Damascus, Syria, Feb 21, 2020 / 09:00 am
The Syrian civil war has led to one of the largest refugee crises of modern times, and presented unique problems for Syria’s ancient Christian communities. Marginalized for centuries, persecuted by ISIS, afraid to attract any attention from the West, Syrian Christians remain, by most accounts, the war’s most invisible victims.
Samer Hanna, a Christian living in the eastern city of Qamishli, was born and raised in Raqqa—made famous in later years for being the capital of ISIS’s would-be caliphate—and in 2013 fled from escalating violence to a small village called Tel Fayda, before finally settling down in Qamishli. At 37 years old, Samer works 70-hour weeks as broadcasting director for Suroyo FM, a radio station that celebrates the linguistic and ethnical diversity of Syria by broadcasting political, social and artistic programs in Syriac, Armenian and Arabic.
In partnership with the Philos Project, CNA sat down with Samer Hanna:
Tell us what your life was like in Raqqa before ISIS and how you ended up in Qamishli.
My life was like any normal person’s life. I had finished my studies, got permanent employment and bought a house. We never felt a distinction between denominations, religions, or ethnicities before 2011. It wasn’t mentioned in front of us growing up. The region was a diverse one because people came from all over Syria to work after the split of the Euphrates Dam in 1973. Sunnis from Hama and Aleppo, Assyrians, Syriacs and Kurds from al-Jazira and Ain al-Arab, and Alawites from Latakia and Tartous.
On March 3, 2013 I fled from Raqqa to Tel Fayda in the countryside of Tell Tamer. I stayed there for 9 months before I moved to Qamishli. I had never been there before and never imagined I would flee there.
What changed when the war started?
I supported the Syrian government, probably because of what we heard about war from our relatives in Iraq and the lack of any real change in the Arab Spring.
When the Free Syrian Army entered Raqqa in March 2013, everything changed. People fled in their pajamas away from constant bombing, mass shelling, and air strikes. The government forces were under siege. I remember looking at the city from a bus window as I left, telling myself, “I won’t be long, I’ll be back.” At that time, I had no idea that it would take over six years for me to return.
Many of my Muslim friends and neighbors stayed in Raqqa when ISIS took over. They told us not to come back because they’d kill us. They confiscated my house. One neighbor sent a picture of my house to me. I still get emotional thinking about it.
How did your life change when Islamists took over Raqqa in late 2012?
On December 31, 2012, I got a call from a Muslim man named Abu Khouthayfa who threatened to blackmail me, because I was Christian. My dad had to pay the bribe by selling his car. This event really scared my family. We had to leave Raqqa and many of my Muslim friends and neighbors who stayed back would tell us, “Don’t you dare come back! They want to kill you!”
Have you lost any family members or friends?
I have not lost any family members, but my mom fled to Germany with my brothers. My dad refused to leave and settled in Qamishli instead, so I stayed with him. My dad had hoped to return, saying that Raqqa would be liberated soon. His words and my own hope of returning made it difficult to move forward with life in Qamishli.
Two of my friends were killed. One was murdered by al-Nusra, an Islamist jihadist group, after a physical altercation that broke out regarding his consumption of alcohol, which is forbidden under Islamic law. The other friend died in one of the clashes of the war. My cousin’s husband was killed by a Syrian airstrike while working in his shop. They were trying to hit a weapons depot but unfortunately his shop was close to that area.
Did anything change with the Turkish invasion?