I found peace in Canada after surviving a rocket attack. But millions of children still suffer in war zones

This First Person column is the experience of Ibraheem Sarhan, who came to Winnipeg from Syria as a teenage refugee and now advocates for war-affected children. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I am Ibraheem, 20 years old, born in the capital of Syria, Damascus. 

I was nine when the war broke out in 2011 in Syria. 

At first, I did not know what war is, why war happens or who causes war. All I knew was that everyone did not like war.

But why? I wanted a day off school, and whenever there was a bombing near our town, I did not go to school. I said to myself, “This is not bad, I will not have to worry about my math homework. Sorry teacher, but this is war.”

As time went by and events started to escalate, we were forcefully displaced from our home. That’s when I felt that things are serious and this is bad news. “I will not be able to sleep in my room for a while.”

My family had to escape to a farm my grandfather owned in a nearby town. Things were not as bad in that town, but the farmhouse was too small for both our family and my aunt’s family, who were also displaced from their home. We all had to sleep in the same bedroom. 

A man carries the body of a child killed shelling on the town of Ariha by government forces in the rebel-held area in northwestern Syria on Nov. 4, 2020. As the war in Syria got worse, ‘I was truly scared,’ writes Ibraheem Sarhan. (Mohammed Al-Rifai/AFP via Getty Images)

Getting to sleep was not easy. I could hear everyone breathing at night, but I couldn’t ask them not to breathe.

We stayed there for weeks, hoping that we would go back to our town soon. But when days went by, that’s where I kind of missed my school and wanted to be back. Even if it meant I had my math homework. I will do it. But please, I just wanted to go back to my room. 

“We will be back soon, my dear son,” Mom said. So I had hope that my mom was telling me the truth.

But days and days went by, and I heard my dad talking with his friends about how bad things were getting. I was truly scared. I prayed that we would be back soon. 

‘Suddenly, we heard rockets’

On a sunny Saturday, my cousins, brothers and I were playing in the farm after we had breakfast. It was a quiet morning and everyone was busy doing their thing. My mom was doing laundry and my aunt was cleaning the farmhouse. Suddenly, we heard rockets falling around our farm. 

“Come inside the farmhouse,” my mom said. 

When I opened my eyes I saw the sky, instead of the ceiling of the farmhouse.– Ibraheem Sarhan

So everyone started running into the farmhouse. But I did not move. I was in shock. Finally, I entered the farmhouse. I sat down near the exit door, as the room was overcrowded. I looked at everyone’s face: everyone was praying, nervous and in fear. 

Suddenly, everything went dark. When I opened my eyes I saw the sky, instead of the ceiling of the farmhouse.

I wanted to move, but couldn’t move any part of my body. I was only able to move my eyeballs.

I closed my eyes and the next time I opened them, I was in a car with my cousin, who was all covered with blood and dirt. His little sister was sitting in the middle seat with minor injuries and looked at me and smiled. I couldn’t talk or move my hands. I was constantly passing out. 

A small girl in an orange dress sits in front of a plain brick wall.
A displaced Syrian girl sits outside her family’s tent at a refugee camp in Lebanon in March 2021. UNICEF said at that point that Syria’s civil war had killed or wounded about 12,000 children and displaced half the country’s population. ‘Today, I am fortunate to stay alive and be able to share my story here in Canada,’ writes Sarhan. But ‘there are millions of children who are suffering in war zones.’ (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)

The next time I opened my eyes, I saw nurses and doctors around me. I wanted to tell them that I have pain in my back. I was covered all over with my blood and wounds, and fragments were all over my body. But the doctors and nurses did not notice that one fragment was stuck in my back, and the hospital bed was pushing it more inside. 

I woke up after going for surgery and being transferred to different hospitals for three days. I was finally in an underground hospital called “Point 99.” This hospital was the safest place for people who were injured from bombings. I did not recognize any of the people in the hospital, so I asked the nurse, “Where is my family? Where am I?”

“You are safe here,” the nurse said. But I still did not feel relief. My body was all covered with bandages and I had serum coming through my right hand. 

‘Where is everyone?’

I waited days and days for any of my family members to come visit me, until one day, I saw my uncle walking past me. I tried to shout “uncle,” but my voice was so weak and quiet, he did not notice me. I tried to call anyone around, but everyone was busy helping others who had been injured. 

Finally, when he was on his way out, I was able to get his attention, and he ran to me.

“You’re alive,” he said.

“Where is everyone?” I asked. He said, “Everyone is OK, and we will get you out of here soon.”

Later my uncle came back and told me that I was leaving that hospital. I was transferred to a different hospital, where I was placed in a room with two other empty beds.

Then suddenly, I saw my grandmother and aunt being carried and placed onto the two beds beside me. I asked my uncle, “Where is my mom, is she OK?” 

“She is in a different hospital getting treated,” he said. 

I looked at the window beside my bed, which had a view of the street. Children were playing soccer and running around. I wanted to go play with them, but I couldn’t even stand. 

For three months, I regularly asked about my mom and siblings. Everyone kept telling me that they were OK and getting treated in a different hospital. Then one day, a friend of my father told him in front of me, “Our condolences on your loss.”

My father looked at me and left the room right away. At that moment, I knew that someone died.

I know that I am not alone. There are millions of children who are suffering in war zones.– Ibraheem Sarhan

Then my uncle entered the room. In fear, I immediately asked him, “Is my mom alive? Where are my siblings?” 

My uncle got a chair and sat down next to my bed. 

“I want you to be strong, Ibraheem. This is the will of God, ” he said.

“Did my mom die?” I asked, crying.

Yes, she did. But there was more news.

“Your two brothers, your sister, and your cousins, they all died,” he added.  

I needed time to heal. 

Today, I am fortunate to stay alive and be able to share my story here in Canada, where I found peace and equality. But I know that I am not alone. There are millions of children who are suffering in war zones.

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