Helen is playing a game that involves massacring a screen full of animated fish on her mum’s phone. “Yes it’s fun!” she says, but there’s an underlying sadness to this – her mother used to play it with the sound up to soothe the children to sleep at night in a Turkish refugee camp.
Now 13, Helen was eight years old when war broke out in Syria. Her parents, Abu Ali and Hala, were frontline revolutionary activists in Aleppo. Her father, a rebel commander, was captured by Isis. His wife confronted the local Isis leader to bargain for his release, but without any luck. The family still doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive, but Hala drinks a cup of coffee for him every morning and talks to pictures of him saved on her mobile phone.
Helen, along with her mother, her solemn older brother, Mohammed, and her mischievous younger sisters, Farah and Sara, left Syria to seek refuge in Germany. In 2015, the family applied for refugee status and were granted it. They flew from Turkey to Germany and now live in the sleepy town of Goslar.
Far away from her homeland, Helen says her life’s mission is to become an architect. “I want to go back to Syria and build everything. Aleppo is broken – all of Syria is broken,” she says.
While they were still at home, fighting against the forces of Assad, the family moved between different bombed-out apartment blocks in a once middle-class suburb of Aleppo. It’s the stuff of horror films – apartments without walls, crumbling staircases that could give way at any second, days without water or electricity. The children were shot at as they played on the balcony and survived night after night of shelling and barrel bombs near their home.
For Helen, it’s not just upsetting to see the once-beautiful ancient city reduced to rubble, it’s also a reminder of how many people have died during the five years of fighting. “It’s now really dangerous,” she says. “I’ve seen pictures and it’s hard to look at them. There are so many people who’ve died. My best friend died – that’s hard for me. I saw so many people my age dying and you cannot forget their faces.
“Aleppo was an old city and it’s really beautiful. We have so many beautiful things …” She brightens up. “When you go there, there is a restaurant in the citadel, oh my God, you have to go and eat there! And they have really delicious chocolate.
“I would build everything,” she continues. “The mosque, the church, the buildings … I’d build it so it was better – with work. I’ll have to see when the war is finished.”
After five years of war, ISIS violence, regime airstrikes, Russian airstrikes, US airstrikes, French airstrikes, British airstrikes, it’s impossible to tell when peace will be restored and the young Syrian diaspora will be able to return.
“What I learned in Syria is when you want to do something, don’t think about tomorrow, you think about today,” Helen says. “In the next second or the next minute you’re going to die. I only think about this moment.”
“Bashar” has become shorthand for any bad person, and Helen practically spits out the word. “I don’t know what needs to be done to bring peace to Syria. When Bashar is out from Syria, everything will be OK,” she says. “But we now have so many Bashars – so many. The guy who used to work with my father in the Free Syria Army who turned him in to ISIS, he is the biggest Bashar.”