To escape the war in Syria, I needed to get a passport. So every day, from 6am till 5pm, I would patiently stand in line outside the immigration office. This was highly stressful because at that time cannons and machine guns were being fired from the top of the immigration building, where the regime had set up a base.
Then, at the end of each day, we were always told, ‘No, not today’.
To make myself feel better, I would go to visit a pet shop. One particular cat was always very excited to see me, and after many days, I had a very nice connection with her. But every day, I was thinking: I can’t get this cat, because I won’t be able to take her out of the country with me.
However, on the day I finally got my passport, I said to myself, ‘I’m getting out and this cat is getting out too.’
I named her Sasha.
I knew getting a cat was crazy, but somehow I just wanted a friend. At that time, I felt I was basically losing everything – I had just broken up with my girlfriend, I had said goodbye to a lot of friends and family, and still others had died. I also knew that one day soon, I would have to close down my business and say goodbye to everything in my city, Aleppo.
Life there had become very difficult. My area had gone under siege for two months. There was no internet; electricity would sometimes only come on for an hour once a week; and people had to dig wells because the water was completely cut off. Still, somehow life continued. Although I couldn’t take a shower, I kept going to work in my family business – a medical laboratory.
By then, the rest of my family had already left for Dubai, but I had stayed. Finishing my mechanical engineering degree was my excuse, but really I just wasn’t ready to leave my country yet.
The last straw came during one particular night from hell, when there was a bombing of my neighbourhood – seven bombs a minute non-stop for fourteen hours. Luckily, I had my electricity generator, and so I was able to distract myself by watching Game of Thrones all night, in the bathtub, with my Sasha in my lap.
Unfortunately, at 7am, my generator ran out of gas. By then, there were only two bombs a minute so I thought it would be safe to go out and get more. But just I was walking down the street, I heard that sound, and when I looked up, I saw a bomb coming directly towards me.
Although I started running, after a few seconds, I found myself flying through the air. And when I landed, I looked up, and saw this one man who had basically been watching me from the beginning to the end. He was laughing so much, his heart was full of laughter. And suddenly I realised how detached from reality we had all become.
That was when I decided it was time to finally leave my country.
I knew it would be almost impossible to get Sasha out with me. Everyone was telling me to leave her in the street. But I knew I had to try.
In the end, I booked two seats on the bus from Aleppo to Damascus, one for me, and one for Sasha! Before the war, this trip had only taken 3 hours, but now it took 18 hours because we had to go through 36 checkpoints.
At one checkpoint, a military guy wanted to travel and although the driver told him all the seats were taken, he walked up to me, and said, ‘What’s in the box?’ I said, ‘A cat.’ When he said he wanted to sit there, I said, ‘No. It’s very hot, and the AC won’t reach her on the floor. And I paid for this bus ticket.’ So for some reason, he left me alone, and decided to just sleep on the floor between the rows of chairs.
At the next checkpoint, another soldier got on, and asked me what was in the box. When I said, ‘A cat’, he said, ‘I can’t believe this, a military person sleeping on the floor and a cat on the seat. Remove her right now’. This time, when I said no, he didn’t even wait for me to explain. He took his gun. He cocked it. And he put it in my face, and said, ‘Remove her now or you’re dead’.
I still don’t know what got into me at that moment. I’m not claiming that I’m a courageous person. But what I said was, ‘Sure you can shoot me, but you don’t know who I am. You don’t know who my father is. And you have no idea what will happen to you after you kill me or if you even touch me’. At that moment, the bus driver came up and pulled him back. And as he dragged him off, I heard him saying, ‘His father is…’ I don’t know what he told him, but I’m forever thankful for that driver.
At the airport, I had to bribe various military people with all the money I had to even let me bring Sasha inside. Then, when we were boarding, customs said I couldn’t have a cat on the plane. Although I tried to pass by telling them the captain had approved it, they unfortunately called him to check. When he arrived, he was pretty angry. He said, ‘When I heard ‘Sasha’, I thought of a Russian woman with blond hair.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘Just get out of my life. Take your cat and get on the plane!’
And so Sasha and I flew out of Syria and into Turkey.
As a refugee in Turkey, there were a lot of restrictions. For example, I was not allowed to leave the city I was registered in, and if I didn’t register my job, I would be fined and detained. But the only work I could find was in a sales company that was built on exploiting Syrians, where they wouldn’t register you. So it was a big risk for me.
In those companies, you work for very long hours at very low wages. There is also a lot of emotional abuse. For instance, after working 90 hours a week, they say they’re just going to pay you something less, and that there’s a lot of Syrians waiting for this opportunity, so if you don’t like it, leave.
Still, I was making a living wage, and I felt very privileged and somehow guilty, to be a Syrian refugee living in my own room with my cat, while others were sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and couldn’t even bring their children over.
As a result, I started volunteering on my one day off at an NGO called Istanbul and I. We were teaching Syrian children the alphabet, providing help in the LGBT community, feeding the homeless, lots of things. It was a community of over 60 nationalities working together, a community to live for.
Eventually, I managed to be promoted to sales and marketing manager in another exploitative company. But one day I was told to make all the Syrians work on Eid, a very special Muslim holiday. That’s when I made the conscious decision to leave that industry, and I was lucky enough to find work with a leading global software firm, and later with an NGO.
In that time, I met Ezgi, a Turkish Australian woman who came to volunteer at Istanbul and I. For some time, I suspected she was flirting with me, but my friends kept saying, “Bahaa, not every woman who meets you is interested, just leave it.” So I told myself, If all I’m getting is a friend, that’s also a precious gift, because she’s a wonderful human.
Eventually, we went out to dinner, I thought just as friends. But then the next time, she said something about the fact we were on a date, and that’s how I realised! Later, she told me that she had been flirting with me!
Things moved very fast, because we were so sure about each other. Within 9 months, we were engaged, and four months later, we had a civil marriage ceremony. However, on that day we had a strict rule. It was never to be called a ‘wedding’. It was only to be called a ‘marriage party’, as our true wedding would only happen in Australia once my visa was approved, and both our parents could be there.
Around a year later, the move to Australia became a reality. But now we had to think about Sasha. Unfortunately, you cannot import a pet directly from Turkey to Australia, so she had to go to an approved country for three months. Very luckily, an amazing friend in Germany, Cordelia, offered to take care of her and get her to all the required vet visits.
When Ezgi and I finally arrived at Melbourne airport, I will never forget the feeling I had – a feeling that my life had been one long difficult journey, running from bullets and bombs and discrimination, but that now I had finally arrived in a country where I didn’t feel like a target anymore.
It felt like a new start, where life could be the way I wanted it. And last week, I was very happy to start a new job as the Victorian digital marketing lead for a nonprofit. I’m really looking forward to having an impact on the place where I live.
I missed Sasha a lot while she was in Germany. To me, she represents everything I lost when I had to leave my country. She’s my city, she’s all the people I loved, she’s the one constant thing I’ve been able to carry with me.
But I didn’t have to wait too long. Exactly a month and 20 days after I arrived, we were re-united.
Read more great stories in the heartwarming New Humans of Australia coffee table books: www.newhumansofaustralia.org/shop
Photographer: David Brewster www.davidbrewsterphotography.com
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