Starting over

It’s been almost five months since Bashar Massri was reunited with his wife and four children. Bashar fled his war-torn home in Syria two years ago, opting to take the risky journey through Turkey and into the Mediterranean in the hope of landing safely in Italy.

Travelling with his eldest son, who was just under 18 at the time, little did the pair know that their tremendous journey to the shores of Turkey would only mark the beginning of their adventure; one that ends well in Cyprus, after having been rescued from their sinking boat off the coast of Paphos.

Without wanting to romanticise Bashar or his family’s ordeal, it’s the serenity and his sense of safety that comes to the surface as I begin to hear their story. Sharing a coffee on the morning of the attacks in Brussels at the beginning of the week, Cyprus is perhaps one of the safest places between the Massri family’s hometown and the ideal of relocating to a central European country.

“I loved Cyprus from the first time (I saw it); it had the sea, it was quiet, it was similar to the place I grew up in. People were not that different from us: they had an eastern mentality. They talk very loud, they shout, they talk with their hands!” Bashar amuses me.

Back to the roots
Ethnic Palestinian Bashar and his wife Sawsan met at college in Damascus Syria, while living in the Yarmouk Camp, once home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria.

“This camp was for Palestinians who came in 1948 [after the creation of Israel]. They gathered in this area, the UN gave every family a piece of land to build on,” Bashar tells me, sitting next to Sawsan in their new home in Lykavitos, Nicosia.
Sawsan herself was born and bred in Syria, while Bashar was born in Doha, Qatar, where parents eventually relocated.

“I lived all my life in Doha,” Bashar tells me. “After I got my higher education, I went to Syria to study,” he continues as he explains Syria remained very much part of his life, as his family would travel there every summer.

This is how Bashar and Sawsan came to study in the same college for two years.

“I studied electronics and computers, she studied computers: my experience was more advanced than hers — now she doesn’t like computers!” laughs Bashar.

Eventually Bashar self-taught himself graphic design, while Sawsan worked as a typist in a local publishing house, life was good, it seems. When disaster struck, the Massri family had just redecorated their house and made the improvements they aspired for.

Entering the war
Back in 2011, the war was somehow far away enough from the family.

“In the south, Damascus, was very safe: there were just some protests here and there but slowly, slowly it came closer,” recalls Bashar.

Suddenly, Sawsan’s sister found herself living in a hot-spot. “She came to our house with her other sister, her house was bombed in a crossfire. We lived together for a year or so — the house was full, sometimes there was bombing at her parent’s house so they would come (too); sometimes there were four families staying in the house with the kids. It was difficult,” adds Bashar.

By the middle of December 2013, the Syrian Free Army [a group of defected Syrian Armed Forces officers and soldiers] stared to enter Yarmouk and started bombing.

“I think (they were bombing) randomly, wherever they could; we didn’t know that they had entered until they bombed us,” says Bashar.

Bashar recalls that the crunch came on a Thursday. “Our street was bombed, six – no, seven — people died. Three of them were children. I decided to leave,” Bashar reveals as Sawsan maintains a deep, almost hidden smile.

Their decision was to make their way to Lebanon where Bashar and where they applied to the Palestinian Embassy for a visa to Canada, where Bashar’s sister was already resettled.

“It was difficult for us to apply because we are Palestinian and they knew that we would apply for asylum, but we tried.”
Circumstances here were tough: “We didn’t know anyone (in Lebanon), we went to the cheapest hotel and stayed there for three days: I had to pay $150 dollars per day… eventually went to an area where there were other Palestinians and found a house for rent for $1,000 a month. In Lebanon, Palestinians are not allowed to work: it’s forbidden. That’s how we left Syria… Three days after we left, the area was totally bombed, everyone left,” he adds.

Sudan to Syria
The Massri family relocated to Sudan, in the hope to find work more easily.

“We were saddened by the atmosphere: it’s very hot and the people are very different from us, totally different culture…For the whole year, Sawsan was crying; she was depressed. We felt racism, they don’t express this feeling but you feel it,” adds Bashar.

“We waited until the end of the school year, the kids were learning the local dialect but it was difficult for us to understand what they were saying, it’s a different Arabic.”

At that time, the situation in Damascus was calmer. “Life was difficult: electricity was on for four hours a day, sometimes less. With no electricity, we had no food… the pumps for the water weren’t working but Sawsan insisted on going back,” Bashar tells me.

By then the Yarmouk camp had been closed. “We spent a month sleeping around, two days here, two days there. I felt that we were displaced, homeless because when we left Syria we had a home; we were in Syria but we couldn’t reach our home,” he says.

Even though Sawsan was happy to be home and reunited with family, the situation was even harder.

“Prices were changing, we had to pay more for less, I had to start from zero, I was getting old and we lost maybe half of our personal funds in Sudan.”

The immigration wave had already started. “From the beginning we didn’t want to go to Europe: we knew it was going to be difficult but we didn’t have any choice.”

“You know what people say about Europe,” Bashar puts forward, “they say life is easy and very beautiful; for the first time the government will take care of you, they told us about something we never know in our lives,” he adds.

The journey
Seeking safety, Bashar took the leap and made his way to Mersin, southern Turkey where smugglers depart on their illegal journey to Europe.

“I went there with my oldest son, Adnan: he was going to be over 18 soon and I couldn’t leave him behind because Europe would not have allowed (our) reunification.

Leaving Sawsan, Kenan (16), Rand (15) and Karam (9) behind, it took Bashar and Adnan three days to travel from Damasus to their destination.

“We crossed the borders by foot. They told us we had to run 100 metres but we discovered it was much more than that, through mountains, trees and bushes.

“It was difficult for me because I saw what I (had done to) my son: I didn’t want him to suffer and I was thinking about what will happen next… and there was no logic: you just have to trust your heart and throw your money,” says Bashar.

They waited on location for ten days for a Syrian smuggler who they had paid $6,000 for the journey. The smuggler would give them the green light to move forward. A small boat eventually took around 200 people to another bigger boat waiting out at sea.

“I thought we were going to (our) deaths, you think you’re part of a gang or something, it took us six hours to go to the main boat. This boat waited for other people, we waited for three days without food and water and there wasn’t space for all of us: we ate dry fruits and drank from bottle tops.”

The engine eventually failed and some 340 people were rescued off the shores of Paphos. This is how Bashar found a new reality in Cyprus.

Living local
After negotiations with the state, Bashar and Adnan were taken to Kokkinotrimithia.

“It was our first time in tents, it was something like a dream but I was glad we were safe, it took us three weeks to settle from the sea,” recalls Bashar.

Initially, Bashar was offered subsidiary protection, but this doesn’t offer the right of reunification with family. In limbo, Bashar resisted.

“I didn’t want (my family) to suffer and be smuggled, I think the (Cypriot) government was also lost, it was the first time for them too,” but after four months, not wanting to wait any longer, Bashar applied for asylum.

Three months later, and living in the Kofinou Recepetion Centre for almost six months, Bashar got his papers and was reunited with his family. Today, the six of them live in Nicosia with safety as their treasure. We talk about the Greek classes they are all following, we laugh about their children going to Greek school, and we share a super strong coffee which Sawsan has made with pride. But most of all, although the couple embraces their new reality with all their might, their return home to Syria is still the ultimate dream.

“You never know what will happen to you,” Bashar exclaims. Indeed, the future is very much unknown.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London