Mohamed sits cross-legged on the floor of the family tent. He thinks about how to answer the question he has just been asked – how to describe the pain.
On the boy’s forehead, a diagonal scar extends out from under his dark fringe. It runs from the left side of his face, continues down through his eyebrow and over the top of his nose, ending just under his right eye.
He looks down at his fingers. They are busy fiddling with his trousers. A small smile appears at the corner of his mouth, as if asking himself: “What are you thinking? That your fingers can find the right words?”
He takes a breath.
Raises his gaze.
“I get pain in one half of my head. And my eye. Then, it is as if the nerves in my eye are burning, and it feels like half my head is missing.”
The accident happened eight months ago on the road between the Syrian cities of Kubane and Raqqa. The family had hired a car with a driver. The car was carrying Mohamed’s uncle, Mohamed himself and three other children from his extended family.
Mohamed’s busy fingers have released his trouser leg and are now at rest. Mohamed continues:
“Sometimes the pain lasts for half an hour. Or an hour. Other times it can last a whole day. Sometimes the pain returns several times a day. Other times it returns after a few days.
“No, I have no medicine.”
Work instead of school
Mohamed and his family are Syrian Kurds and come from a village in the former Kurdish-dominated enclave of Afrin, in northern Syria – on the border with Turkey.
Before the war, Mohamed’s father, Mustafa, 56, supported his wife and 11 children as a farm labourer back home in Afrin. He picked grapes and olives.
Today, Mustafa’s five daughters and six sons are between the ages of 10 and 29. Several are married and have children of their own.
But for many years, Mustafa has only had one kidney, and his health has worsened with each passing year. And being forced to flee doesn’t exactly improve your health. Today, he is only able to work occasionally – and then only if there is work to be found.
As a result, to his great shame and despair, some of his younger children have also had to support the family at times – including Mohamed before his injury. For a whole year, Mohamed worked with an older brother in a restaurant in Kubane. First washing dishes, later serving guests. He worked from eight in the morning until midnight.
The family has been displaced since 2015. That’s seven years of Mohamed’s life.
“We have seen people who have had their arms cut off. We’ve seen and heard bombs. Air strikes.
When we fled Syria, we saw and heard many bombs. Then, we were scared and couldn’t sleep at night. I comforted my younger brothers as my parents used to comfort me. I said: ‘Don’t be afraid.’
The images from the war are always in my head. I mean, I don’t think about them all the time. But they keep coming back.
Maybe it will always be like that.”
For the family, there have been so many reasons to be afraid. Afraid of being killed or injured. Afraid of being stopped by armed groups. Afraid that the women and girls in the family would be kidnapped.
But mostly afraid of not seeing each other again.
Perhaps the worst part is when the family members have to leave each other and go their separate ways. That has happened several times. They have had to do it for practical reasons, mostly due to lack of money.
Mohamed’s mother, for example, had to leave four of her children when they were in Lebanon. She didn’t see them again for four months. When she talks about it today, she starts crying.
Back and forth
First, they travelled from Afrin to Aleppo. From Aleppo, they went south to Homs. When fighting broke out in Homs, they returned to Aleppo. From there, they fled across the border into Lebanon. And because it proved impossible to find work in Lebanon, they wanted to return to Syria.
The Syrian-Kurdish family couldn’t afford to pay for the documents required by the Syrian authorities in order for them to be allowed to cross the border.
But the family had enough money to pay people smugglers. So, they crossed the mountains by horse, walked for 24 hours and finally finished their journey by car.
They arrived in the capital Damascus, where they were permitted to stay for 15 days – but then they were notified that Mustafa would have to join the military.
He did not want to do that.
With the help of people smugglers once again, he travelled to the largest Kurdish city in Syria, Qamishli. Then he went on to Kubane, where he was finally reunited with his family.
They rented a house. But by then, their money was almost gone.
One daughter, 17, found a job with a tailor. Mohamed and his older brother went to work in a restaurant.
“What were we supposed to do? We couldn’t beg,” says Mustafa.
A lot at once
It’s not “just” the war.
There’s so much more.
Like: how can you support your family if you don’t have a job and may not be permitted to work? What do you do if you or your children become ill and there is no health centre or doctor nearby? Or if you don’t have access to basic services because you don’t have the right documents with you, or because you’re short of money?
And what should you do when the authorities demand that you go home to Syria and pick up the papers you didn’t manage to bring with you when you were forced to flee? When traveling home is dangerous and your house lies in ruins?
Rescued by a rock
When the car accident happened, the family was trying to get from Syria to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in the northern part of the country. Mohamed and the others in the car were scheduled to be reunited with the rest of the extended family in Bardarash refugee camp.
The car rolled over four times. All the windows shattered. But the passengers managed to free themselves from the wreckage.
Three of the children suffered minor injuries.
But Mohamed was stuck under the car, shouting for help.
He was lying beside a rock. A rock that held the car up – and prevented it from completely crushing his head.
They lifted the car. Then, the first thing they did was call for an ambulance. Then they called Mohamed’s father, Mustafa: “We have had a terrible accident. Your son Mohamed is seriously injured.”
Mustafa is sitting on the tent floor, thinking back to the phone call he received eight months ago.
His eyes glaze over. He says:
“I threw myself into a rental car. There were many checkpoints along the road, so it took a full nine hours before I arrived at the hospital in Raqqa.”
He sets his newly lit cigarette in the ashtray and raises a trembling hand to his forehead.
The smoke rises in a straight line into the air.
Mustafa clears his throat. Searches his pocket for his mobile phone. Scrolls the screen with his index finger, and finally finds two photographs. Both show Mohamed in a hospital bed.
Mohamed has a large bandage around his head.
“I was shocked when I saw my son lying there. They said that he had undergone surgery and that it had gone well.
“They said he had to have at least one more operation. But that it would be too risky for him. So, they didn’t want to do it.
“But I insisted on the surgery,” says Mustafa.
That was all he wanted. He knew it was his son’s only chance. He discussed it with the doctors – he shouted and screamed. In the end, they gave up, he says. They said Mustafa would have to take responsibility if anything went wrong.
He shakes his head. Clenches his fists, before saying:
“The operation went well. But now Mohamed’s eye has begun to run, in addition to the pain, causing him tremendous suffering. We have nothing to give him to help him or relieve the pain – we have no medicine.
“I think my son needs a third operation. But where can we have it done?”
Mustafa looks desperate, frustrated:
“Where should we go? We can’t go anywhere. Not to Syria, not to Europe,”
he says, looking at Mohamed, who has been listening to his father’s words.
Mohamed looks down.
As if to tell the world:
“I’m waiting for it to pass.”
Writer Kristine Grønhaug and photographer Beate Simarud.