I'm a Syrian Refugee in Turkey, but I've Decided to Return Home

Sheriff and author John Lubbock in Istanbul. PHOTO: John Lubbock

Sheriff and author John Lubbock in Istanbul. PHOTO: John Lubbock

I’ve spent much of the last year in Istanbul, working as a freelance journalist and making films. There, I met many Syrian refugees, including Sheriff, whom I asked for directions one day on Istikal Street. He joined my friends and me for tea, and I was struck by his idealism and hopefulness, especially in light of his difficult situation.  After that first encounter, Sheriff and I met frequently to exchange Arabic and English lessons and talk about Middle Eastern politics.

Syrians are allowed to work and study in Turkey, though the government remains ambivalent about them because, like Sheriff, many are members of the Kurdish ethnic group. Turkey has the largest Kurdish population in the world, and Istanbul the largest Kurdish population of any city. Tensions are rising as Turkey becomes worried about the Kurds forming an independent state across the north of Syria and Iraq.

Now that I’m back in London, and as the news fills up daily with stories of people drowning in the Mediterranean, I often think of the refugees I met in Istanbul. All were young, talented in different ways, and incredibly brave. For people like that, Syria offers nothing but death and poverty.

Sheriff has chosen to return to Syria because we in Europe have failed to offer him safety, and he wishes to help look after his family. We can do better than this. We should be offering him and his family safe passage to Europe, instead of condemning them to a risky existence in Syria. We owe it to the ­­world to extend the generosity it has given us to those less fortunate. We owe it to these people, as human beings, safe passage as refugees, and help to stabilise the countries they come from, so they can one day hope to return.

My name is Mihemed Sheriff Musa, but you can just call me Sheriff. I was born in Amouda in the Kurdish region of Syria in the mid 1980s. Back then, there was a lot of injustice from the Assad regime, which massacred members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama and Aleppo.

There was also racial discrimination against the Kurdish people; we weren't even allowed to speak in our native language, many were denied citizenship and Kurdish political parties were prohibited and their members arrested.

My family was poor; my father suffered from epilepsy. Eventually, he died, and my two uncles took responsibility for raising us. I have two sisters and a brother, but my brother and one of my sisters are disabled, so I had to work to support all my family.

One of my uncles worked for the banned Kurdish party Hevgirtina Gel (People's Union). Hevgirtina Gel's slogan is “the right of self-determination for the Kurdish people in Syria”. Today, the party has joined with other political groups to form a coalition called PDK-S.

Amouda, in Northern Syria, where I grew up, is called the city of politics and culture, poetry and madness. Our culture and politics are like twins, because the political injustice we suffer is because of our cultural identity as Kurds.

When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, I was a student in my second year at Damascus University, studying English to Arabic Translation.

I joined the Syrian Revolution right from the first events and demonstrations, so I couldn’t go back to university because I was wanted by the regime. I returned to Amouda as the war slowly destroyed all of Syria.

I wanted to stop the kids in my area from losing an opportunity to get an education, so I began teaching high school students for free to help them in their examinations.

In 2013 I took part in a hunger strike to protest the arrest of local political activists by the Kurdish political party, the PYD, who were asserting control over the Rojava region. On 27 July 2013 the PYD's militia, the YPG, attacked our peaceful protest and killed six civilians, injured more than 30 and arrested more than 90. They broke into my house three times… thankfully I wasn’t there. So I left for Turkey.

It has been so hard for me to live in Turkey because my family are far away. I can't bring them here to live with me because everything here is so expensive. Here in Istanbul I am working as an English teacher at a Syrian school. I sometimes give free English courses to help Syrians find better jobs, and I play the saz and baglama and sing with my band, Freedom Lovers.

I want to go back to Amouda because every plant grows up in its own soil. I would like to go to Europe one day but I can’t abandon my family at home. I want to build up an educational generation who believe in freedom, peace, justice and respect for others regardless of religion, political leanings or ethnicity: a generation who reject racism, and love the beauty of life.

I want to establish centers for free courses and hobbies for children and students to help them keep on living their childhood far away from war and violence.

I have so many dreams and ambitions: freedom for all, peace and justice for Syria's children and people. One day I would like to be able to study politics at university in Britain, which has always been a beacon of peace and hope for many Kurdish people.

I wish to see a Free Kurdistan before I die. Maybe one day, if I can finish my studies, I will be able to contribute to the creation of an independent and peaceful state for my people.

Read more of our special coverage: Streams of Refugees Seek Sanctuary in Europe

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