From Syria for surgery

Anwar Alraad with his High School Musical notebook, chosen because his soul said this book wanted to depict his suffering with sad words of music.
Anwar Alraad with his High School Musical notebook, chosen because his soul said this book wanted to depict his suffering with sad words of music. Photograph: Denise Overkleeft

The name Anwar means bring into the light in Arabic, explains Anwar Alraad. It is his hobby to know the meaning of names. Not only his name possesses a tale. He explains that everything in his life has a story.

We are standing at a footpath with our back towards a two-meter high fence of the asylum seekers centre at Ter Apel, a village near the German border. Cameras, interested adults and children around blocks of brick houses are watching us. This Dutch biggest reception centre is home for up to 2000 refugees.

This is now where Anwar Alraad lives, but he might have to leave tomorrow. The Immigration and Naturalisation Service employee told him, he was not allowed to stay in the Netherlands. He has to return to Bulgaria, where he has a residence permit. But in Ter Apel he can wait for his surgery at the Groningen university hospital. Alraad removes his facemask: from the outside he only seems to have a small mouth, smiling a bit crooked, and an infected wound on his neck. However, his skin hides the reason he came all this way from Syria.

“I feel like inhaling the scent of flowers from that garden in the land of paradise, which is Syria,” Alraad portrays his home country. Surrounded by olive trees and watermelons, Alraad lived in the city Saraqib located in east of Idlib. He studied arts and specialized in poems, which beautiful rhythm he tries to show with swaying his body from side to side. He became an Arabic grammar teacher.

Alraad’s dedication to language shows when he clenches his fists while forgetting the English word and eagerly uses Google Translate to find it. He teaches my colleague and me multiple Arabic sentences and keeps correcting us until we pronounce it right. Besides this, there is not much left of this teacher. His sweatpants and puffer jacket conceal his skinniness. Alraad can only eat soup, leaving not much to choose from the three available alternatives for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He asked for a psychiatrist, a dentist or a doctor, but the receptionists at the other end of the line explained they are too busy. He did not receive his this three types of painkillers and medication that reduces stomach acid for a week.

He can still feel the sunrays tingle on his skin. “In Syria it is 30 to 40 degrees Celsius,” he points at us. “You cannot stay in the sun there, because of your pale skin.”

But since the civil war in 2011, no one could safely step outside in Syria. At the start of the conflict following Arab spring demonstrations, the regime of dictator Assad fought back hard against, rebels, Kurdish forces and Isis. Mass killings and chemical bombs forced over half of Syria’s pre-war population, more than 12.7 million people, to flee according to Mercy Corps. In 2015 Russia allied Al Assad’s regime, reported AlJazeera, with a bombing campaign.

One of Russia’s bombs fell in between Anwar Alraad and people around him during daily shopping. One of them died, the other one lost a leg. His uncle asked him “Anwar, what is going on?”  “I think I lost my tongue,” Alraad replied feeling it, but he could not see it. The only thing he could see was a bright light in his head. The bomb ripped apart Alraad’s face. His uncle took him, including his jaw and tongue that were laying on the ground, to Medical Park Tarsus Hospital in Turkey.

Alraad fell into a dream: he laid in the grave, Alraad could see heaven, but hell was in between. The devil tried to seduce him, but Alraad did not go with him. He stepped on the robe consisting of one human hair that led him through hell to heaven. He could feel the hell’s fire burning his feet, but kept walking. He wanted to go to the light, to heaven. But the angels told him he was not allowed to enter.

Alraad stayed in a coma for fifteen days and two surgeries followed, but the doctors lacked experience in performing jaw surgeries. After two months in the hospital they send him back to Syria, where a doctor concluded the surgeons failed. He gave him medicines and said: “Do not let someone in Syria touch your mouth, because your treatment is not here. Your treatment is in Europe.”

CT Scan of Alraad’s mouth: the yellow part consists of bone, the green part of titanium and screws on the right side. Photographer: Anwar Alraad.
CT Scan of Alraad’s mouth: the yellow part consists of bone, the green part of titanium and screws on the right side. Photographer: Anwar Alraad

15 September 2019 started his journey, to Turkey, Greece, back to Turkey, eight times back and forth to Bulgaria, Germany and the Netherlands. He paid 9000 euros to be smuggled, stolen from, beaten, held at gunpoint and left to die. Three hours of talking and sixty-eight Whattsapp messages still do not grasp the negativity Alraad experienced in the last year.

“No, I don’t feel.” After all that happened Alraad says he does not have a heart anymore. He points at the bricks of the street. “There is only a block of stone.”

In attempt number eight to cross the Bulgarian border with a truck the police arrested Alraad and imprisoned him in Vidin. Germs, bad food and the fact that the most clean water was the toilet water made him really ill. His two Iraqi’ friends were banging on his door and shouted to the guard “Please Anwar is dying.” The guard opened the little window and said “Well I don’t care, go to hell, go to the fire.”

“The hardest moment of my life was when I was tied with chains to the bed and people whispered that I looked dangerous and was a criminal.” He refers to his stay at the hospital in Sofia. “I did not want anyone to see me like this, I wish the earth would open and it swallowed me.”

 “Here people think Bulgaria and the Netherlands are both Europe, so similar. But, they are not,” says Alraad.

In the Netherlands he finally found a hospital willing to operate him, but then the coronavirus spread. The Groningen University Hospital was not able to do the operations, but gave him medication and assured him that he only needed to wait. It takes time that the Immigration and Naturalisation Service does not seem to give him. Syrian doctors explained that without surgery Alraad’s condition could lead to blood poisoning and cancer.

Anwar left behind his wife Zubaydah and four boys. “Raad is seven years old, Ibrahim five, Muhammad three and Bilal six months.” He only saw his fourth son through the screen of his phone. After his health gets better, he can go back to work to take care of them. To provide for his family during the war he bought three generators. These made electricity giving light to multiple people in Idlib.

Alraad presses his High School Musical notebook in our hands, but we cannot read it. In Arabic are handwritten his experiences and artistic stories, comparing himself to plants reluctant to end up in a salad. “My life is a bad story, but I am good, someone else would not be, but I am.”

After his darkness, Alraad is sure light will await him in Algeria. He will take his family to there, join his father’s business and write a book. “Nothing is impossible in this life so I am convinced that if we want something and we have the insistence, we will get it.”

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