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Love in War – The love story of a Syrian refugee

Published: December 20, 2015
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http://tribune.com.pk/story/1011087/love-in-war/
Tracey and Ahmed are waiting to begin a new life in Sweden once Ahmed gets legal residency in the country. PHOTOSCOURTESY: TRACEY SHELTON

Tracey and Ahmed are waiting to begin a new life in Sweden once Ahmed gets legal residency in the country. PHOTOSCOURTESY: TRACEY SHELTON

He is thousands of miles away from his home in Aleppo, Syria, in a refugee camp in Bastad, Sweden. The Nordic winter is bitterly harsh here in December. The journey as a refugee has been long and winding. “We travelled mostly on foot; it was dangerous,” says Ahmad Al Haj, one of the more than four million Syrian refugees who have had to leave home in quest of safety. But Ahmad says it was all worth it in the end, as in the midst of war and displacement he found the love of his life.

For Tracey Shelton, now Ahmad’s wife, the wait for her husband to get legal residency in Sweden is not easy. “It has been really tough being forced to stay apart for so long, but hopefully it will be coming to an end soon. His asylum has been approved; we are now undergoing what seems like an endless wait for them to issue his papers,” says the Australian journalist and photographer who has spent years covering conflict in volatile regions, including Iraq, Libya, Syria and Lebanon. She is presently living in Istanbul, Turkey, in what she calls a “limbo”, waiting to move to Sweden to start a new life with Ahmad.

Families grieving outside a hospital in Aleppo province after identifying the bodies of their loved ones following a government airstrike that killed civilians.

Images of those affected by the Syria crisis and painful headlines about the spillover effects of it tell much about the situation on ground, but millions of stories behind the images and headlines remain untold. Ahmad and Tracey’s love story is one of them.“Her work and her understanding of the situation in my region,” is one of the things Ahmad mentions when asked what drew him to her. By reporting on conflict and internal displacement, mostly within the Middle East, an affinity with Ahmad came naturally to Tracey. “After six years of working largely on frontlines and with Arab families, it’s hard for me to fit back into life in a Western country,” says Tracey.

The couple met socially when Tracey was living in Syria. “We met through a mutual friend. Ahmad and I got along really well from the beginning and became close friends. Things developed from there,” explains Tracey, adding that one of the reasons Ahmad took the trip to Europe was so that they could establish a life together.

Getting married was another obstacle for the two of them. Here were two people wanting to start a life together, and the proverbial man-made laws restricting them from doing so. “In Turkey it is illegal for a Sheikh (Muslim clergyman) to perform a nikaah (religious marriage) without a legal marriage so we couldn’t find anyone to do it there,” says Tracey. “Although in Islam, marriage between a Christian woman and a Muslim man is permitted, the Sheikhs did not want to accept the responsibility. We eventually found someone (to perform the nikaah) in Sweden, but we are still waiting for our marriage to be registered.” After trying for six months, the couple got married in June this year.

Protest against the Syrian government during a rally in Syria.

The couple has been living apart since Ahmad left Turkey for Europe earlier this year; they only get to meet sporadically when Tracey visits him. “Since he’s been in the camp, it’s harder for me to visit.”

While Ahmad has dreams of a secure future with Tracey, the ordeal has been traumatic. “Life was normal in Syria before the revolution. I never thought I’d be a refugee one day. I was still studying at the time and thought I’d go on to develop my career in IT,” reminisces Ahmad, son of a civil engineer and businessman and the eldest among three brothers and a sister. “The fighting in our area turned intense. It became hopeless to stay there. It was difficult to even get food and medicine. Our entire family left Syria together,” he recalls.

The Al Haj family, today, is spread all over, and none of them have yet acquired asylum anywhere. Ahmad’s father returned to Syria to try to sell some of his property, while his mother, brothers and sister are in Southern Turkey. “The displacement affected us in every way possible. I don’t have any legal status anywhere. On paper, technically, I didn’t exist. You have no rights, no identity, no work, and no way to study again,” says Ahmad, who now spends most of his time in the camp fixing everyone’s phones and laptops.

A boy holds up a piece of shrapnel during a protest in the town of Kureen in Syria.

