Seta Kale. Courtesy photo.
The Syrian civil war has led to one of the largest refugee crises of modern times and presented unique problems for Syria’s ancient Christian communities. Marginalized for centuries, persecuted by ISIS, afraid to attract any attention from the West, Syrian Christians remain, by most accounts, the war’s most invisible victims.
Seta Kale, a Syrian with a Syriac and Armenian descent, was born and raised in Qamishli and fled to Sweden at the age of 16. Today, as a 23-year-old, she’s studying business and economics at Jönköping International Business School, while working part-time as a cashier at a supermarket called Coop, and as a saleswoman at Rituals Cosmetics. Kale likes to sing to cope with her stress, and she likes to read poetry.
In partnership with the Philos Project, CNA sat down with Seta Kale:
When and how did you flee to Sweden?
I moved to Sweden seven years ago in December 2012, a couple of days before Christmas. We flew from Syria to Armenia, and from there we came to Sweden as tourists. We are some of the lucky ones as there were not many who could flee safely. But it was not as easy as it sounds. My family and I had to split up and travel on different dates in order to avoid the suspicion that we were refugees. We had no idea how we were going to be treated upon our arrival in Sweden and therefore did not want to take any risks by travelling together.
We have seven people in our family. My mom, two of my brothers and I went first. After six months my older sister and third brother came, and a year later my dad arrived. My dad had to take the most difficult route, one that was filled with risks. He couldn’t get a tourist visa, so he had to travel between countries (Turkey, Italy, Greece and France) to be able to come to Sweden. At one point, he had to cross the sea in a small boat together with 30 other people and walk through a forest for several days. Some days he was unreachable, and I’ve never felt that kind of fear ever before. It was a kind that I will never forget.
When did you start feeling the war?
As I mentioned before, I lived in Qamishli. It is a city in northeast Syria, and it was one of the cities that was least affected by war in the beginning unlike, for example, Aleppo and Raqqa. There still were bombs and shootings. The violence started when our bread factory was bombed. It then escalated to hospitals, schools and many public places. Everything became more expensive and there was no access to electricity and clean water 24/7. People were afraid to go to work and children were afraid to go to school. Qamishli felt like a haunted city.
It was when my school was bombed only minutes after my sister and I had left that my dad decided that we had to flee Syria. I will never forget the memory of that day. The ground was shaking under our feet as my mom and aunt ran towards us. After that, people became desperate to flee the war. Houses and apartments were quickly emptied. The feelings and stories that Syria has carried together with her people since 2011 is indescribable.
Tell me about your hometown in Syria.
In Qamishli, Syriacs, Armenians, Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Muslims all lived together. There were as many churches as there were mosques. People worked alongside one another. They were humble, loving, loyal and respectful towards each other. We felt secure because we knew that if we ever were in danger, the whole city would come and help. Religion and ethnicity did not matter to us, and this was the case in the whole country, not only in my hometown. We never thought “he’s Muslim” or “she’s Christian.”
The social life never stopped in Qamishli. There were things to do 24/7 with friends and family. Christians and Muslims celebrated Christmas, Eid al-fitr, Easter and Eid al-adha together.
When I came to Sweden, everyone thought I lived in a tent in the desert. But the more they got to know me, they were surprised by my knowledge and all the languages I could speak. Unfortunately, people tend to believe things about Syria that are not true. We had access to development, education, jobs and more. People say that nothing is perfect, but Syria was perfect in my eyes. We were very rich, but not in a materialistic way. We were rich in culture, religion, knowledge, history, tradition, peoples and so much more. Everything had a reason and I am the way I am today mostly because of what and who Syria is.
What are your best and worst memories from Qamishli?
Wow, I don’t know where to begin. I have so many good memories imprinted in my heart. I cannot choose one because there are so many; from silly things in school with friends, to mini-trips with the family throughout Syria, to celebrations of Christmas and Easter.
The worst memory I have was a time when I was on my way from Qamishli to Aleppo while we were fleeing the war. It was a 9-hour drive by bus. Before, it used to be a beautiful ride with beautiful buildings, houses, people and restaurants on the road. But that day I saw a completely different scene. It was filled with sorrow, and the beautiful buildings were reduced to stones on the ground. There were no houses, no restaurants and no people. During the trip to Aleppo, the bus had to stop more than five times at checkpoints. Some checkpoints belonged to the Syrian military and some were controlled by ISIS. Once, my sister and I had to hide under the seats so the ISIS soldiers wouldn’t take us. Another horrible memory is simply when I realized that this is it, I will never go back to my country. I cried the entire flight.
Have you lost any friends or family members during the war?
I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t lose any friends or family members. But in Qamishli, everyone knows everyone, and we heard a lot of incredibly sad stories about people who disappeared during bombings and shootings. I had family members and friends, both boys and girls, who were drafted to the military. It was during the worst time in the war and the military needed as many people as possible. When these people would return, they were very different. What they witnessed during their time in the military changed them. In that way, I’ve lost loved ones.
If you could go back, would you stay in Sweden or move back to Syria?
I would definitely go back. Besides the fact that I miss it, I want to help rebuild what the war has destroyed. I want to see my country back on its feet and stronger than ever. I want to start a family there and I want my children to grow up in the country that I grew up in.
If you could send a message to Christians in the West, what would you want them to know about Syria?
I want people not to only think of war when they hear “Syria,” because it’s so much more. I want them to know that the Syrian people are struggling and fighting for the country to remain. But most of all, I want them to continue to pray every day for the people there and know that any contribution is an enormous help for the Syrians.