What it Means to be a Refugee: A True Story of Iboo


I became friend with Iboo, a twenty-two-year-old Syrian, only a week before I had a conversation with him regarding his life back in Syria between 2010 and 2014. After knowing that Iboo had been exposed to issues such as wars, terrorism, homelessness, slavery, and refugee-becoming, I decided to interview him. On 26 November 2017, we made an appointment in Iboo’s apartment after enjoying a Syrian home meal made by him.

In 2010, Iboo was a hot-blooded teenager who wanted to do something under his cousin, the leader of a political party, the so-called “free army” or the “Harasham” (there’s no English translation for the name of the party) in Syria. During that time, the revolution had just started in the city called Daraa. The spark that set off this revolution was the spreading of a video clip in which a child was saying “We don’t want Asat”—an open opposition to the president of Syria. According to the news, the child was tortured by having his nails pulled out and furthermore, he was raped. The legal reason to do such things to a child is the assumption that he was a terrorist and therefore he can be tortured.

Since then, the revolution started and wars started between different parties in the country. Broadly speaking, there were three different parties in Syria: the government party called “Asat,” the “Harasham” or free army, and the others. Eight months later, the free army arrived at Iboo’s city, which is Derhafer. According to Iboo, the leader, which is his cousin, was put into a prison for six years after he fought for Iraq against the United State. After getting out from the prison, his cousin organized “Harasham” through using his previous military connection in order to lead a new revolution. Influenced by his cousin, Iboo joined his cousin’s army and started taking a part of the revolution. He then moved to Aleppo for training and worked as an ID controller in the street. However, as Iboo recalled, “it was not fun at all to stand on the street all day long because you might get hit anytime.” What stroked Iboo the most was the moment when he was almost hit by a bullet that had fallen only hundred meters right next to him. Also, seeing deaths around him while being at the front line of the army, Iboo deeply acknowledged that he liked nothing about this, at all. In short, the forty-five days of patrolling on the street—seeing, hearing and smelling deaths—was a total nightmare for Iboo.

Nevertheless, like the other young teenagers, Iboo was still drawn by the thought of being a soldier because he was taught that he had a right reason to fight: that he fought for faith and for self-defense. This faith led him to experience the largest and bloodiest battle in his life: the fight with Asat at the Gun Fire Academy. “At here, I experienced one of the most terrifying moments in my life. When I saw the air strike was everywhere, I thought I was going to die,” said by Iboo while his deep black eyes were looking into mine. He then continued by claiming,


“When the fourteen millimeters bullet hits next to me, I can really smell the flying sands and dust on my face. Even now I can still recall the exact smell of it. It was a horrible fight and many of our people dead. I thought I would have died too. Only when I saw the sunrise I came to realize that I was still alive…I was alive.”


The result of the battle was indeed, a failure. While transporting those dead bodies back to Aleppo, Iboo felt extremely depressed. A few days later, he left the town and traveled back to his Derhafer to visit his family after a forty-five day of zero contact. Suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, Iboo stayed almost a year at home. During that time, he developed a deep friendship with his little cousin, Mahmod, who was only one year younger than him. Meanwhile, Iboo’s cousin had expanded his territories and increased his arm power up to more than three thousand people.

After a year, Iboo returned to his cousin and started working as a meal maker. Disliking that job, Iboo requested a job transfer and he then was put into the position of journalism and media management, which he worked for five months and he requested to switch again. This time he worked as a housekeeper of a big villa in Ar Raqqah. According to Iboo, the eight months of being a housekeeper was quite stressful. He was required to be constantly aware of his surrounding in order to prevent any enemy that might sneak into the house and cause troubles. Meanwhile, his best friend Mahmod visited him and also devoted himself to the free army Harasham.

In 2014, ISIS has become stronger and thus it became the enemy of Harasham. After announced by his cousin that they would also have to fight ISIS, Iboo denied the order by claiming “I don’t want to fight ISIS. My only concern is Asat.” However, the situation was uncontrollable and since the war between Harasham and Asat has started, Iboo has become both ISIS and Asat’s target. Under this helpless circumstance, Iboo had no choice but to cut his beard and changed his outlook in order to escape the war zone. Sadly, Iboo was unable to take Makmod with him because everything was happening too sudden and uncontrollable. Leaving Makmod in Ar Raqqah made Iboo feel rather guilty but due to the chaotic situation out there he had no choice but to escape by himself. As a temporal solution, Iboo crossed the border of Syria and entered the land of Lebanon, where he had experienced the most awful and horrendous period in his life:


“I was sleeping in a place where rats were running everywhere. The living condition there was so disgusting and awful that I could not believe my life would have become like this. In Lebanon, I worked in a restaurant about thirteen hours a day only for five dollars. After four months, I decided to return to Syria because I could not stand this anymore.”


After returning to Syria, Iboo found out that his cousin had also escaped the city. What came after this news was the heartbreaking news in which his little cousin was shot to death by a sniper during the war. Unable to take in this fact, Iboo cried like a baby and blamed himself for his little cousin’s death by wondering: “why should I stay alive then?”