Despite the situational difficulties and a mostly long distance relationship, the two of them lighten up when asked about each other. “He is intelligent, funny, cool, sweet and charming. He cares about me and looks after me in a way I never dreamt of. He is also excellent with languages. He speaks three languages expertly,” says Tracey. Ahmad’s easygoing charm worked on her, as he was easy to talk to, she shares. “He has a lot of knowledge and a deep understanding of things. I love talking with him and listening to his ideas.” For Ahmad, what attracted him to her was “how she treats people. Her personality. And her beautiful eyes”.Tracey recalls when she met him twice en route to Greece and Serbia. “The soles of his feet were just two huge blisters from walking, just cushions of liquid. I don’t know how he managed to walk on them. But from there they had to keep walking through to Hungary.”

According to Sweden’s migration agency Migrationsverket, the applications for asylum received by Sweden in January 2015 were 4,896. By November 2015, the number rose to 36,741, and more than 25,000 of these are males. So far this year, more than 120,000 people have applied for asylum in Sweden.

While the future looks bleak for Syrian refugees, they have certain advantages, according to Tania Karas, an Athens-based journalist covering migration and refugee issues. “Syrians in particular tend to be middle-class, educated and technologically literate,” she says, adding that while this may be a slight generalisation, it does mean that Syrians, more than other refugees, have an easier time navigating their journeys and assimilating into European society. “Another advantage is that Syrians are considered ‘prima facie’ refugees because there’s an active war going on in their country so they are highly likely to be granted refugee status,” says Karas, who has been actively working with Syrian refugees in the Greek island of Lesbos. More than half of the refugees and migrants who have reached Greece this year have landed at Lesbos. Some 3,460 lives have been lost crossing the Mediterranean, reveals data provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The number of Syrians arriving in Europe seeking international protection continues to increase. However, according to the UNHCR, it remains low compared to Syria’s neighbouring countries, with slightly more than 10% of those who have fled the conflict seeking safety in Europe. Sweden which has had a very relaxed system in the past, where refugees could enter the country unobstructed, is now introducing border checks. The laissez-faire might not be feasible for Sweden any more, considering the very real security threats following the attacks in Paris. The situation, thus, seems poised to make life even tougher for the refugees. And a solution seems nowhere in sight.

An earlier photograph of Syrian rebel fighters praying before launching an anti-government attack near Idlib city.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres acknowledges that this is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. “It is a population that needs the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into poverty,” Guterres says. According to the UNHCR, Syrians in exile face trials such as living in sub-standard shelters and below the poverty line in countries like Jordan and Lebanon. “Having to leave behind their family and friends and not knowing when they will see them again or whether they will see them alive are the prime difficulties Syrian refugees face,” says Argentina-based correspondent Kamilia Lahrichi. It’s tough for refugees to adapt to a new culture because of cultural barriers, she adds.While Ahmad appreciates European countries opening their gates for the refugees, and acknowledges that they try their best to help refugees and keep them comfortable, he is very clear when asked what he sees as a solution to the Syria crisis. “All of the outside countries — USA, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia — need to back off and let us solve our own problems. Foreign powers have made Syria their playground, trying to prove their strength,” he says. Tracey echoes the sentiment and expresses dismay at what started as a revolution has escalated into a regional proxy war. “Everything in Syria has become so complicated with too many players. I honestly don’t know what the solution is anymore.”

But for Ahmad, “the most difficult thing is being apart from Tracey” at the moment. “Until Ahmad’s final residency decision, everything is up in the air. Once it’s finalised Ahmad can start working here in Sweden and I can join him. We hope to start a family too,” says Tracey. Till then, love must wait.

Farahnaz Zahidi works as a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 20th, 2015.

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I carry your heart with me

One of the prettiest love poems ever…This is E E Cummings for all those who carry hearts of their beloved in their heart.

snuggle barca
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart)
i am never without it
(anywhere i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
i want no world (for beautiful, you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;
which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)

What is love? – “TUM HUMSE HO YA HUM TUMSE” by Gulzar

Love…It sweeps us off our feet. It gives us unbelievable pain. It makes us fly. It puts us through hell. We question, at times, if there is something as true love, or not. Does it exist?
One feeling the pivot of all other feelings…descriptions so varied. Each one us has a different way of understanding it. Or the same person defines it differently at different stages of life.

Rarely has a poet summed it up as beautifully as Gulzar Sahab does in this poem.

Here’s to the lovers.
And to a feeling that is fluid, lasting, evolving, growing, but never really ending, if it is true.

