RAYA'S STORY

A young girl's journey escaping the inferno of the Syrian war

By: Sarah Green

According to UNICEF, 5.6 million Syrian children are currently in need of humanitarian aid as a result of the Syrian war.  In 2018 alone, 1,106 children were killed in the fighting – the highest ever number of children killed in a single year since the start of the war nine years ago. Photo courtesy of Ryad Alhussein.

“Freedom! Freedom! We want freedom!”

 

The chants of thousands echoed around the streets of Madaya, Syria. At just eight years old, Räyä Kämäl didn’t understand why people were filling up the streets of her hometown, waving flags and singing songs of rebellion.

 

“I don’t know how the uprising started or why people were protesting, but it was like a carnival,” says Kämäl. “I would run after everyone and sing along but my mum always ran after me and brought me home. I didn’t understand why.  She was afraid and I didn’t understand that either.” 

The year is 2011. The Syrian uprising was in its early stages, yet protests were already becoming bloody.

 

One day, everything changed.

Childhood interrupted

“The protests stopped and the only thing I could hear was the sound of guns and canons,” Kämäl recalls. “My father told me the regime was waging war against our town.”

 

Kämäl and her family immediately moved to Al Zabadani, the capital of their province. 

 

“At the time, I didn’t know the meaning of fear but I saw it with my own eyes — the sound of screams and cries from people whose faces were completely covered with dust,” says Kämäl.

Kämäl was now a child of war — her younger years permanently marked with the gruesome reality of death and despair.

By 2013, air raids and canon bombings were a normal part of Kämäl’s life. She got used to hearing the names of the dead being announced on the microphones everyday. 

 

“One day, a bomb hit our neighbour’s house,” Kämäl recalls. “At the time, the mother of the family was going to get some water for her children. Every single one of her family members were killed, including my friend.” 

Escaping the inferno

After this, Kämäl’s father decided they needed to leave Syria. He called a man he knew with good connections in the army and, in exchange for money, he arranged for Kämäl, her mother, and her siblings to go to Lebanon. 

 

“My father couldn’t come with us, so I went with my mother, brother, and sister,” Kämäl explains. “We stopped several times because of the random fire shootings, but in the end, we reached the Lebanese border where another friend of my father’s was waiting for us. He kept us safe in his house until my father managed to come to Lebanon.”

 

However, after experiencing extreme racism and misfortune in Lebanon, Kämäl’s father moved his family to Turkey.

 

“My dad called some smugglers and made an agreement with them to smuggle us from Lebanon, through Syria to Turkey,” says Kämäl. “They smuggled us in cars. We changed cars several times in the process, until the last car kidnapped us and asked for a ransom. My father managed to get money from his friends, and the kidnappers left us in Idlib, Syria.”

It took Kämäl and her family over a month to cross the border into Turkey. During Kämäl’s time living in Turkey as a refugee, she experienced continual mistreatment — insults were hurled at her as she walked down the street. As refugees, her mother and father could not legally work in the country, therefore, her family decided to leave everything behind and move to Greece.

 

Kämäl’s journey to Greece is a tangible representation of what millions of Syrian refugees have endured in an effort to find safety and refuge.

 

“Everyday was like a dream until I opened my eyes and found myself with my family and fifty other people on a boat in the middle of the sea. The waves were playing with our boat, hitting it from side to side. Most of the people in the boat were women and children; they were screaming and crying for help,” Kämäl recalls.

 

“When I finally touched land, I knew that I had a new life and God granted me another chance.”

Hope from hardship

Now, Kämäl is 16 years old.  She has been a refugee for over half of her life. In the midst of adversity, she has learned English and volunteers in her refugee camp, helping children who have also fled war zones. Her goal is to support these children in processing the trauma they have endured.

 

“My entire childhood was lost in war, from moving and escaping from place to place, crossing borders, being kidnapped and threatened, and finally the sea and my hell in the Greek refugee camps,” says Kämäl.

It was in this Greek refugee camp that Kämäl met Gabby Gibbs, a Happy Caravan volunteer. Through her month of getting to know Kämäl, Gibbs learned about her ultimate dream — moving to Canada. You can read Gibbs’ detailed personal account of meeting Kämäl here.

Currently, Kämäl and her family are living in a refugee camp in Osnabruck, Germany, with the goal of soon leaving Europe and immigrating to Canada. This dream is what Kämäl holds onto amidst the trauma she has endured and is still enduring.

Despite the poor living conditions, strict food rationing, and lack of available education in the current refugee camp she lives in, Kämäl has hope. She sees Canada as fresh start — a land of opportunity and freedom.

 

Currently, Kämäl and her family don’t have an official sponsor to aid them in the process of coming to Canada. The can't afford a personal immigration lawyer so they are left with the limited legal administration provided by the camp.

 

Overall, Kämäl and her family are trapped in a period of endless waiting. Despite this fact, Kämäl remains hopeful and resilient.

 

“I am now stronger than ever and I have dreams to help and support every child in this world,” says Kämäl. “Despite everything I’ve been through, despair won’t find a way to my heart.”

If you would like to help sponsor Raya and her family's journey to Canada, you can contact: gabbygibbs19@gmail.com or sgreen@cjournal.ca. If you would like to learn more about the process of a refugee coming to Canada, visit this link.  

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Raya has five siblings, Rehab, Mahmoud, Rayan, Mohammed, and Rehaf. Along with her parents, Raya and her siblings have been searching for safety and freedom for over 8 years. Photos courtesy of Raya Kämäl.