The Road from Aleppo to Argentina

BUENOS AIRES — Imagine how terrifying life is for an 8-year-old who has to swallow pills to fall asleep, because the bombing a few blocks away has gotten so bad.

That’s just one example Guadalupe Rodrigo offers to describe what it’s like to grow up in Aleppo right now.

The 41-year-old Argentine nun has lived in the embattled Syrian city — the country’s largest, and a rebel bastion — for the past four years, since before the war broke out.

A Catholic missionary, she works with the Christian community there. Syria’s Christian community is one of the oldest in the world.

Sister Guadalupe will go back to Aleppo this month to continue her religious mission, after taking a brief trip home to visit family in Argentina’s San Juan city.

She has no illusions about what she’ll return to, and she understands well why millions are fleeing the country.

“Children use the verb ‘to rain’ to refer to [missile] strikes,” says the nun. “‘It rained 40 today,’ they would say,” as if commenting on the weather.

In mid-2012, seemingly overnight, she says Aleppo residents started to see military planes overhead and tanks rolling along the streets of the city.

Since then, “the permanent state of asphyxia never ended. People are waiting for death in their homes.”

The United Nations children’s agency warned in July that half a million people in Aleppo were struggling to get enough water to survive. Amid heatwaves reaching 108 degrees, Syrian families are stuck in a city with dry taps and frequent power cuts.

With time and experience, most Syrians and humanitarian volunteers have learned how to gauge the distance and intensity of blasts and clashes. They learn which streets and roads are often targeted by explosions, and the routes to walk instead.

But there are still so many deaths that corpses are organized by district and hour, Sister Guadalupe says. For example: “District Suleiman, bombing at 10:42 a.m.”

“This is not a movie. This has been our daily life for the past four years,” says the nun. “We did not live a single day in peace and silence.”

The severe damage and destruction has pushed more than 4 million Syrians to settle in neighboring states and abroad. They make up the largest group of recorded refugees since 4.6 million Afghans fled their homeland in 1992, according to United Nations data. (That’s not even counting the millions of Syrians displaced from their homes but still inside the country.)

While most Syrian refugees are looking to settle in the Middle East or Europe, some have made their way to countries as far as Argentina, Sister Guadalupe’s home country. The South American nation has been praised for its open-immigration policies, but the voyage from Syria is long and expensive, and refugee visas must be sponsored by relatives or Argentine citizens already in the country.

The cost of living in Argentina is also high, meaning it attracts refugees of means. Just 268 Syrian refugees and 52 Syrian asylum-seekers were registered here as of June 30, according to figures from Argentina’s National Commission for Refugees (CONARE).

Regardless of their finances, each refugee is fleeing excruciating violence back home. And for each one, Argentina represents a chance to start over in safety. Here are a few of their stories.

This photo story was published in Global Post on October 2, 2015. Link here

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