BUENOS AIRES — Imagine how terrifying life is for an 8-year-old who has to swallow pills to fall asleep, because the bombing a few blocks away has gotten so bad.
That’s just one example Guadalupe Rodrigo offers to describe what it’s like to grow up in Aleppo right now.
The 41-year-old Argentine nun has lived in the embattled Syrian city — the country’s largest, and a rebel bastion — for the past four years, since before the war broke out.
A Catholic missionary, she works with the Christian community there. Syria's Christian community is one of the oldest in the world.
Sister Guadalupe will go back to Aleppo this month to continue her religious mission, after taking a brief trip home to visit family in Argentina's San Juan city.
She has no illusions about what she'll return to, and she understands well why millions are fleeing the country.
“Children use the verb ‘to rain’ to refer to [missile] strikes,” says the nun. “‘It rained 40 today,’ they would say,” as if commenting on the weather.
In mid-2012, seemingly overnight, she says Aleppo residents started to see military planes overhead and tanks rolling along the streets of the city.
Since then, “the permanent state of asphyxia never ended. People are waiting for death in their homes.”
The United Nations children's agency warned in July that half a million people in Aleppo were struggling to get enough water to survive. Amid heatwaves reaching 108 degrees, Syrian families are stuck in a city with dry taps and frequent power cuts.
With time and experience, most Syrians and humanitarian volunteers have learned how to gauge the distance and intensity of blasts and clashes. They learn which streets and roads are often targeted by explosions, and the routes to walk instead.
But there are still so many deaths that corpses are organized by district and hour, Sister Guadalupe says. For example: "District Suleiman, bombing at 10:42 a.m."
“This is not a movie. This has been our daily life for the past four years,” says the nun. “We did not live a single day in peace and silence.”
The severe damage and destruction has pushed more than 4 million Syrians to settle in neighboring states and abroad. They make up the largest group of recorded refugees since 4.6 million Afghans fled their homeland in 1992, according to United Nations data. (That’s not even counting the millions of Syrians displaced from their homes but still inside the country.)
While most Syrian refugees are looking to settle in the Middle East or Europe, some have made their way to countries as far as Argentina, Sister Guadalupe's home country. The South American nation has been praised for its open-immigration policies, but the voyage from Syria is long and expensive, and refugee visas must be sponsored by relatives or Argentine citizens already in the country. The cost of living in Argentina is also high, meaning it attracts refugees of means. Just 268 Syrian refugees and 52 Syrian asylum-seekers were registered here as of June 30, according to figures from Argentina’s National Commission for Refugees (CONARE).
Regardless of their finances, each refugee is fleeing excruciating violence back home. And for each one, Argentina represents a chance to start over in safety. Here are a few of their stories.
Sam Barbar, a 23-year-old Syrian from the northern coastal town of Latakia, has lived in Buenos Aires since June 26, 2012. Argentina was then one of the few countries granting asylum to Syrians. As required by law, a friend living in Argentina sent Sam and his family an invitation letter. The friend promised he would help them to get jobs but ended up abandoning them, not even picking them up at the airport, Sam says. Nonetheless, “I don’t want to travel anymore. I am tired. That’s it, we’re staying in Argentina," says Sam, who is now working as a waiter in a hotel. In a few months, he, his mother and two cousins are likely to get Argentine citizenship.
Sam has played the violin since he was 6. As he takes the instrument out of its case — he brought it with him from Syria — he remembers how happy his life was back home. He used to be an economics student at the university in Damascus. Sam’s mother worked in the English department of Syria’s Education Ministry. “We lived as if we were blind. No one had any idea of what would happen,” he says. “Before the war broke out, I never thought of getting a job. That’s how easy it was. I lived like a 20-year-old kid, happy.”
Sam holds up a pillow that has his cousin's picture printed on it. He misses his relative, who still lives in Syria. When Sam and his mother first moved to Argentina, “each of us was in our room glued to the computer to get news from Syria and stay in touch with our family and friends there,” he explains. “We never went out. We didn’t know anyone and couldn’t speak the language. There was no one for us.”
He points at a wooden board with pictures of his family in Syria. Three months after settling in Buenos Aires, it was so hard to be away from their relatives that Sam and his mother left behind all the belongings they could not carry and moved back to their homeland. They were relatively safe in an upscale Damascus neighborhood, but realizing how bloody the conflict was, Sam convinced his mother to move back to Argentina just a few months later.
Sam is Alawite, but he does not practice his religion. “For me, I’m not even a Muslim,” he admits. He says that Argentines’ questions about Islam bother him. “What I mind is that Argentines don’t seem to know that there are open people like us in the Arab world, people who have the same [family] customs.”