Pyar wo beej hai…………

PYAR AKELA JEE NAHIN SAKTA
JEETA HAI TO DO LOGON MEIN
MARTA HAI TO DO MARTE HAIN

PYAR EK BEHTA DARIYA HAI
JHEEL NAHIN KE JISKO KINAARE BAANDH KE BAITHE RAHTE HAIN
SAAGAR BHI NAHIN KE JISKA KINAARA HOTA NAHIN
BAS DARIYA HAI AUR BEHTA HAI
DARIYA JAISE CHADH JAATA HAI, DHAL JAATA HAI
CHADHNA DHALNA PYAR MEIN WOH SAB HOTA HAI
PAANI KI AADAT HAI OOPAR SE NEECHE KI JANIB BEHNA
NEECHE SE PHIR BHAAGTI SOORAT OOPAR UTHNA
BAADAL BAN AAKASH MEIN BEHNA
KAANPNE LAGTA HAI JAB TEZ HAWAYEN CHHAREIN
BOOND BOOND BARAS JAATA HAI

PYAR EK JISM KE SAAZ PE BEHTI BOOND NAHIN HAI
NA MANDIR KI AARTI HAI NA POOJA HAI
PYAR NAFA HAI NA LAALACH HAI
NA LAABH NA HAANI KOI

PYAR AILAN HAI EHSAAN HAI NA KOI JANG KEE JEET HAI YEH
NA HI HUNAR HAI NA HI INAAM NA RIWAAJ NA REET HAI YEH
YEH REHEM NAHIN YEH DAAN NAHIN
YEH BEEJ NAHIN JO BEEJ SAKE
KHUSHBOO HAI MAGAR YEH KHUSHBOO KI PEHCHAN NAHIN

DARD DILAASE SHAQUE VISHWAS JUNOON AUR HOSH-O-HAWAS KE EK AHSAAS KE KOKH SE
PAIDA HUA HAI
EK RISHTA HAI YEH
YEH SAMBANDH HAI –
DO NAAM KA DO ROOHON KA PEHCHAANON KA
PAIDA HOTA HAI BADHTA HAI YEH
BOODHA HOTA NAHIN

MITTI MEIN PALAY EK DARD KI THANDI DHOOP TALE
JAR AUR TARAKKI KI FASAL
KAT’TI HAI
MAGAR YEH BANT’TI NAHIN

MATTI AUR PAANI AUR HAWAA KUCHH ROSHNI AUR TAREEQUI KUCHH
JAB BEEJ KI AANKH MEIN JHAANKTE HAIN
TAB PAUDA GARDAN OONCHI KARKE
MOONH NAAK NAZAR DIKHLATA HAI
PAUDE KE PATTE PATTE PAR KUCHH PRASHN BHI HAI UTTAR BHI

KIS MITTI KI KOKH THI WOH
KIS MAUSAM NE PAALA POSAA
AUR SOORAJ KA CHHIDKAO KIYA
KIS SIMT GAYEEN SHAAKHEIN USKI

phool

KUCHH PATTON KE CHEHRE OOPAR HAIN
AAKASH KI JANIB TAKTE HAIN
KUCHH LATKE HUE HAIN
GHAMGEEN MAGAR
SHAAKHON KI RAGON SE BAHTE HUE PAANI SE JUDE HAIN
MATTI KE TALE EK BEEJ SE AAKAR POOCHHTE HAIN –

HUM TUM TO NAHIN
PAR POOCHNA HAI-
TUM HUMSE HO YA HUM TUMSE

PYAR AGAR WOH BEEJ HAI TO
EK PRASHN BHI HAI
EK UTTAR BHI !

-GULZAR

Sonnet LXXXI: “Rest with your dream inside my dream” – Pablo Neruda

Already, you are mine. Rest with your dream inside my dream.
Love, grief, labour, must sleep now.
Night revolves on invisible wheels
and joined to me you are pure as sleeping amber.

No one else will sleep with my dream, love.
You will go we will go joined by the waters of time.
No other one will travel the shadows with me,
only you, eternal nature, eternal sun, eternal moon.

Already your hands have opened their delicate fists
and let fall, without direction, their gentle signs,
you eyes enclosing themselves like two grey wings,

while I follow the waters you bring that take me onwards:
night, Earth, winds weave their fate, and already,
not only am I not without you, I alone am your dream.

DSC_0086

Can you live with each other’s imperfections?

People don’t change. Period.

We can only alter and change ourselves….alter our expectations. Adjust. Make space, give space and fit ourselves in the space we are given.

Yeah yeah….we have heard that a thousand times already.

Yet, humans will be humans. And what makes us human is that even the brightest of us have these convenient strains of naivety and stupidity when it comes to wishful thinking. Specially when it comes to intimate relationships.

