Hussein’s Story is a brief re-telling of the time I spent in Aleppo, Syria in 2009 with a young homeless boy I was fortunate enough to meet and spend some time with. Issues of youth homelessness, abuse and military conscription arose during our conversations. The piece was published on November 7, 2009 on the Window Dresser’s Arms, a great online space filled with robust opinion, great writing and fantastic satire.
It was the middle of summer, the middle of Ramadan, most of the country was fasting, all of the country was thirsty and there was not a drink in sight for miles. “It’s so bloody hot!” I said aloud, as my friend and I trudged wearily beneath the 40 degree Syrian sky towards the ancient citadel in Aleppo.
Parched, we arrived and quickly found refuge in the shade of one of its giant walls, “there he is again,” I said, pointing to a little boy we had seen the day before. His big eyes seemed to be overflowing with an unquenchable sadness as they followed our every move.
He once again walked sheepishly back and forth, just as he had done the previous day, as if he was studying us as part of a school project – all the while, never taking his gaze off us.
He tentatively made his way closer and finally perched himself on the wall beside us. “Hi, my name is Hussein,” he said in Arabic, as a smile broke his solemn stare and lit up his now bright face.
We sat talking to Hussein for some hours, he was a skinny little thing and looked about eight years old, although he assured us he was 11. His tiny hands were covered in dirt all the way up to his long fingernails which were stained red from henna, his shirt and trousers were as dusty as the hot surrounding landscape and in need of a good wash, but despite his circumstances he seemed overjoyed to just sit and talk.
“Where do you live?” we asked, he told us he lived in a house and pointed vaguely towards the city.
“There are eight of us in my family, but I didn’t go home last night, I slept out here under the stars,” he said with a grin. Hussein later told us that he had run away from home and hadn’t been back for a long time, so every night he was on his own.
Hussein lives on the streets along with a motley crew of other young vagabonds and runaways, but he is different, not like the rest of them, who, as we sat, darted in and out of conversation – little Hussein possesses a strength of character and integrity the likes of which some people take years to acquire.
He began to tell us that he had been subject to some kind of medical operation, or something else which he didn’t really want to talk about, the meaning of which was either lost in translation or obscured by embarrassment and shame. I can only imagine that it must have been something of a terrible nature to make him run away.
At that point a man on a bicycle rode up and angrily chased Hussein off as if he were nothing more than a stray dog, to which Hussein responded and darted off at top speed. The man saw that we were foreigners and thought that he could sneak a quick cigarette with us away from the prying eyes of the rest of the people who were fasting during Ramadan. “Be careful of these street kids,” the man said gruffly, “they will try to trick you and steal form you.” He nervously finished his cigarette and went on his way. “If only he would talk to some of these kids and give them a chance, maybe he would learn a thing or two,” I thought to myself.
Not a moment had gone by when Hussein’s smiling face returned, he asked if we would like to come and see his garden and led the way to a small patch of grass behind a nearby mosque.
It was getting late and was time for us to go, we said our goodbyes but Hussein didn’t want to leave us, his big eyes became foggy and it seemed that a tear would strike his cheek at any moment.
“Are you hungry?” We asked. “No, no I have already eaten,” he told us. But we insisted and invited him to join us for dinner, again he declined saying that he had eaten a sandwich sometime earlier, today? Yesterday? He wouldn’t say. Finally the promise of an ice cold Pepsi was too good to resist and we all made our way up to one of the local restaurants.
We were a sight for sore eyes, little Hussein, my Italian friend Daniele and my unkempt Aussie self, quite the unusual trio. Curiosity got the better of all the waiters, other patrons and even the manager, but nevertheless we were seated and treated to a lovely meal, the waiters and manager giving special attention to our young friend.
We asked Hussein if he went to school, he said that he didn’t want to because if he completed his school diploma he would be sent into military service. I couldn’t believe that at such a young age Hussein was already worried of being sent into the military and would forgo any form of education just to escape it. Most other kids of his age are only concerned with playing soccer, the latest Playstation game and watching TV.
Conscription is a dread that faces every young male here, it reminded me of a conversation I’d had the night before with a young man who worked at the hotel we were staying at. “It is one of the toughest armies in the world, some people die just in the training – I really don’t want to go, it takes two years of your life away from you. The only good thing about it is that you go into the military like a mouse and if you survive, you come out as strong as a lion,” he said.
We urged Hussein to go back to school, and told him the importance of a good education and the opportunities that lay ahead for him if he studied hard. He said he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up, but agreed none the less to go back to school and try.
With a full belly and a smile from ear to ear it was once again time to go. After a strong handshake from such a small hand he looked up at us, smiled and slipped away into the night. I stood and watched as his tiny figure disappeared into the darkness, wondering if I will ever see him again.
Adoption crossed my mind many times as I walked home, “Where is UNICEF? Where is Save the Children?” I thought to myself.
God only knows what will happen to little Hussein and the countless others like him, for my part, I will do all I can to make it back to Aleppo to check up on my new little friend as often as possible.