Two large framed pictures of the old towns of Damascus and Aleppo hang on the wall. They were taken by Sam's uncle, the official photographer of Syria’s Tourism Ministry.
Sam’s father is a French professor at the university in Latakia. His brother enrolled in Syria’s armed forces when he was 18, as is mandatory. Sam says his brother wants to leave the military but can’t.
Adjusting has been especially challenging for his mother, Balsam Chiha, because they used to belong to a higher social class in Syria. They now live an apartment that's just over 400 square feet.
Balsam does not want to be photographed. When she moved to Argentina at 52, she was reluctant to learn a new language — but she did eventually. A year and a half ago she and Sam opened a Syrian restaurant in the upscale Palermo neighborhood, but it barely lasted a year.
“It’s not easy at all to live here. I can’t explain to you how much we suffered to find a job, to support ourselves to survive,” she says.
Balsam managed to travel to Syria to attend her eldest son’s wedding. She was supposed to spend a month there but ended up stuck for three because of administrative issues.
“There’s a kind of conflict inside me between here and there. My body is here and my soul is there,” she says. “My son is still there so I can’t separate things. It’s very difficult to be separated this way and it’s not easy at all for a mother. Whether it is Argentina or heaven, I’m not going to like it.”
Haitham Baskour, a Syrian attorney specializing in criminal law, fled the bloody conflict in Homs and settled in Buenos Aires in 2011 with his wife, son and daughter. He works now as a cook at the Syrian Cultural Association and in a restaurant in Argentina’s capital.
His sister-in-law, who lives in Argentina, sponsored his application for asylum. Life in Buenos Aires is more expensive than in Homs, he says — even after the war broke out and prices in Syria skyrocketed.
He calls his brother, who still lives in Homs. He says he probably isn’t answering because there are often power cuts there.
Mariana Shahoud, a 20-year-old Syrian from Wadi al-Nasarah, a small town at the outskirts of Homs, moved to Buenos Aires in June 2012. Her aunt, who had been living in Argentina for 40 years, helped Mariana’s family settle.
She moved with her mother, her 13-year-old brother Salim and her 18-year-old brother Rached. Her oldest sibling just opened an underwear factory in an industrial neighborhood. She gives him a hand on the weekends.
Although she cannot stand the sight of blood, Mariana studies medicine at Buenos Aires University. She enrolled in a Spanish-speaking school funded by the Greek government before that. “I picked this college because I thought Greek culture would be similar to Middle Eastern culture but it had nothing to do with it, the students were all Argentines,” she laughs. It was a tremendous challenge to learn about Argentina’s history, literature and geography without speaking Spanish. “I didn’t leave home for a year, working with Google translate and my books,” she says. Still, she graduated on time.
Mariana recalls her first day at school in Argentina while she holds her pet rabbit, whose name in Arabic means "Candy." When the director introduced her to her classmates that day, they started to ask many questions, but Mariana couldn’t understand a word. She ran to the bathroom and burst into tears. “It was like being in another world, all of a sudden,” she says.
“I changed a lot here. I really felt the need to be responsible. I felt that if I did not study, I would lose years and time and I wouldn’t move forward. I feel that I need to put all my energy into studying otherwise I will not be anything.”
Thanks to social media, Mariana says she is always in touch with her relatives and friends in Syria, and those who moved to Germany, Sweden and Ukraine to escape the war.
Her parents want her to make Argentine friends to become better integrated. “Here, all my friends are Syrians and Lebanese. Every time we get together, the first thing we talk about is the situation in Syria and what we can do about it. We have plans to do things for Syria like dinners, lunches and fund-raising.”
Mariana and her mother drink mate, the traditional South American tea, and talk about Argentine and Middle Eastern cultural differences. She is surprised by how socially liberal Argentina is. “Right now, I can’t get used to it,” she says, with a grin. Yet, “with my friends, we feel a bit Argentine. We have to because we have to live here. We cannot live like Syrians in Argentina. We go out dancing like Argentines so we feel half-Argentine half-Syrian.”
Still, her mother cooks Syrian dishes every day. She has always been a stay-at-home mom. Her father still lives in Wadi al-Nasarah, where he owns an export company. He splits his time between the two countries, traveling back and forth every few months. He’ll be back in Buenos Aires for Christmas with his Christian Orthodox family.
“I always imagine my future back in Syria. I am here because I have to be here. If my family let me go back, I would go back. I belong there,” Mariana says. She adds that she misses the slow pace and green spaces of Wadi al-Nasarah. “In my town, I had everything I need. It was just smaller than here.”