“He will ‘change’ when we get married”. “She will no longer be manipulative when I give her enough love and security”. “She will adjust in my surroundings, with my family”. “His temper will cool down once we have children, specially if it’s a daughter”. “We will develop a mind-boggling soul-matish understanding”. “Chemistry will come…”. “Fidelity will be his new mantra”. “He will develop a love for books”. “He will leave smoking”. “We will laugh on each other’s jokes”. “She will be more emotionally available”. “He will be more communicative”. “She will become this awesome juggler….she will be pretty and thin and bright and work and manage home and learn to cook like my mom and be fun and adjust with my friends…..her passive aggressive streaks will go away…She will develop class….I will be a family man…..”.

The fairytale dreams go beyond the Karan Johar movie wedding…..married or not.

I am not implying that we don’t evolve….we don’t improve. We even may change.

But it is a mistake to assume, with happy idealism, that anyone’s inherent nature or qualities or the inherent combination of two people and what they bring out in each other will change. We may learn to adjust and “handle” situations better. But basics are basics. If you can live with those basics, also bearing in mind your own basics and how they will interact with her/his basics, go ahead. Then it’s worth it. If not, what one will be left with is resentment as the mouldy residue that eventually takes the spark out of relationships.

Disappointment. Disillusionment. Sadness.

And that horrid “C” word: Compromise.

You see, with the word “compromise” comes a sense of something being coerced….forced.

But if it is an informed decision you make of working on a relationship, and take ownership of this choice, you are not angry at that person for not meeting up to unrealistic standards.

It is important, then, to not say “I am living with a compromise”. Instead, say to yourself “It is my choice to work on this because this is worth it”.

Do people really ever change? I doubt.

They may improve….adjust….modify….morph. Two people may just learn to synergize beautifully, despite inherent differences.

But making a choice to be with someone long-term should be realistic – based on “What if this person doesn’t change at all? Can I live with the irritating habits or whatever puts me off?’ If not, best to be honest to one’s self and your significant other. But if the overall package is worth it, one must go for it.

holding_hands_tracks-1

Even if imperfect, some people and relationships are worth hanging onto and fighting for.

Why should we settles for less than perfect? Simply because perfection is for God alone.

The careful choice, then, is to know whether you can and want to live with the imperfections of this person or not.

Know the deal-breakers, all you bright people. And if they are not there, then make it work.

It’s very worth it in the end to have someone who validates you and believes in you, especially if this person knows your short-comings, and still loves you.

Only fools let that go.

Only Once In Your Life…. (By Bob Marley)

This is for all those who have loved and lost. Love can come in your life & knock on your door many times. But the love Bob Marley mentions in this beautiful quote from him comes along but only once. Blessed are those who find such a love, and are lucky enough to be able to keep it. Those who lose it….well….at least they got to experience it. And those who never knew it never really lived a life worth living.

“Only once in your life, I truly believe, you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You tell them things that you’ve never shared with another soul and they absorb everything you say and actually want to hear more. You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, goals that were never achieved and the many disappointments life has thrown at you. When something wonderful happens, you can’t wait to tell them about it, knowing they will share in your excitement. They are not embarrassed to cry with you when you are hurting or laugh with you when you make a fool of yourself. Never do they hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough, but rather they build you up and show you the things about yourself that make you special and even beautiful. There is never any pressure, jealousy or competition but only a quiet calmness when they are around. You can be yourself and not worry about what they will think of you because they love you for who you are. The things that seem insignificant to most people such as a note, song or walk become invaluable treasures kept safe in your heart to cherish forever. Memories of your childhood come back and are so clear and vivid it’s like being young again. Colours seem brighter and more brilliant. Laughter seems part of daily life where before it was infrequent or didn’t exist at all. A phone call or two during the day helps to get you through a long day’s work and always brings a smile to your face. In their presence, there’s no need for continuous conversation, but you find you’re quite content in just having them nearby. Things that never interested you before become fascinating because you know they are important to this person who is so special to you. You think of this person on every occasion and in everything you do. Simple things bring them to mind like a pale blue sky, gentle wind or even a storm cloud on the horizon. You open your heart knowing that there’s a chance it may be broken one day and in opening your heart, you experience a love and joy that you never dreamed possible. You find that being vulnerable is the only way to allow your heart to feel true pleasure that’s so real it scares you. You find strength in knowing you have a true friend and possibly a soul mate who will remain loyal to the end. Life seems completely different, exciting and worthwhile. Your only hope and security is in knowing that they are a part of your life.”

“I Do Not Love You….” – Sonnet XVII – By Pablo Neruda

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Gustav Klimt - The Kiss - 1908