Most of the time, Abu Mustafa can only be found in one of two places: the cave that he, his wife and two children use as a makeshift bomb shelter, or in a field in rural Idlib province, where he works as a farmhand.
By training, he is an anesthesiologist with a degree from Damascus University.
Born and raised in east Aleppo, Abu Mustafa treated hundreds of wounded as war engulfed his city last year.
A ceasefire deal in December between regime and rebel forces in Aleppo finally brought an end to the onslaught, and allowed for the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians who had been trapped under siege in east Aleppo.
The anesthesiologist faced a difficult choice: leave the totally destroyed eastern half of the city on the regime’s green evacuation buses to Aleppo’s outskirts, or travel further afield, either north to the crime-ridden camps along the Syrian-Turkish border or west to neighboring Idlib province.
“Many of my relatives were going to Maarat a-Numan,” around 80km west of Aleppo in rural Idlib province, Abu Mustafa tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier, using a pseudonym to protect family members still living under Syrian regime control. “I chose to take my family there.”
But he was unable to find work. “Many people apologized to me, explaining that there is no work because of the sheer number of others searching for jobs and the constant airstrikes on hospitals.”
Q: Describe what has happened to you and your family since leaving Aleppo.
After the agreement to evacuate the city of Aleppo in the middle of last December, we had the choice of going to Idlib city, rural Idlib province, rural Aleppo province or to the border camps. We ruled out going to the camps because I was afraid for my children.
I decided to go to rural Idlib province because the rent in Idlib city is very expensive. Many of my relatives were going to Maarat a-Numan [a town in rural Idlib], so I chose to take my family there. I rented a home for about SP8,000 [$37] per month. We still had some of my wife’s gold [wedding jewelry], which we had to sell in order to pay the rent and buy things for the house.
But soon I began to suffer as I searched for a job within my specialty [as an anesthesiologist]. I approached many hospitals and medical clinics in Maarat a-Numan, but to no avail, as many of the clinics were bombed out of service.
Many people apologized to me, explaining that there is no work because of the sheer number of others searching for jobs and the constant airstrikes on hospitals.
A large number of my friends in the medical field who left Aleppo suffer the same exact problem that I do.
After two months of searching, I lost hope. I soon ran out of all the money I had brought with me [to Maarat a-Numan]. Eventually, a farmer approached me looking for workers to help him [on his farm] in exchange for SP3,000 [$14] for a day’s work. This was my opportunity to provide for my children and wife.
Meanwhile, the bombs continued, forcing many residents to spend most of their time inside caves to avoid injury or death.
Q: Four months after leaving Aleppo, is there any part of your life in Maarat a-Numan that is similar to your life back home? What has changed?
The only similarities are the bombs and the fear. Afraid, we left from [the bombs]—but the fear is still with us. It presses down on us in every moment that passes by in Maarat a-Numan.
There is also a heavy financial burden that came here alongside us.
The differences [between life in Aleppo and Maarat a-Numan] are vast. They touch every aspect of our lives. In Aleppo, there are jobs, and I was known by the various hospitals. We also had our house and our extended family.
We also have very poor living conditions [in Maarat a-Numan]. The paycheck that I make as a farmhand isn’t enough to make ends meet.
But the biggest difference is that Aleppo is my city. It’s where I was born and grew up; I learned all of its sites. Here I feel like a stranger in every sense of the word.
Q: When you reflect on your shift from an anesthesiologist to a farmhand, what do you think about? Do you have any plans for the future, such as returning to Aleppo?
I feel like a failure. I thought that the situation in Idlib would at least be a little better than in Aleppo. In Aleppo we were active, but here we do nothing but run around trying to make ends meet without any purpose. This makes me feel like a failure both to myself and to my fellow citizens.
I do think about leaving for Turkey—but that would require money, which I just don’t have enough of right now. Life in the opposition-held areas is awful in all senses of the word, both psychologically and otherwise.