I met Rose on June 24, 2010. It was a beautiful sunny morning in Aleppo, Syria, and I was photographing in the plaza beneath the historic citadel when a young woman entering the plaza caught me eye. She had style and confidence, and I liked the colors she was wearing. She said yes when I asked if I could take her picture and in our brief exchange she asked questions of me as well, inviting me to meet her friends in the days ahead, to swim in a pool run by Armenians, to wander with her through the old city and points beyond. She was an example of the best of Syria. She loved her country, and she was hospitable to the stranger.
When we said goodbye that summer, neither of us imagined the tragedy that was so soon to descend on Syria. Today Rose lives in Istanbul, Turkey.
What was life like in Aleppo before the war?
After living outside of Syria I can answer this question in a different way than I could have before: the life there was so simple, easy. The city had a great blend between the ancient and modern. Between east and west. In a way, it protected the beauty of each part. Best food ever and best quality of ingredients. I can tell you I still always argue with the grocer in my street here in Istanbul. I don’t enjoy the taste of the fruits and vegetables here because I compare it with the ones in Aleppo.
Now I understand better why they say Syria is the cradle of civilization. It is the land of the first alphabet. First musical note. First city. First capital.
Tell us when you left Aleppo, and why?
I left on 22 February 2012, at 4:00 am. I had to escape because the intelligence called me for investigation. I was sending medical and food support to other cities under attack and under siege. That’s why I made the decision to escape to Turkey.
What has life been like for you in Istanbul? What do you do here now?
I came to Istanbul by coincidence. It wasn’t my choice. It’s a different feeling when you haven’t planned to come, and when you are alone. Lost. In grief. And waiting for any door to be open.
The first year in Istanbul was like a hell for me. I was thinking the war in Syria will finish soon. So I can go back. But later I started to accept the idea that the war will take a long time, and we have to accept the new land as home. So I started to look for the positive points in Istanbul. To have Turkish friends. Learn the language. Right now I can say I love Istanbul. It has a charm. When I travel I miss Istanbul and can’t wait to come back.
I work in the tourism industry. My job is to convince people to visit Turkey. Design the program for their trip. Plus I work in marketing and make contracts with travel agencies.
Tell us about one of your favorite childhood memories?
I was over-spoiled in my childhood. I had many beautiful memories. I can remember when my father took us to attend the Romeo and Juliet theatre show. They performed it in an old Syrian-style house. I liked the combination of the oldies from the Orient and the West.
What was one of the most defining moments in your life (other than having to leave your country)?
The first day of Ramadan for me in Istanbul. Without family. Without friends. At the time I was living in a share house with German students. To start my fasting day I have to eat the sahour meal. I had it alone, for the first time. I remember that I couldn’t continue my meal. Was so hard to swallow. But my sadness didn’t last for long. In the morning I discovered that my flatmate, a German Turkish girl, was fasting too. So we agreed to have the iftar meal together.
Who do you most admire in life?
I admire many people. I learn from them tips for life. Lately I met a very beautiful Jewish Canadian lady. She showed me and taught me a lesson of love and peace.
But of course I am amazed by my mother. I learn from her determination. This lady was doing her university study while I was 5 years old. Sometimes she took me with her to attend the lecture. I still have photos of us in the university together. I was the youngest girl there.
What is one of the most beautiful things you’ve seen?
In general I like to see happy couples.
What is one of the ugliest or worst things you’ve seen?
The blood. I saw it not in an action movie. I saw it in real life.
What brings you joy?
I enjoy good company, sightseeing, nature, romantic dinners. I enjoy dancing. I love to dance.
What do you fear?
I am scared to receive the call telling me that my mother or father is dead. I am really trying to convince them to come and live here. But they don’t want to leave their house in Aleppo. I really can’t handle this fear. I can’t live with it.
If you had a chance for a do-over in life, what would you do differently and why?
Of course I would find a way to finish the war. For sure there is a solution better than killing. If leaders listened to the public demands and implemented them…or at least negotiated. We wouldn’t have reached where we are now.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?
I would love to visit Spain. And the south of France and Italy. I would like to visit the villages of France to taste the best cheese and the best wine. But unfortunately I have a Syrian passport. I can’t travel.
What was an embarrassing moment in your life?
I have a rule not to talk about the Syrian situation when I am on a date, because I want to have a normal date like any man and woman.
So me and my date were walking in the street. A Syrian homeless girl showed up asking for money. It was so embarrassing for me because:
- I don’t totally believe she was Syrian. And she is homeless.
- If I don’t give her money I will look mean, while I know if I give her money she will have to deliver it to her boss from the mafia and this is something I don’t want to support.
- If my date doesn’t give her money he will look mean.
- If he gives her money he might look like he is showing sympathy, which would be hard for my dignity to accept.
To finish these longest 5 seconds I bought the girl ice cream and gave her the contact number of an organization that helps refugees here.
What are three books you love, and why?
I like to read the poetry of Nizar Qabbani. No one can understand a woman better than him.
I like the book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, by Steve Harvey. I am single and might need it.
There is a book called Don’t Be Sad by Aaidh ibn Abdullah al-Qarni. Once you read this book, it works as healing for the soul. It gives you the path to know how to deal with your daily life in a better way. The author is a sheikh from Saudi Arabia. I am not a big fan of any religious leader or sheikh, and I don’t follow them, but this book really works as a balm to the soul.
What would a perfect day look like for you?
It must start with my coffee and Fairuz songs, and the perfect breakfast. Then dinner with sightseeing. The time between breakfast and dinner I will leave up to you. I’m easygoing for anything.
What do you wish the rest of the world understood about Syria?
I just want people to read some books about Syria before they talk, or at least to ask the expats who were living in Syria about their experiences. The Syrians are civilized, educated, peaceful, friendly people. We don’t deserve what’s happening now. But I am sure tomorrow is better.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
I hope to go back together me and you to Syria very soon. And take more pictures.