Nevertheless, the instinct to live and family responsibility urged Iboo to stay alive. In order to stay alive under the circumstance that he was wanted by both political parties in Syria, he fled to Turkey in the winter in 2014. The path to enter the Turkey border was particularly challenging because the border policemen were incredibly violent in dealing with refugees. As Iboo claimed, “They don’t care about refugees at all. I saw someone was hit, kicked and stepped by the policemen on their faces until they died.” After a few months, when Iboo found a job and a flat, he asked his family to come over to Turkey. Of course, the scene of watching his family cross the border was unforgettable. As Ibu recalled, “I will never forget the look of my family when they walked out from the border: such a long journey to cross the border and all they had was some plastics bags with them.” “If all this had never happened,” Iboo lamented, “together with my parents, my three sisters and three brothers, my family would have had a normal and happy life in Syria. The costs that we have to pay for this political chaos, these wars, are way too much. And in fact, many of us are innocent.”

The life in Ankara, the capital of the Republic of Turkey, was indeed, very tough. As Ibu claimed, “I worked like an animal for one year in a chicken farm, seeing dead chicken bodies and smelling the chemical substances that had injected into them.” Unable to bear this kind of slave-like life any longer, one day, Iboo took a bus to Istanbul and looked at a job based on his luck. However, after sleeping on the cold streets for several days, still, Iboo was unable to get any job. Feeling homeless and depressed, Iboo gave up his plan and took a bus back to Ankara. Surprisingly, on the bus when he spoke to a person sat next to him about his situation, he was offered a job by that kind person. “This time, I was not treated like a slave. It was a hard job, that I was taught to make equipment for chicken farms in a town called Bursa, but people at there were nice to me,” Iboo recalled. Although the long hours of working and the long distance between Bursa and Ankara were really tiring, Iboo devoted himself to both work and family. “Almost all of my salary was given to pay the rent for my family. I restricted my monthly expenses to no more than thirty dollars a month,” Iboo said.

During the six months working in Bursa, an idea of going to Europe kept appearing in Iboo’s mind. After he settled his family down in an awful flat in Istanbul, Iboo decided to travel to Greece. At that time, a one-way boat trip from Turkey to Greece costed nine-hundred euro, which was unbelievable expensive. But there was nothing Iboo could do to make a change. Luckily, at this time, a German lady who had been chatting online with Iboo for several months, decided to help him up by lending him money. The trip to Greece was extremely dangerous and chaotic. As Iboo recalled,


“thousands of refugees were put into boats and before reaching the port, we have to pass through the police boats, whereby the policemen would try to destroy the engine and hit us. I was very lucky because the driver of our boat was really good in running away from the police boats and because there was another refugee boat coming right behind us, the policemen switched their target from us to the latter one.”


So, paying nine-hundred euro for a boat trip that might possibly kill yourself—I wonder if there can be anything ethical about any of this. Also, letting Iboo together with hundreds and thousands of people who had lost their homes and families to bear the name of “refugees” seems to a little bit harsh. As refugees are often projected by media as negative subjects without really considering the fact that refugees are not criminal but victims of wars and political chaos.

Bearing the hashtag of “refugee,” Iboo arrived in Dusseldorf, Germany without a plan. He was taught the German language by the same German lady who had assisted him before found himself a job in an IT company. Today, it’s been two years since Iboo started his new life in Germany. He has become fluent in not only speaking German but also English through self-learning. Living in a share house with seven other residents, Iboo never forget to perform his role as a good neighbor and furthermore, a good citizen. The only hope Iboo has for now is to get his work visa renewed so that he can visit his family in Istanbul. He misses his family who have taught him to be grateful and be faithful; he misses his hometown, where he was raised as a decent being. He misses everything that he had lost in these years and therefore he becomes obsessed with “forgetting” them. But Iboo, what I want to tell you is that there’s no way to forget them because those heartbreaking memories and lived experiences are the elements of your strengths and powers. They are parts of you and only by embracing them you can eventually relief yourself. So, instead of repressing them, you should speak about them or write about them in order to let them out and let them go. And I am very grateful that you shared with me about your story. I hope this article that I wrote will help you to soften your tough windshield and further open up the gate inside you to go through the path of remembering/recovering.

According to Oxford English Dictionary Online, the word “refugee” means “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” What can we understand here is that refugees are not criminals but victims of war or any other kinds of disaster. As Lisa Campbell, an American who ran a refugee camp in Italy, claims in BBC News on 8 December 2017 that:


“they are refugee because they want the same things in life that you and I want. We had engineers, lawyers, teachers, musicians, artists, police officers—people from all walks of life. They were just like you and me.”


Drawing on Campbell’s description, we realize that what we really understand about people who are called “refugee” is almost nothing. We simply give those victims a negative connotation without really understanding them. This is an unethical behavior and thus it has to be changed. Imagine if you were Iboo, and you had to experience all those inhuman incidences that he had confronted in those years, you will then come to understand what it means to be a refugee. So, what does it means to be a refugee? I would say: to be (a) human.


Lay Sion Ng is currently working towards her doctorate in Language and Society at the Graduate School of Language and Culture at Osaka University.