To save one son from military service, Damascus family keeps the other a secret, says father: ‘This is tearing our family apart’

What would have been a happy surprise before the war became a nightmare for 59-year-old Damascus resident Abu Mohammad four years ago—his wife was pregnant with a baby boy.

The couple already had two adult daughters and a son, Mohammad. At the time, Mohammad was 19, making him eligible for mandatory military service. But Syrian law allows men of military age to avoid the service if, as in Mohammad’s case, they are the only son in their household. Up until Waleed’s birth, Mohammad was safe from the frontlines of a worsening civil war.

But a new baby brother threatened to undo Mohammad’s protected status, and have him sent to fight in a war he wasn’t willing to die for.

Mohammad “constantly told his mother to get an abortion,” Abu Mohammad tells Syria Direct’s Yazan Torko. “But that goes against my religion and my customs.”

So Abu Mohammad and his wife kept their newborn son a secret from authorities, “hoping that the war would end soon so we could register him properly.”

 Syrian children play in a park on the eastern edges of the capital Damascus, February 2016. Photo courtesy of Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP.

Now four years old, Waleed has no birth certificate, no citizenship and cannot leave the house for fear of discovery by the police. Legally, he does not exist.

His older brother Mohammad resents him “because Waleed’s birth destroyed his life.”

“I’m scared that Waleed will develop psychological issues,” says Abu Mohammad. “He needs to go outside, learn and play.”

“This is tearing our family apart.”

Q: How did you react when you found out your wife was going to give birth to a new baby boy, knowing that this would cause legal issues for your existing son?

Whatever happens is meant to happen. The main affliction facing my youngest son is having been born into this world—God wrote that his soul would be brought into such a life.

I hoped that the war would end before he was born, so that we wouldn’t have to live under these harsh conditions. But the only choice we had, in order to incur the least possible loss, was to not legally register his birth. We made this choice hoping that the war would end soon so we could register him properly.

But now he is four years old and still unregistered. Now there is nothing I can do.

Q: Given that Waleed is four years old, do you feel you made the right decision in keeping him unregistered? Have you started the process of obtaining a birth certificate?

My feelings are the same as when Waleed was born. I told myself that I could wait one year and then register his birth with the state and give him an official name. That year was followed by three more years, and my son is still a secret.

I don’t want my son to stay in this situation for long. My older son has tried on several occasions to move to Lebanon—that way, I could register Waleed. However, the Syrian-Lebanese border was closed [when Mohammad attempted to leave the country].

We agreed to pay a smuggler $500 to bring Mohammad to Lebanon, after struggling to scrape together enough money. But after we paid the smuggler, he disappeared and we never heard from him again.

One of my relatives suggested that I make Mohammad attend high school, so that afterwards he could enter university. That way, he could postpone his mandatory military service on the basis of his university studies. But I wasn’t able to bear the financial burden of sending Mohammad to university because he was the sole provider for our family.

Q: How did Mohammad react when he found out that he was going to have a baby brother?

He was against the idea of a new child, and constantly told his mother to get an abortion. But I’m conservative when it comes to the topic [of abortion]. It goes against my religion and customs.

I still feel hurt that Mohammad doesn’t love his little brother because Waleed’s birth destroyed his life—as he never fails to mention. This is tearing our family apart.

  A boy in Damascus, January 2016. Photo courtesy of ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images.

Q: Do your neighbors know about your younger son? Are you attempting to keep him a secret?

Honestly, I don’t think our situation is unusual in our society. My neighbors in this area are doing the same thing—some are even holding back on registering twin brothers with the state, because they are afraid that their sons who were once the only sons in the family will be forced into military service.

Q: Are you worried at all about the government finding out that you have an unregistered child?

Yes, of course. This gives me a lot of anxiety, and it restricts the freedom my family members and I have in our daily lives. My two children [Mohammad and Waleed] live as if they are in hiding, and are restricted to the house.

I’m scared that Waleed will develop psychological issues because he needs to go outside, to learn and to play.

Hiding anyone is extremely hard, but a child is especially difficult. I still have hope that the war will end soon and I can finally give my child a name and an attachment to the state, so that he can move forward with his life.

Yazan Torko

Yazan studied interior design at Damascus university. In 2012, Yazan moved to Jordan where he volunteered with Syrian refugees. He is passionate about theater and previously developed YouTube videos for NGOs and small news outlets.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.