War in Syria: family tell of fleeing bombed out home for safety of UAE

Marking 10 years since conflict broke out in Syria, The National interviews families who sought a safer life in the Emirates

Manal Tamim, who is now 51, and her family left their home in the Yarmouk camp district of southern Damascus during the winter of 2012 looking for "a break from the war”. Just a few hours later, their neighbourhood was bombed.

This week marks 10 years since the start of the war in Syria.

A non-violent uprising against President Bashar Al Assad in 2011 developed rapidly into civil war, devastating the lives of its citizens and destroying its cities.

More than 380,000 people have been killed in the conflict, with more than 200,000 people missing and presumed dead.

More than 5.6 million people have fled Syria in the past 10 years, looking for a safer life elsewhere.

Mrs Tamim, a Syrian-Palestinian, endured the war in its “hottest phases” until she and her husband took their four children and left Yarmouk camp that December.

From brushes with death and long nights spent in the dark with neighbours, trying to distract each other from the sounds of war, to standing in the street for hours with her son, holding “the biggest kitchen knife she could find” to prevent intruders from entering their neighbourhood – Mrs Tamim said she experienced the war at its worst.

A second blast always followed that would hit those who rushed to help, but that never stopped anyone from helping

Yarmouk camp, set up in 1957 for Palestinians who fled the attacks of Israeli forces in their homeland, became home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrian families by 2011.

Until conflict broke out in Syria.

“Our camp was at the heart of the battle, one army stood on one side and an opposing force on the other, and they fired at each other. We were in the middle,” Mrs Tamim said.

“Every few minutes a shell would drop in the camp – on one days we had shelling every five minutes.”

On that day, her youngest son Hamza was walking back from school with his aunt.

“A shell fell on the street they were walking in. If my sister hadn’t pulled him away to the corner, the shrapnel would have hit him.

“Then she held his hand and they ran to our house. When she reached, I insisted that she come up for coffee. She kept resisting, but I insisted.”

Mrs Tamim was right to insist. Her sister was climbing the stairs up to their home when a shell fell on the street where she had been standing moments before.

“And we have many stories like that – escaping fire by a few seconds.”

People walk past the rubble of buildings that were heavily damaged or destroyed during battles between rebel fighters and regime forces, in the former opposition-held district of Salaheddin in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 11, 2019. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

Like many residents families in Yarmouk camp, Mrs Tamim's family started looking for an opportunity to leave Syria and live in a safer place.

“I have a brother and a sister in Ajman, so we started preparing to move to the UAE.

“But before leaving, we decided to take a five-day break from the war and travel to visit family in Lebanon,” she said.

"My children were traumatised by the sounds of war by that point and we needed a break.”

Mrs Tamim also tried to convince her parents and siblings to leave with her for the short trip to Lebanon – but her mother refused.

“She said things had calmed down and she did not feel like leaving her house. I told her I felt as if we were sitting on a time bomb. Clearly, it was the calm before the storm.

“It was an unnatural rest compared to what we had got used to – hearing a blast every minute.”

Nonetheless, Mrs Tamim and her husband, Jamal Abu Laban, who is now 62, were set to leave.

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrians react as the bodies of children are pulled from the rubble of a budling following government forces air strikes in the rebel held neighbourhood of Al-Shaar in Aleppo on September 27, 2016. - Syria's army took control of a rebel-held district in central Aleppo, after days of heavy air strikes that have killed dozens and sparked allegations of war crimes. (Photo by KARAM AL-MASRI / AFP)

Along with her sons Al Motasim Bella, now 27, Al Moutaz Bella, 24, Hamza, 19, and her daughter Sama, 12, they left for Beirut at around 10am on a December morning in 2012.

“Our plan was to return to Damascus after the break in Lebanon, settle our affairs, pack and leave Syria for the UAE.

“We were like the Palestinians who had left their homes thinking they would return a few days later. We did not pack anything, just a change of clothes for five days.”

They never returned.

As they reached the border with Lebanon at around 11:30am, their home was bombed.

“When we reached the area where my niece lives, we found her waiting for us at the top of the street.

“She started crying and hugging us – we had no clue what was going on.”

Mrs Tamim said she only discovered what had happened when they went up to her niece’s house.

“The bomb hit the pharmacy where my husband worked and the mosque where he prayed. If we hadn’t travelled, he would’ve been at work when it happened.”

People, who fled from Islamic State-controlled areas, ride a pick-up truck upon their arrival in Turkman Bareh village, after rebel fighters advanced in the area, in northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Mrs Tamim stayed for around a month in Lebanon, before she travelled  with her three younger children to Ajman.

“My eldest son went to study in Romania, and my husband stayed behind hoping to go back to Damascus first, to wrap things up before leaving; he waited for 10 months but he wasn’t able to return.”

The family was then reunited in Ajman, but they struggled to secure jobs or confirm their residency status.

“Then a distant uncle helped us. He recruited my husband to his company and sponsored our visas.”

However, two years later Mr Abu Laban was unemployed again.

“We stayed for three years without a job," Mrs Tamim said.

“Then my brother, a doctor in the US, said he wanted to invest in the UAE and decided to open a pharmacy and hand it over to my husband to run it.”

However, the job would not come easy.

Mr Abu Laban first had to pass the Dubai Health Authority’s certification tests.

“The first time he sat the test he failed because he had to score more than 90 per cent, which he didn’t.”

Two months later, “after studying day and night and reviewing questions from previous exams and going through dozens of books, he scored above 90 per cent and passed”, Mrs Tamim said.

“He was 60 and had long and extensive experience, but passing the tests was not easy.”

AJMAN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , March 14, 2021 – Jamal Abu Labam with his wife Manal Tamim , daughter Sama Abu Laban and son Almotaz bella Abu Laban
 from Syria at his apartment in Ajman. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online/Instagram. Story by Haneen

Mrs Tamim and her family still live in Ajman, while her son Hamza studies dentistry in Tunisia's capital Tunis. Her eldest son Al Motasim Bella is back from Romania and works as a doctor in Dubai.

The family were joined in Ajman by Mrs Tamim's mother.

“My husband and mother who live with me and my sister now, feel nostalgic towards Syria and they hope to return one day,” Mrs Tamim said.

“But we have nothing to go back to. Our house was completely destroyed in a bombing in 2014.

“And my family members are in different parts of the world.”

Mrs Tamim remembers her time back home fondly, even when they used to gather at night at a neighbour’s house to distract each other from the sound of gunfire.

“We sat in the dark because we had no electricity. The charcoal of the shisha and a candle were our source of light, as we sipped coffee, drank tea and chit-chatted all night.

“We had a good time,” she said.

“Sometimes small things would give us comic relief. Once we got startled from a sound, thinking it was a shooting nearby and we started looking around us in despair.”

But the "shooting sounds" turned out to be the shisha pipe clinking against the metal base.

“We all laughed,” Mrs Tamim said.

In the evenings, they would lay mats in the living room and have a “sleepover”.

“My friend’s daughter even refused to sleep in her bedroom because she wanted to spend the night with us in the living room."

These days, Mrs Tamim does not look back at the last two years in their old home with sorrow.

“There was a bright side”, she said, recalling the good she witnessed in those around her.

After any blast, people rushed to the streets to help those who were affected.

“A second blast always followed that would hit those who rushed to help, but that never stopped anyone from helping,” Mrs Tamim said.

“It was the same pattern every time, a second bomb followed after half an hour or so, but we just could not stand by and not help anyone in need.”

“Don’t get me wrong, war is ugly and filled with horrific things, but we experienced a beautiful human side to all of this too.”