Growing up in a war

Michel grows up listening to old stories about a Syria he never knew, about the old house they had before he was displaced with his parents and sister. Michel cries when he remembers the few details about his old life.

Open Doors was able to meet Michel and his family to ask about their lives through the Syrian war.

On March 8, 2011, two days after a group of teenagers was arrested in Daraa because of painting anti-government slogans on a wall, Rasha Nemi went into labour. Rasha is married to Elias Shahoud who, at that time, was still a soldier doing his obligatory duty for the army. Thankfully, Elias finished his obligatory national service in the army just before the war in Syria really started. They already had their one and a half year old daughter Jessica.

“Only two weeks after Michel was born there was an attack on Jisr-Al-Shughur. The wound from my C-section was still not healed and we had to flee our village. For ten days we stayed in a nearby village called Hallouz until things calmed down, then we returned to our village,” Rasha says.

After Michel and his parents returned to their village, they stayed there for three years. “Our place was a battlefield, sometimes the regime would take control, other times the terrorists (generally people name the rebels terrorists, as this is how the government names them) would take over,” Rasha says. When Michel is asked about those three years he says, “I wasn’t scared, I used to carry my toy machine gun to shoot the terrorists and claim victory, I would run out of the house and see them in the streets with long beards, I wanted to attack them but my mom would stop me.

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“I loved our house in Jisr Al-Shughur. I had a bicycle on the balcony which I used to ride every day and I had so many toys stashed in the attic. Every summer we and our cousins  would inflate a swimming pool on the roof and have a blast swimming together .”

When asked about things he misses most from that time, Michel runs out of the room, leaving us wondering what’s the matter. Shortly after, his sister says that he’s crying and didn’t want to cry in front of us. “Michel has so much pride, he is a reliable boy. I can count on him to go to the grocery store and buy bread from the bakery, even at ten years old. He is very responsible but always hides his feelings,” Rasha says as Michel re-enters the room with teary eyes and red cheeks. His mother asks him to continue his answer so he says, “I miss my bedroom, especially my bed, it was filled with toys and I loved it.”

Rasha and Elias had to leave the village when the bombings became intense. The Islamic troops announced with speakers that all Christians should leave town; around 100 families were displaced together. “In 2014, when Michel was around three years old, my five-year-old daughter and I were forced to wear the Islamic traditional outfit to cover our hair, faces, hands and bodies when we left our house. Elias and I carried as many clothes as we could for the kids, and some canned food,” Rasha says when she describes the scene when they fled their house. “They were screaming at us, I carried my daughter and was forced into a different car than the rest of my family. Michel was with his grandmother in the other car. I always say that I felt that God was stretching his hands over us all the way until we reached the nearby village called Yakubiyah. The priest welcomed us in a monastery where we stayed for few weeks.”

Michel recalls details about that period. He says: “As we drove away from the village, I was singing songs for Syria, chanting the national anthem, my family made me shut up so the extremists wouldn’t hear and kill me. In Yakubiyah I didn’t like the monastery, it was cold, and we didn’t have food.”

Rasha interrupts and tells a heart-breaking story. “Michel’s grandmother is responsible for the food; she always cooks for the whole family. Michel is used to running up to her and asking her ‘what’s for lunch today?’ When we were in the monastery, all our canned food had run out. Michel came up to his grandmother and asked her ‘what’s for lunch today?’ She said: ‘we don’t have anything to eat sweetie.’ He replied: ‘Okay then can I have a boiled egg?’ She again replied: Sorry sweetie we have no eggs. He insisted: okay then please make me a small sandwich. She couldn’t hold back her tears. She went out endangering her life by going where the rebels were, to get him a piece of bread and something more to eat.”

The Shahoud family left Yakubiyah after three weeks and headed towards Latakia. “We stayed at a friend’s house while Elias searched for a house to rent. At first, we moved to a house that was completely empty. We didn’t have anything. A pastor from the Baptist church visited us upon arrival, and when he saw Michel and Jessica sleeping on the floor he went out and brought us some mattresses and blankets or we would’ve died from the cold,” Rasha says.

The little boy who loved his bed was now sleeping on the floor. Elias was unable to buy furniture, kitchen equipment or supplies for the house, leading them to search for a house to rent that was already furnished. Meanwhile, the Nazarene church in Latakia was distributing aid to many displaced people with the help of Open Doors. They heard about the situation of Shahoud family, they visited them and enrolled their name in the food aid.

They got involved with that church. “The children attend Sunday school and Michel loves his new friends there. They are very committed; they memorize verses from the bible and keep the artwork they do every week. We have a wall where we stick the handcrafts on,” Rasha says. “One of my favourite verses is: He heals the broken-hearted’ which I learned in the last camp with the church,” Michel adds.

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Through our local partner, Open Doors supports the Nazarene church in Income Generating Projects for needy Christians. Elias was able to get a job at a grocery store. “The store was a huge step for us; we stopped being dependent on aid and became able to provide for the family. We are able now to pay the rent and support the children. Thank God for the church and the way they stood by us,” Rasha says.

Finally, Michel states “I love my friends here, but I hope one day we can go back to our home. I can visit Latakia but prefer to live in Jisr Al-Shughur again.” He ends with “I wish for Syria every good thing in life. I wish it goes back to the way it was before I was born and hope that we have peace.” A child with a big heart, with dreams, born in time of war. He experienced the goodness of God, believes in His faithfulness in the present and trusts that He holds the future and will guarantee a brighter tomorrow for him and his family.

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