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A Christmas Miracle

About Sarah Salvadore

Sarah Salvadore is an independent data and investigative reporter, who writes on Central America’s immigration crisis. She reports on immigrant and refugee women, girls and children crossing the U.S. border. She was a fellow at the Global Migration Project at Columbia Journalism School and previously worked for the Times of India. You can read her work on Slate.com

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“It’s just celebratory fireworks. When I wake up tomorrow morning, it’ll will be over.” She told herself this, every night, for the past six years. It was the only way she could convince herself to sleep. She stopped praying long ago.

Sleep tonight was difficult. Her back hurt and her feet had swelled up considerably. Her husband told her the doctor she visited was dead. They say it was an accident. An airstrike gone wrong. But all those other airstrikes on hospitals in the past few months – could they be accidents too? She stopped thinking about it. Survival is all that mattered.

There were 30 doctors left in Aleppo. All of them were busy tending to the injured, especially children. She stopped visiting the hospital – couldn’t bear to see the injured children. Instead, she relied on the wisdom of the old grannies in the neighborhood. They thought she was a child, at 17, too young to bear a baby in such “hostile” environment.

The month of her 17th birthday changed everything. It was the fifth year of fighting in her country. Her neighborhood wore the look of destruction, worse than the others. “We live in what the government calls rebel stronghold,” her father had explained to her one day. She noticed her neighbors leaving in droves, doing what they can to cross borders, to safety. Many didn’t succeed – some drowned, other trafficked. Her family of four tried leaving too. But her father couldn’t gather enough money to pay the smugglers. Somehow, the family – mother, father, brother and she – managed to survive.

What was once her school building was rubble now. She spent her days at home, playing with her brother and reading books. One evening they heard a loud bang; their front door knocked off its hinges. Soldiers marched in and raised their weapons at her family huddled in fear on the floor. “You are hiding them, aren’t you? The rebels?” he said, the one who was the tallest, with the gruffest voice. Her father denied it. More questions followed. Her memories are a blur after that. Gunshots, screaming and then darkness. They say her father was shot point blank; accused officially of aiding the rebels.

There was no one to mourn. A few neighbors gathered for the funeral. Ibrahim, among them was her childhood friend. She consoled her mother, who was now worried for her children. One of the women told her mother that Ibrahim was planning to migrate soon; “to get out of this hell hole and build a life elsewhere”. Ibrahim had a degree in medicine from the local university. At 21, he was smart and driven, a good boy who cared for his family and was responsible. “He (Ibrahim) will take you away from here. You’ll be safe, your brother will come with you too,” her mother told her. She cried, she did not want to leave her mother. But it had to be done. The maulvi was called and within 4 months of her father’s death she was married. It was a somber affair, with just their families in attendance.

She was fond of Ibrahim – he was kind, understanding and smart. He began making preparations for them to leave. He told her they could go to Turkey and from there, head to Greece. People were helpful and welcoming, he said. They would then travel to the U.S., Germany or Belgium. They would have a shot at a new life, especially now since she was pregnant.

Her pregnancy set their travel plans back by a few months. But Ibrahim was resolute in getting them out of this place. “The world is watching. There could be a ceasefire soon. It’ll give me time,” he told her one night. But nothing changed. The government wanted the “rebellion” to end at any cost. Women and children were dying each day, either bombed by the Russian jets or gassed by Assad.

Finally, they were ready to leave. It was nearing Christmas and this fighting had gotten worse. She had bundled up whatever clothes and belongings she had and waited for Ibrahim. Her brother was to meet them at noon and they were to leave early next morning. She had to say goodbye to her mother. It was early evening and her brother hadn’t come, neither was Ibrahim home. Around 6 pm, Ibrahim came rushing in – there was no time, he told her, we have to leave tonight. “What about my brother?” she asked. “Dead” he said, “Shot through the neck by a sniper outside the bakery, just before noon.” They thought her brother was a child soldier for the “cause”. Two hours later, he was buried. There was no time to mourn. The Russians had upped the offensive and Assad wanted to “find and kill” all rebels before Christmas Day. Aleppo was falling. They had to leave at midnight, or they would be next.

The seventh month of her pregnancy was particularly tough. Travel seemed difficult. So many thoughts ran through her mind – what if the army gets hold of us? What if we come under direct line of attack by the Russian jets? What if they drop gas near us?

They left at midnight. There were no stars in the night sky, just Russian jets and the sound of bombing and crying. They were joined by two other families as they made their way out of the city. “They won’t take us in in Europe. The new President-elect of the U.S. won’t let us in either,” she heard one of the men telling Ibrahim. They had no place to go.

They had to get to Gaziantep, the Turkish town. At a distance of 118 kilometers, it initially took 24 hours to get there. But now, through the back roads and circuitous routes, it was a three day haul. Fighting between the regime and Daesh in the area had made the journey treacherous. The refugee camp in Gaziantep was too crowded, he told her. They may be transferred; they just didn’t know where. Turkey has put up recent sanctions on taking in more refugees. They had no place to go.

Journey was tougher than she expected. Often they had to walk fast and hide, she wasn’t prepared for it. She breathed a sigh of relief when they reached Gaziantep on the evening of the third day – the day before Christmas. Luckily for them, a Syrian family had left their tent that morning to travel to Lesvos, Greece. She and Ibrahim were assigned that tent due to the advanced stage of her pregnancy.

When she finally sat on the bed inside their tent, she was already in labor. She wasn’t due for another two months. But the stressful journey and the trauma caused a preterm delivery. Ibrahim summoned a caregiver and she was rushed to a makeshift hospital.

6 hours after she arrived at the refugee camp in Gaziantep, she gave birth to her son. He reminded her of her brother. She named him Faiz – victorious. For the first time in two years, she closed her eyes and fell into a deep slumber.

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