A Syrian refugee’s wish for the new year

In a Beirut camp, a mother marks the birthday of her twins – the one who got away and the one left behind.

Thirty-eight-year-old Faiza al-Kajeh
Thirty-eight-year-old Faiza al-Kajeh is a Syrian refugee who fled home with her family when it was bombed [Priyanka Gupta/Al Jazeera]

Beirut – Faiza calls him Abudi (small Abdullah). Abdullah al-Kajeh is her son. He turns 16 today, January 1.

Curious and headstrong, he used to love motorbikes – roaring through the town with his twin brother, Abdurrahman, riding pillion behind him.

The boys loved the metal – the nuts and bolts that kept the bikes together. She remembers how they would spend hours taking them apart in order to study the mechanics that pumped the machine into action.

When they weren’t in school or on their motorbikes, the twins spent their time bruising their thumbs on their playstations.

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Theirs was a good life, lived in a comfortable house and with plenty to eat.

The twins and their four siblings were Faiza’s joy.

“Birthdays were special,” she recalls with a smile. “We would call our neighbours. And I would make him his favourite Shish Barak [meat dumplings] and serve the children popcorn and fruits. Abdullah loved my Shish Barak.”

But the war in Syria changed all of that. It forced her boys to grow up, and it aged her a little.

“We were living in Qalamoun. The regime started bombing us. It continued for two days. Our house was hit. We grabbed a taxi and came to Lebanon. We didn’t know anyone,” Faiza says.

A family at a refugee camp in southern Beirut’s Burj el-Barajneh gave them shelter for a few days before they found a place to stay in a cramped neighbourhood that is already home to an estimated 28,000 Palestinian refugees.

Her husband, who is incapacitated as a result of an accident at the shoe factory where he used to work, couldn’t find employment. The family barely had enough to eat.

Faiza was worried for her children and her ailing mother-in-law, who sits curled up in a corner of the room, coughing occasionally. The UN food vouchers they received were barely enough to feed the whole family for the month.

So, Abdullah brought a cart and started selling vegetables outside the camp.

“He was always so responsible. He would bring me vegetables so I can cook for everyone,” she says.

Risking the sea to save his family

Three years went by like that.

But having to constantly hustle for money and dodge the police outside the camp who would push his cart away, was making Abdullah grow restless. His friends were planning to head to Europe and asked him to come with them.

He told Faiza of the plans. But she had heard about the boats that capsized in the Mediterranean and would hear nothing of her son attempting such a journey.

“I will not allow it,” she told him. “You will drown. It is too dangerous.”

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Abdullah had saved about $540, but didn’t have enough money for the entire journey. His friends told him he could borrow the rest from them.

They urged him to take the risk if he wanted to provide a better future for his family; that was always Abdullah’s priority.

The first Faiza knew of it was when Abdullah didn’t return home one night.

He and his friends had taken a plane from Beirut to Turkey. From there, they were heading to Greece on a boat with dozens of other refugees.

But, a few nautical miles off the Greek coast, the boat started to get into trouble. The Greek coast guard came to their rescue, saving the drowning men and women and bringing them ashore.

Sleeping on the streets of Germany

Abdullah, a minor without papers, wasn’t allowed to leave Greece for more than a week until one of his friends sponsored him and they left for Macedonia together.

That was when he made his first call home – telling his devastated mother that he had already safely reached Germany.

In truth, he spent the next few days trapped at the Hungarian border with hundreds of other refugees.

The first picture Abdullah sent his family after arriving in Europe [  Abdullah al-Kafeh  ]
The first picture Abdullah sent his family after arriving in Europe [ Abdullah al-Kafeh ]

Tired of waiting, Abdullah joined other refugees who had decided to walk to Austria.

For seven hours, they walked, tired and hungry in the cold, until the Hungarian government sent buses to pick them up. A little while later, Abdullah was boarding a train to Germany.

His friends wanted to go to Sweden, so they said their goodbyes and headed in different directions – to unknown countries away from their homes and families.

Abdullah had no money and no means of communicating with the strangers whose land he suddenly found himself in.

“I was left alone,” he says. “I slept on the street. I was so frightened. I was walking close to people on the road because I was afraid someone would attack me or harm me, but when it got darker, I was terrified.”

Eventually, a policeman took him to a camp. From there he moved to other camps, living like that for three months until, one day, a German woman came and took him to her home.

Taken in by a German family

“When I first heard that another family has adopted my son, I was devastated,” Faiza explains. “But I don’t want to be selfish, it’s better to be adopted and live a comfortable life than stay here and suffer.

“The most important thing is that he is getting an education. They have put him in school and a sports club.”

Now she eagerly awaits her son’s Whatsapp voice messages telling her about his day and telling her of the German letters and numbers he’s learning in school.

He sends her pictures of him smiling in front of a Christmas tree and surrounded by the family that has taken him in. But he doesn’t mention that he hasn’t made any friends at his German school and is feeling lonely.

His twin brother was his best friend and is now the only money earning member of the family.

Abdullah fights the thought of working illegally in Germany so that he might send some money to his family, knowing that they have lost not just him but also the money and food he used to provide for them.

“I am lost, I don’t know who I am,” he says. “I look around and cannot see my mother or siblings and I feel like [I am] losing my mind.

“I was happy before because I made it out safe, but now I realise I have done no progress to get my family to be with me, I feel miserable.

“I am lost and confused; should I go back or should I tell my family to come smuggled by sea the way I did? But they don’t have the money and it is expensive,” he wonders.

 Abdurrahman is now the family’s sole breadwinner. “Abdullah is my best friend,” he says. “Sometimes I am sad, sometimes I cry” [Priyanka Gupta/Al Jazeera]
Abdurrahman is now the family’s sole breadwinner. “Abdullah is my best friend,” he says. “Sometimes I am sad, sometimes I cry” [Priyanka Gupta/Al Jazeera]

Back in Beirut, the pictures Abdullah sends of the comforts of his new home bring Faiza a sense of relief as she goes about cleaning her small, damp apartment.

“I miss him the most when I see all my children sleeping and he’s not there,” she says.

As the New Year arrives, Abdullah and Abdurahman turn a year older. Faiza prepares a cake for them both.

She makes custard, jelly, popcorn, tabouleh and fried potatoes – a modest birthday spread for the brother who was left behind and the one who got away.

But her smile begins to fade and, as the family gathers to celebrate, she starts to cry. She cannot bring herself to speak to the son whose birthday she also marks but who is so far away. So she records him a message:

“Abdullah, how are you?
I wish you were with us on your birthday.
I wish you a happy life.
I wish you comfort and success.
You endangered your life for us, to save us from our situation.
Oh … happy birthday.”

Abdullah says he cannot celebrate his 16th birthday without his family and longs to be reunited with them [Abdullah al-Kajeh]
Abdullah says he cannot celebrate his 16th birthday without his family and longs to be reunited with them [Abdullah al-Kajeh]
Source: Al Jazeera