Obaida Al-Hajj (27) has worked with GOAL for more than a year.
At the office or when out with our teams in the field, he is always quiet and industrious, tracking far-distant food distributions. But he always takes time to talk to the people he meets, some of whom have lost everything. He makes a point of visiting GOAL beneficiaries in their homes. “This role with GOAL has transformed my understanding of people,” he says, “they need someone to share their suffering with; they need kind words and a sympathetic listener just as much as they require material assistance, like food and clothing.”
Despite having a degree in economics, and his work in humanitarian assistance, Obaida’s abiding passion is for journalism and singing. He used to be a member of a boy-band during his schooldays and throughout college (“for around 15 years”). Not surpringly, the lyrics and tone of his songs have changed a lot during the five years of crisis in Syria.
At the heart of his passion for music and lyrics lie his memories of Abdul Rahman, his best friend. Obaida recently wrote and performed a song in memory of Abdul, and uploaded it to YouTube: "Abdul was my best friend. He died three years ago. I wrote the lyrics for him.”
On March 03, 2013 Abdul was killed. He was walking with three friends in the Turkman mountains, when a surface-to-surface missile hit them. All four of them died instantly. “The lower half of his body was obliterated in the bombing,” Obaida says gravely, “I can never forget his blood on my hands when we took him for burial.
“He was the only boy in his family. We were like brothers. We would visit Turkey together. Before the war, we could go for a day to buy clothes – it was very easy, we didn’t need a visa. Clothes used to be cheaper in Turkey.
“When the demonstrations started, we would go together and make videos of them. Then we would make videos of bombings. We thought of ourselves as citizen journalists.
“He was only 19 when he was killed. He would be 22 had he lived.
“We wanted the world to see what was happening in Syria. But soon, I realized that the world already knew. People know what is happening in Syria, but they still don’t do anything.”
Obaida and Abdul (pictured below) became friends before the conflict. Abdul was sixteen and Obaida was around 20 at the time: "But he was not like a sixteen-year-old. He was very mature and thoughtful, and talked like a grown man.”
They had apartments in the same building.
“We would stand outside talking for hours. And then we would go to demonstrations and gatherings. Abdul was in love with a girl. Not long before he was killed, he wanted to get engaged. They were a lovely couple; they had been together for two years. They met in school. When he told her he wanted to get married, I remember she came and spoke to me about him. We were best friends.
“We would talk about our futures. He wanted to build a company. He was studying to become an IT engineer, but his education was cut short when we had to flee our homes. He would always say that someday he would be the CEO of his own company, and I would be his deputy. We would joke about it. He would say that he would name the company Abdul Rehman and Brothers. He had no brothers, of course. We were the brothers.”
After living through five years of conflict, Abdul’s death is not the only cruelty that Obaida has witnessed. “Up to now, 37 of my friends and acquaintances have been killed. My aunt was also killed. Three bombs hit her car. She was with two other women in the car and none of them survived. I feel like I have lost everyone. It’s very difficult to be alone.”
Among the many incidents that he has experienced, living and working in the most dangerous areas of Syria, there is one that Obaida says he can never forget.
“I was at the funeral of another friend, Anas, who had died of a heart attack. We were at his house, waiting to carry his body to the graveyard, when we were targeted by airstrikes. I will can never forget that day. Altogether, 12 people at the funeral died."
"We were at his house, waiting to carry his body to the graveyard, when we were targeted by airstrikes"
“We were standing talking to Anas’ father; comforting him and telling him that his son had gone to Janaat (paradise) when we heard the sound of the bomb, a click and a whoosh. We flung ourselves to the ground, all holding on to one another. After 30 seconds, we couldn’t hear anything because the sound of the bomb was so loud that our ears popped."
“When we stood up, it was like the apocalypse. There was dust everywhere. Everything was destroyed. Four buildings around us had collapsed from the impact.”
The type of bomb is well known in Syria, explains Obaida. Upon impact, it destroys everything within a radius of a few kilometers.
“The destruction was only about 50 metres away. People’s bodies were lying like pieces of cloth, twisted against the ruins. More than 20 people were injured. We had to carry the remains of people on blankets. That day we had to bury 13 people at the graveyard, instead of one. We buried them in a collective grave.”
Haunted by such memories, Obaida is also propelled and defined by them: “These are my memories. This is who I am.”
But of all he has experienced, including being injured by shrapnel, it is Obaida’s young friend, Abdul, who remains uppermost in his memory.
“He was a genius. He was handsome and funny. His death broke me. Since he died, my life has changed. I still have his tee-shirts. They carry his smell. Many nights, I see him in my dreams. I saw him last night. He asked me, ‘when are you going to marry?’ I told him, ‘you go first’.
“It is so complicated in Syria. It has become like a desert. It is as though a Third World War has happened, but only within the confines of Syria.”
As the conflict continues, Obaida tries to find meaning in his work: “Before GOAL, I didn’t know anything about NGOs. But I helped my people before, and now I continue to do so with GOAL. One of the nicest aspects of my work is being among people and talking to them. They welcome me and invite me into their homes for coffee. I live with them, I feel for them, and I try to console them, even if just through words of sympathy. My work has really changed my life; it has given my life a new meaning and perspective.”
But for many Syrians like Obaida, hope is a battle hard won. “It’s very difficult. I hope…I hope…I can’t hope... Five years ago, I was developing my skills. Now I have to build my life all over again, from the beginning. I have to start again from scratch.”
To keep going, Obaida focuses on the everyday concerns in his life: “I want to continue my education. I want my mother to be healthy. I’ve been like a father to my sisters [He hasn’t seen his father in three years]. In two weeks time, my little sister will get married; I can’t imagine not being the person protecting her afterwards.”