Born into a Circassian-Syrian family, Natay Abdullah hails from Aleppo, a city that has been ravaged by conflict since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011. Abdullah, a 29-year-old graphic designer, found himself unemployed in 2012 and spent several months working for local humanitarian aid initiatives before moving to Turkey in 2013 for a job opportunity. This year, Abdullah paid a visit to Aleppo, where his family remains. After making his way through checkpoints and bearing witness to the city’s destruction, Abdullah told Al Jazeera why he could no longer call Aleppo home.
When I arrived in our neighbourhood in Aleppo, four years after having crossed the border into Turkey, I jokingly called out to my mum as I used to before: “Mama, do you need anything from the grocery store?”
She was lost for words. She could not believe I was back home.
I had not told my family that I was returning to see them. They would have been worried sick throughout the entire trip. I immediately headed towards my parents’ place, and upon entering their building, a lot of memories came flooding back.
Looking at the stairs, I was noting all the small details: “This broken step is still there … Ah look, here is another broken step.” Then, I stood outside our front door, and I saw them: My sisters and my niece were standing there by chance. I kissed them all, and we started talking; we were very emotional. My father was out, but suddenly the doorbell rang, and I opened the door. He was also lost for words when he saw me.
It was really nice to see them again, especially my little niece. She was five years old the last time I saw her, and now she is nine. She developed her own character and told me about the boy she likes at school.
Before leaving Syria, we used to share a tradition. Every Saturday, we would go to the park, just me and her – no mum, no granny. When she would say something like, “I want to take off my shoes!” I would respond with, “Okay, I’ll also take off my shoes”. While in Turkey, I made sure to keep in touch with her. I used to send her some drawings, and sometimes we would converse through her mum’s WhatsApp.
Our neighbourhood, called al-Sabeel, in Aleppo was luckily unaffected by the bombing. It was with my friend, Rami, that I went to see the other parts of the city, especially the old city. I was shocked. The amount of destruction is unbelievable. I could not recognise where I was.
We went to al-Jdeide, Bab al-Hadid, and Sabaa Bahrat neighbourhoods, where we used to hang out with all our friends. I wanted to see all the places that have sentimental value, but devastation was all I found. How will they rebuild such a city with corruption in the Syrian government so prominent nowadays? For the most part, during our visit to the old city, we tried to figure out exactly where we were until we had to ask around to remember parts of the area.
My friend, Rami, stayed in Aleppo throughout the war. He was the unfortunate one out of all of our friends. We all travelled abroad – to Germany, Austria, Turkey, Armenia and Lebanon, but he was the only one who could not make it.
I was afraid of seeing him again. He is a good friend of mine, and I love him. I was afraid to see him completely broken, as had happened to another friend from Aleppo who arrived in Turkey last year. I was afraid that we might not have been able to connect anymore. But Rami had found work with children in a primary school nearby, and this kept him alive. He was often depressed and contemplated suicide, but by working with children, he began to live again. For hours, we sat and talked.
I was always thinking this could be my last trip to Syria. I know that there is no fighting anymore in Aleppo. Government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad control the national road from the capital, Damascus, to Aleppo. This made me think it was a good chance to return home.
But I also felt this could be the last time. What would I do if I return? There is nothing to do. How will I survive and support my family? I was completely unfamiliar with the prices. To buy an espresso in the street, you need 250 Syrian lira ($1.22); for electricity, you need to pay for the generator for 10 or 12 hours of power a day.
My sister’s house was on the front line; she could go back there, but they have no money to fix it, as is the case with most families in Aleppo. Many want to go back to their properties, but sometimes, in the face of police officers at checkpoints, this is suicide. If, through your name, the police discover that you have a connection to opposition fighters, you will not be able to pass and risk being arrested, or worse.
The road from Beirut to Aleppo by bus via Homs takes about 10 hours. At the Syrian-Lebanese border, soldiers asked me for money, and I had to give them 5,000 lira ($25). Before the conflict, they used to ask for bribes, threatening to cause problems or inventing any excuse to take our money. Now, without any excuse, they just ask you for the amount they want.
Every checkpoint, men have to step out of their vehicles and pay up to guarantee a smooth entry. When you arrive in Aleppo, you see Russian soldiers strolling the neighbourhoods all the time. I heard stories of them getting drunk and shooting in the air just for fun, so this was something new for me to see.
My name, Natay, means the eye of the little horse, which is a Circassian name, but even in the Circassian community, it is not so common. Circassians in Aleppo are a small minority. When I was a child, I had an identity problem: I grew up with my mother, who is the perfect traditional Circassian woman, but I still went to school during former President Hafez al-Assad’s reign, where there used to be one state and one message. It was confusing for me: Arabic at school, Circassian at home, while all of our family’s friends were Armenians or Christians.
Today, at 29 years old, I don’t think I will ever again live in my city, Aleppo. I started to revive my life in Turkey, and I don’t feel I would be able to do it again in Syria. It would never be the same.