As we all want to go back to the good old days when we used to share cute cat and dog videos instead of stressful and alarming political posts, I decided to share with you the touching story of this cute little dog; Toteh.
I met her last October, while I was doing research for a talk I had volunteered to do for the annual Diversity Day event at my university. I was supposed to talk about Syrian refugees but I knew nothing about them other than what I was hearing from the news feeds and seeing them on the streets of Turkey during my vacation over the summer. A friend of mine introduced me to Christiane, a German lady, working with Syrian refugees through the United Nations in Geneva. When Christiane became aware that I was preparing a talk about refugees, she said: “You have to hear this story.” And that’s how I met Maen, Toteh’s owner.
While I was vacationing in the beach towns of the Mediterranean in Turkey last summer, I saw many refugees. They always stood out. They hung out with their families, speaking in a language nobody understood, alone and alienated. Many people were not happy about their presence. I was hearing in the news that in towns close to the Syrian border, the number of refugees were surpassing the number of Turkish residents. While this was the case, Maen was the first Syrian refugee I ever spoke to. He could speak English and Christiane was gracious enough to arrange us a Skype meeting so that I could hear his story directly from him.
Maen told me he used to be an engineer, specialized in wind power. He was also an artist. He showed me his paintings and bird sculptures he made out of clay, which kept him company. He told me the story of how Syria turned into a chaotic place because of the corruption in the Assad administration. In Syria, everything was controlled by Assad and his family. Every ministry was headed by either Assad’s uncle or one of his relatives or loyalists. The guards would come to the stores and collect money from the shop-owners regularly. Maen bought land to build a home years ago. The government said he had to pay 15,000 liras to apply for a permit to build the house. He paid and applied for the permit. But nothing would get done in the government. After 7 years of chasing his application, he still didn’t have a permit. However, one of the top generals in the military was allowed to build himself a house in a protected site where people were not allowed to build homes. Maen said: “it all started when two officers came to collect money from the shop owners again. People were already suffering because of Assad’s oppressive rule and corrupt administration.” This time, the shop owners refused to pay. When one of the officers tried to attack them, people became completely outraged. They’ve had enough. They started to fight the officers and managed to kidnap them and take them inside their store. This was the beginning of the resistance movement against the regime. Of course, Assad’s response was disproportional. He sent out his army and killed many people in one day. That instilled enough fear that the resistance died for a while. But the story of the shop owners spread all over the country. After a while, other parts of the country started to rise up against Assad. With each protest and uprising, Assad became more and more ruthless. His TV channels and media outlets were portraying the protesters as terrorists, to justify Assad’s brutal fight against them.
Maen said; “I used to live in Zabadani. But, I had to move from there because of projectiles passing over my house day and night.” He bought a house in the Artoz village and moved there. But, after a while, bombings intensified around his new modest home, too. “There was horror in the region” he said. “Most of the neighbors left their homes. I spent a lot of lonely nights. Sometimes, darkness and suspicious silence surrounded the area and silence became the status of psychological abnormal.” Maen said; “I was not afraid to die. In those days, death would be mercy. I even thought about ending my life. But, I was afraid to die and leave Toteh alone. If I died, she would be helpless. She would either be abused by other animals and people, or die of starvation. It was the most terrifying thought.” For Maen, the only thing that made him going was Toteh. He said that after a while he almost got used to missile attacks. He was waiting for the rumbling to end so that he could go to the kitchen and make coffee. In the evenings, he would put a helmet on himself and on Toteh and cover her with blankets in case a shell dropped or the ceiling fell down. He already had a hole on his wall, through which he could see the neighbors’ houses in the village.
“One day, the soldiers raided the region, broke doors and burnt many houses” said Maen. “My house was the last one in the neighborhood. Neighbors came to me and said that I had to leave. They offered me to flee to their safe places before the arrival of the soldiers. But they hardly had room for themselves. They would not allow me to take my dog. I could not leave her alone. So I preferred to stay and die with her. When the soldiers came to the door, I begged them not to kill my dog. I said ‘If you want to kill her, please kill me with her.’ The soldiers did not do anything. Because I had my paintings on the wall and a dog in the house, they thought I was not a Muslim and decided to leave me alone. Toteh saved my life that day.”
Maen had a daughter who lived in Geneva with her husband. She was calling him every day in panic, pressuring him to go to Geneva. His daughter had applied for a visa for him but with Toteh, it was complicated. Toteh had to be tested and vaccinated and even then she had to wait for 3 months after the blood tests before she could enter Europe and they didn’t have that kind of time. Maen decided to find a way to get Toteh out of Syria first, make sure she was safe, and only then would he leave for Europe. While searching for a way, he met an amazing girl, Rawaa, who lived close to the same village and was personally interested in rescuing animals. She helped Maen find a veterinarian who could do Toteh’s shots and the paperwork. Maen called an Animal Shelter in Lebanon, which agreed to keep Toteh until the expiration date. He met the vet in the worst conditions in the middle of a highway but under these unusual conditions, the vet was still able to test her, give her shots and even managed to get a chip underneath Toteh’s skin so that she wouldn’t get lost. Rawaa was leaving for Beirut and Maen thought it was a good idea to send Toteh with her.
Maen told me about his many struggles after that. Eventually he was approved and he left for Europe. He stayed with his daughter and her family for a long time. But, after a while, it felt embarrassing for him to live with them without being able to work or pay bills. He applied for the refugee program in Geneva and eventually was given a room in a refugee center in the countryside. One fortunate day, he got news that a friend of his in Beirut was coming to Paris and he was able to bring Toteh. Maen and Toteh were finally united but he was not allowed to keep her in the refugee camp with him. He kept her in another animal shelter in Geneva where he would take two buses from the camp to visit every day. He said; “Every time I left, Toteh looked at me with sad eyes, wondering why I was leaving her. It broke my heart every day.” He wrote letters to the director of the refugee camp and left flyers everywhere to no avail. “There was a horse club next to the camp area” he said. “People were coming there with their dogs to ride horses. I thought they would allow me to keep my dog there. But, every time I approached their cars to ask for the manager, they would feel threatened and pull their windows up. Finally, I found out that the manager was a lady called Madam Aurelia. I went to her office and told her that I did not want any money.” Maen told her the story of his dog and Aurelia agreed to keep the dog in the barn. For 7 months, in the cold, rain, and snow, he united with Toteh in the mornings and left her again in the afternoons. He continued writing letters and leaving flyers all over the city. One day, they had a new director at the refugee camp, a woman who loved animals. She called Maen to her office. She had heard his story. She told him that he would be allowed to keep his dog with him. Maen couldn’t believe it. He asked her again, “You mean, I can keep her in my room?” She said “yes”. He was in tears with happiness. He hadn’t been that happy in such a long time.
Today, he is given a private room in Geneva. He makes birds out of clay and sells them. He also volunteers at the refugee camp and gives painting lessons to Syrian children.
He is still reminded of his days in Syria as he looks at his painting. “I called this Shadows of the Man” he said: “Those were the days I felt so alone and so valueless. Worth nothing more than a shadow.”