This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net.
It was late in August 2012 when I fled my country for the first time. I was reporting on the increasingly violent uprising in my hometown of Damascus when I was called up for military service, forcing me to leave.
I became a refugee within a day. Almost four years on, it remains unlikely that I will be able to return to Syria in the near future.
I planned my trip and packed in a few hours, only taking essential summer clothes. But there were two things I was very keen to bring: my USB stick and my journal. In my USB stick I kept all of my articles and reporting on the uprising, while my journal had personal memories going back to the start of peaceful protests in which I had taken part.
I headed off to Lebanon – the closest country to reach from Damascus in an emergency departure and a journey that over a million Syrians have now been forced to make. Like them all, I had the hope that in the course of a few months I would be returning to a free Syria.
I took a yellow taxi with three other passengers from a bus station on the outskirts of western Damascus. On the way to Lebanon we were stopped by several military checkpoints lined up on the highway. At each one we were asked to show our ID cards, and every time I stopped, I thought that I would be picked up and sent back for military service.
But having safely passed the checkpoints, we eventually reached the border for passport control. The journey took around four hours, but it felt like a lifetime. Arriving in Lebanon, I felt I was stuck and I couldn't go back to where I grew up. Since then, I have been a man with no address, moving between hotels and temporary accommodation. As a refugee, there is no place I can call home. I have had to accept a life in exile.
Fleeing conflict, building peace
Although I left my home, the conflict in Syria has never left my thoughts. I decided to move to Turkey, on the Syrian border, where I have been able to make a contribution to peace efforts in my country and for 22 million of my fellow Syrians, half of whom have been forced from their homes.
As the violent conflict rages across the border, I am working to lay the foundations for a peaceful future in Syria through International Alert’s peace education project. This offers children and young adults safe spaces and the opportunity to talk about their experiences and learn core life skills. The project encourages them to stop thinking that violence is inevitable and normal and it improves their psychosocial wellbeing, enabling them to choose to build a future rather joining the fight.
Being a refugee, working with fellow refugees, has been an exhilarating experience and has given me the chance to learn a great deal about the reality and needs of displaced people.
When people become refugees they don't stop dreaming. In fact being able to dream and have hope become as important for them as the delivery of essential humanitarian aid. The first thing that we refugees speak about whenever we meet is our hope that 'things will improve' and we will go back to our homes. But until this materialises, refugees need to have more than humanitarian assistance to keep the dream alive.
They need to have an active role in their community and be able to strive to build a future. Like everyone, refugees want a sense of purpose which can be achieved by obtaining respected sources of livelihood and personal development. One of the triggers of the peaceful protests in Syria in March 2011 was a struggle for dignity.
Indeed, the Syrian uprising was branded in Arabic as Thawret al-Karameh – meaning 'revolution of dignity'. International assistance must not be divorced from the underlying causes of the conflict.
This need and desire to be valued has made many Syrians like me choose not to go to Europe, but instead stay closer to home and play a role in leading relief and peace efforts. There are a significant number of committed Syrian artists, human rights activists and journalists who live and work by the border. As storytellers of the experiences of other Syrians affected by the ongoing war, their work is crucial in helping people and communities heal and move on.
For instance, a talented visual artist has recently produced a film called Resurrection – a reflection of the artist's experiences of talking to ex-prisoners in Syria. A photographer told the creative story of Refugee Cats.
Such works help renew people's hopes that one day they will return to a peaceful Syria. However, the story of the storytellers often goes untold. They are refugees with big dreams which we must keep fuelling and sustaining, not just on World Refugee Day.