb struck an area where my wife and children lived, and seeing the damage it produced while on a Skype chat with them, I got a relative to help bring them out.
My idea of home now is wherever my family is.
Buildings were built by people, and they can build more. The essential thing is that many civilians were able to get out of Aleppo after months under siege and years of unrelenting bombardment.
This account had been edited for length and clarity.