If you had to flee your home and could only take a handful of things, what would you bring?
It’s a question Elias Bakhash posed to students at DeSales University after witnessing first-hand the devastation of war.
Bakhash shared his story of leaving Syria on Monday, September 11, as part of the Center for Service and Social Justice’s monthly cultural programs.
He asked students to answer the same questions he and his family were forced to face:
What would you do if war broke out in your country?
What would you take with you?
What if you could only fit it in your pocket?
And, what if your family decided to stay?
Bakhash grew up in Aleppo and studied mechanical engineering at the University of Aleppo. He graduated in 2011, the same year a civil war broke out between government forces and rebels seeking to overthrow the government.
“My dream was to travel to Dubai and go work at a fancy engineering company and make lots of money,” he said. But like many others, his dream was shattered by war.
Bakhash found a job in Dubai after graduation, but he was denied a green card because he’s Syrian. “All the wealthy countries stopped issuing residency or green cards to Syrians.”
He ended up living in Jordan for a year and a half. While he was there, his father lost his business back home. Bakhash took the only job he could find and sent half of his monthly paycheck to his family.
“It was very hard on me to drop my dream as an engineer but I had to,” he said. “My employer gave me the lowest salary because I’m Syrian and had the lowest voice.”
Bakhash ended up leaving Jordan for Turkey, where he was able to use his engineering degree to help build a water system for Syrians who didn’t have access to safe water.
He managed to bring some of his relatives, including his mother and sister, to Turkey. But his sister wanted a chance at a better life and decided to pay smugglers to take her to Europe.
“I told her I don’t think this is a good idea,” Bakhash said.
“She said, 'I have a 50 percent chance to be safe and to get there." So she took a risk and she made it.”
Bakhash’s mother decided to take the treacherous trip by boat along with his sister. The smuggler told them they were each allowed to bring a backpack with six items. But when it came time to leave, they were only allowed to take whatever would fit into their pockets. Thankfully, the two survived the trip to Europe and have safely resettled in Austria.
According to the United Nations, 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the war started and 5,000 people flee the country every day. Life expectancy has also dropped by a staggering 20 years.
Those who stayed are forced to cut ties with friends and even family.
“If you live in an area under the government’s control and your uncle or your cousin live in an area under ISIS control, you have no choice. You don’t talk anymore,” Bakhash said.
Fortunately, he is able to keep in touch with friends and family back home via text or Skype. His friends share pictures of the devastation: familiar places reduced to rubble by bombings. “When you think about it, it’s just some stores collapsed. But to me and other people, it’s very meaningful.”
Bakhash shared before and after photos during his presentation, along with a haunting photo of huge sheets hanging in the middle of a street. He then told students that the sheets were there to protect civilians from the snipers that target them.
Bakhash also recounted the day he learned his cousin had been killed after the 20-year-old’s home had been bombed.
“He was so smart; we were so close,” Bakhash said, adding that his cousin was trapped under the rubble for two hours, calling for help before he died.
“Every one of us as Syrians lost someone. That was my biggest loss from the war.”
Bakhash is currently earning his master’s degree at Villanova University and working with Catholic Relief Services. Even though he didn’t know anyone when he arrived in the U.S., two people from Villanova offered him a place to stay.
“I was really surprised with how generous the American people are and the principles that they’re fighting for,” he said. “You don’t really find this kind of generosity in other countries.”
Bakhash believes it will take Syria years to recover from its civil war. He looks forward to the day he can finally return home to see his family and friends, and to help his country rebuild.
See More Latest News >>