ISTANBUL (CNS) — In the small front room of an apartment in a middle-class district of Istanbul, five young men, some with university degrees or halfway there, talked about why they fled their homes in Syria.
One of them had arrived from Syria that evening, another more than a year ago, and the rest within the past several months. Four of them were working in manual labor, packaging clothing and other items for shipment abroad. The recently arrived refugee said he hoped to find a job doing the same, within the next few days.
All of them told Catholic News Service Sept. 9 that they wanted to go back to Syria after President Bashar Assad was gone, but they differed over how the Syrian president’s regime should end, and how things in that country would be afterward, including for the country’s non-Muslims.
“What person wants foreigners to attack his country? But that is what Bashar Assad has done to us, he’s made hate so much in our hearts that I want now for a foreign power to strike Syria, to take him down,” said Abdel Rahman Halaq, 21.
He said he joined pro-democracy movements in Syria when they began more than three years ago and became “wanted” by the regime soon after, so the state university authorities would not allow him finish his mechanical engineering degree.
“I joined the Free (Syrian) Army,” said Halaq, referring to the opposition group that many consider to be among Syria’s most moderate and secular.
But in hopes he would be able to finish his degree in Turkey, he fled here last year, only to be told by Turkish authorities that he could not do so without a passport.
Like everyone else in the room — packed with makeshift beds, a table, glasses of tea, an ashtray, and cigarette smoke — Halaq was from the region of Aleppo and was Sunni Muslim. He said he had no fears of sectarian conflict if Assad’s officially secular regime fell.
“Syrians are not fundamentalists,” he said.
“I had Christians and Shiite neighbors, and we had no problems,” said 21-year-old Omar el-Yassin, seemingly concurring.
He said he, too, initially participated in the anti-Assad demonstrations in his country and was put on a wanted list. He was not allowed to continue his college degree in communications at the University of Aleppo, he said, so he joined the Free Syrian Army “just to protect our area.”
He said that when he decided to leave the group and head for Turkey in July, “I just had to turn in my weapon” and “was free to leave.”
A third young Syrian seated across from el-Yassin, Talat Nabghaly, 22, was the only one among them from Syria’s minority Turkmen community. He said he was from a village on the outskirts of Aleppo, was aligned with no side in the war in Syria, and had decided to move to Turkey in July almost immediately after receiving his university degree in civil engineering, in pursuit of a job and better life.
“There is no electricity, no water, no work” anymore in Syria after three years of civil war there, said Nabghaly, outlining the other reasons he had come to neighboring Turkey.
The most recent arrival to the two-bedroom Istanbul apartment was 23-year-old Firas Baghal, a computer technology graduate, who had traveled Sept. 6 through what he called “the crossing of death,” which separates opposition-held areas in Aleppo from pro-Assad held territories.
“The (regime’s) military stands with snipers at the crossing, and two or three people are killed passing through (each) day. A small girl was killed and no one from her family could retrieve her body,” said Baghal.
He said he had run two mobile phone supply shops in Aleppo, but both had failed because of the “situation in the country.” He said when he was able to hold them open, “Free Army people treated me nicely” but “the (state) military officers and soldiers did not, and sometimes wouldn’t even pay.”
Mohydeen Mohamed, 27, said he really had wanted to go to Lebanon, but was refused entry and so had come to Turkey by plane on a tourist visa. He slept at Istanbul airport for half a day, before the only friend he had in Turkey at the time came and got him. He said he wanted to return to Syria “when things get better.”
“If there are (U.S. air) strikes, and Assad falls, things will get better fast,” he predicted. Asked about possible repercussions for Syria’s Christian minority, perceived by many to back the present regime, Mohamed said there would not be any.
“The colonialists tried to make us separate entities when they ruled us, but they didn’t know how,” added el-Yassin. “Christians are protected under Islam, and it is forbidden to harm them.”
Many among Syria’s Christian and other minorities worry that any strikes on the country would only add to the war that began in 2011, and that any end to the current regime could pave the way for Muslim extremism, something Assad’s government has always combatted.
“I have family supporting the regime, and family supporting the Free Army,” said Nabghaly.
“But if al-Nusra (Front) takes over, I am never going back,” he said, in reference to the Syrian opposition group that has aligned itself with the militant Islamist organization, al-Qaida, and which has been designated a terrorist group by the United Nations and Western powers.
But “Syrians will no longer accept any forces telling them what to do,” countered Halaq. He reiterated his thought that “Syrians by nature are not fundamentally religious” and would not welcome any new governments based in conservative Islam.
“We want an equal law, for everyone,” in the country he said of his wishes for a post-Assad Syria.