War Child: meet the boy, born as the Syrian conflict began

Michel was born just as the civil war was starting.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Michel has just celebrated his 10th birthday. As his mother was giving birth, something else was happening around them: the first anti-government protests which ultimately became the Syrian civil conflict. Michel is truly a child of the Syrian war; it is all he has ever known.

As the protests turned into violent clashes, spread and escalated, Michel's parents did not imagine that the childhood of their son and daughter would be scarred by displacement and hunger.

Michel grew up listening to stories about a Syria he never knew and the old house they had before their displacement. The Syrian Civil War displaced half of the country's population, around 13.2 million people in total. While roughly half of them - 6.6 million people - sought refuge in other countries, the other half were displaced internally.

The first protests erupted in Daraa about 230 miles away from Michel's family in Idlib governate, north-western Syria. A few weeks later, violence reached their village, Jisr Al-Shughur. Syria had fully descended into a civil war.

"Our village was a battlefield. Sometimes the regime would take control, other times the opposition would take over," Michel's mother, Rasha, told Christian anti-persecution charity Open Doors.

"I wasn't scared," Michel said. "I used to carry my toy machine gun to shoot the terrorists and claim victory. I would run out of the house and see them in the streets with long beards. I wanted to attack them but my Mum would stop me."

Michel with his sister Jessica. Hunger and displacement have marked their childhood.(Photo: Open Doors International)

His first three years of life passed under the sounds of blasts and shelling. Gradually bombings became more intense.

One morning in 2014, the anti-government Islamic troops announced with loudspeakers that all Christians had to leave the village. Around 100 families were displaced together.

"My husband Elias and I carried as many clothes for the kids as we could, and some canned food," Rasha said. "The militants were screaming at us. When we reached the nearby village called Yakubiyah, the local priest welcomed us in a monastery where we stayed for a few weeks."

The children were not enthusiastic about the monastery as it was very cold there and they quickly ran out of the little food they had.

Three weeks later they headed towards Latakia and rented an unfurnished house but could not afford furniture or kitchen equipment.

"We didn't have anything," Rasha said. "A pastor from the Baptist church visited us upon arrival and when he saw Michel and Jessica sleeping on the floor he went out and brought us some mattresses and blankets or we would've died from the cold."

Michel had vivid memories of his comfortable bed in their village in Syria. Those memories were warming up his soul but were giving him immense pain too.

Michel's father Elias in the grocery store he was helped to set up by an Open Doors partner.(Photo: Open Doors International)

"I loved our house in Jisr Al-Shughur. I had a bicycle on the balcony which I used to ride every day and I had so many toys stashed in the attic. Every summer we would inflate a swimming pool on the roof and have a blast swimming together with our cousins. I miss my bedroom, especially my bed; it was filled with toys and I loved it."

Nazarene Church in Latakia was distributing food aid to many displaced people with the help of Open Doors. It enrolled Michel's family in the programme. With the help of Open Doors' local partner, Elias started a grocery store. It helped them to pay their rent and provide for their needs.

Although life is becoming more comfortable for them in Latakia, Michel's biggest dream is to go back home. He has no idea what their house might look like after years of shelling in the area but he is sure his most comfortable bed is waiting for him.

"I love my friends here, but I hope one day we can go back to our home," Michel said. "I wish Syria goes back to the way it was before I was born and hope that we have peace."

Zara Saravian works for Open Doors UK & Ireland, part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for over 60 years and works in over 60 countries. In 2020, it raised £42 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised about £16 million.