By Alexandra Tawaifi
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?
Of course! The first thing that changed was the lack of security in Qamishli. I feared losing everything again, and the fear increased every time Turkish forces seized new territories on our side of the border. The mass exodus that a full Turkish invasion could inflict would change the whole demography of the area.
You say that Raqqa is a special case. How so?
Raqqa is truly a special case and has unusual magic. For decades the Roman Catholic church was the only functioning church in Raqqa so all of us Christians would gather in that church regardless of ethnicity or denomination. We shared holidays, prayers and youth groups there.
Unlike in the rest of Syria, church bells never rang in Raqqa. It wasn’t allowed because, according to my priest, Muslims were not used to hearing them. So, the bells never rang in Raqqa, and they probably never will.
Even before ISIS, we were subjected to harassment from bigoted Muslims in Raqqa. In 2006, the Syriac Orthodox community leased an Armenian church downtown that had been closed for 30 years. During the mass, Muslim kids would sometimes open the doors of the church and throw stones at us.
Do you want to stay in Qamishli, go back to Raqqa, or leave?
After the massive destruction in Raqqa I thought it would be impossible to return and rebuild. I realized then that I needed to settle down in Qamishli, mentally and emotionally.
In Qamishli, there is no coexistence regardless of what people on the outside say. It’s a façade, a ticking bomb that can explode at any moment. The neighborhoods are divided by denomination or ethnicity, unlike the way it used to be in Raqqa, and there have been clashes between these groups several times. Racism between people from the same religion is not uncommon.
Even still, I would not consider fleeing abroad unless the Turks reach Qamishli and there’s no other place in Syria to take refuge. I hope this doesn’t happen because I have settled here, and I’ve made friends here.
What is your hope for yourself?
I don’t know what to say. That question is difficult because I’m so lost. I don’t know my path and I constantly fear what might happen tomorrow. I don’t have the ambition to build more because I always have the feeling that I could lose everything at any moment. I used to have a lot of dreams for the future, but my fears stop me now. I am being treated for PTSD. My return to Raqqa, after it was liberated in 2017, caused massive mental health issues for me, and I couldn’t sleep for 3-4 months. I have been treated by a psychologist for the last two years.
Unfortunately, another disadvantage here in Qamishli is the lack of doctors because so many have emigrated. The psychologist that I use is the only one left in his field.
What have the challenges you’ve faced taught you about being a Christian?
They’ve taught me that I am subject to murder and genocide solely because I’m Christian. They wrote “Nazarene” on all our Christian homes in Raqqa and took our property. Driving on the streets, I fear that a radical person will stop, see my name, and know that I’m Christian, which would put me in danger.
What message would you want Christians in the West to know?
I want the whole world to say, “Enough war, killing, and destruction!” The Syrian people have no hopes, dreams, or future. Our hope is to go grocery shopping without being killed in a car bomb. These are our miserable dreams now because we’re in a state of war. Even though there’s no ongoing war here, our souls are being killed slowly.
An entire generation has been destroyed, kids born into the sound of bullets and bombs. Their first memories are of blood, crime, killings, and hatred of others. I wish all these people could unify their voices and stop all the wars in the world, not only in Syria.
CNA Update: In early February, authorities in Raqqa started rebuilding the Armenian Catholic Martyrs’ Church and the Melkite Catholic Church, the churches that Samer grew up in. The city is not controlled by the Syrian government, and the Armenian Catholic Eparchy in Qamishli have said that no Masses will be held in the church after the rebuilding if the city is not then under control of the Syrian government. There are seven Christians in Raqqa that Samer knows of. One is Armenian, one Melkite Catholic, and five are Syriac Orthodox. The majority of the Christians who fled during the Islamist invasion went to the Qamishli and Hassake, in northeast Syria. Samer has interviewed many of them; he said 90% of them said they won’t go back to Raqqa even if the churches are rebuilt because their houses have been destroyed.