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Avine

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Avine Ismail worries about her plants and often goes out to check whether they are getting enough water to withstand the desert heat.

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Her friends and neighbours in the camp know she has bigger things to worry about, like her husband being killed by the Islamic State or her 13-year-old daughter Sidra, who has a serious heart condition.

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Yet despite all this, when Avine finds her plants are thriving, her spirits are lifted.

This is her story.

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In 2011 Avine, her husband Otman and their children Sidra, Dolovan and baby Youssef lived happily in Syria's capital Damascus. Their neighbourhood was lush with fruit trees, vines and flowers. The family shared a house with Avine’s sister and other relatives lived nearby.

Then the demonstrations for freedom and democracy began. The Syrian army responded by attacking civilians in the predominantly Muslim areas.

Like Avine’s.

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One Monday evening during Ramadan the family heard men shouting in the street. When they looked outside, they saw regime soldiers burst into the houses of young men who had taken part in the demonstrations. They assembled the men in front of the mosque and started executing them.

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After the soldiers had left, the mullah broke the fast by asking people to identify the bodies by their clothes or watches because most of them had been shot in the face. Two of Avine’s nephews were killed and three of her brothers were searched after by the regime.

Fearing for their safety, the family decided to leave immediately and flee to neighbouring Iraq.

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They arrived in camp Domiz in the middle of a snowstorm. People huddled around makeshift heaters or tried to warm themselves by lighting fires in their tents. Some tents burned down, injuring the residents. Avine and her family anxiously looked for a tent for themselves.

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The camp was so remote that Avine thought she had arrived at a prison. She could never have imaged she would call this place home.

Six years later, it is more than that.

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In 2017, the family lives in a house surrounded by flowers and plants, just like in Damascus.

Oh, and they have a cat.

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When Avine spent two weeks in hospital with her daughter Sidra while she had heart surgery, she missed her house a lot – especially when her neighbours visited them and told her the street was not the same without her.

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Her feelings about the camp have changed. Now when she has to go into town she feels stressed, and when she comes home she is relieved.

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Shortly after they arrived, Otman started looking for a job, but a bad back meant he could not work on construction sites like most men in the camp. Instead, he joined the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces fighting IS. He goes off to the frontline for ten days, then comes back to recuperate for ten days with Avine and the children.

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When they still lived in a tent, the family’s priority was finding proper accommodation to protect Sidra from the cold. Several NGOs build houses for the camp’s most vulnerable residents. Avine's family was not eligible, so they had to build a house themselves, using Otman's small wage to buy construction materials.

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Avine planted flowers and plants around the house to mitigate the desert dust. When she did, she was reminded of her father tending the garden outside her childhood home in Syria.

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He also kept turtles, birds and cats, and the care and attention he gave them made the young Avine associate plants and animals with the good things in life.

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In the remote Domiz camp, that association has become even stronger.

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Last year the Lemon Tree Trust, an organisation promoting gardening and farming in refugee camps saw Avine’s garden and asked her to help other refugees in the camp to start gardens and vegetable plots of their own.

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Most families are given food stamps, which they can use in a specific supermarket to buy canned food, beans, sugar and rice, but no fresh vegetables or fruit.

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So Avine helps people plant olive trees and fruit trees, and grow tomatoes, potatoes, onions, lettuce, garlick and parsely. Many people here used to have pieces of land with plants and herbes, so they have the knowledge but just need some help get started with the right seeds and tools.

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The camp's soil is dry and water scarce, making people collect sewage water from the kitchen sinks to water their crops

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Despite this optimism prevails. There is even a plan to scale up food production in green houses, which will create 10 to 30 jobs per greenhouse.

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There are five butchers in the camp who mostly sell frozen chicken, beef and lamb. But most Syrians are used to eating fresh food so they started to raise chicken, rabits and the like.

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In 2013 a refugee started a bakery from which the relief agencies now buy their bread. Today there are many bakeries in the camp.

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Like about half of Domiz’s population, Avine wants to stay. Even is she manages to get her daughter Sidra to Europe to get heart surgery, she wishes to return to Domiz.
Avine hopes Domiz will grow out to become a regular village whith a functioning municipality. She is tired of being labeled a Syrian refugee and wants to live a normal life.

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Avine often feels like she is the man in the house bossing everyone around, including her husband.
She seems to be always active and smiling.

“But sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I think about everything that we suffered and I just cry. After a while I feel better and in the morning I wake up smiling again."

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Her next project is having the metal roof replaced by a concrete one. Also she has requested permission from the camp autorities to add an extra room to the house.

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Often while Avine worked in her garden in the early morning, she would see a neighbour sitting next to a bucket containing a single rose. The neighbour would drink coffee and stare at the rose in silence.

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When Avine asked her about the rose, she said:
'this way I remember Syria, I remember home.’

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Avine also oftens thinks about her warm contact with her old neighbours in Damascus, drinking coffee together and taking care of eachother.

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