opinion

'This Christmas, think about Syria. But don’t forget to laugh. Don’t forget to live.'

If you’ve watched the television, logged onto social media or frankly been alive the last two weeks, you will know Aleppo is on fire. 

You’ll be sad. But then you’ll move on with your day to more pressing issues like what to get the kids for Christmas, how expensive cashews are this time of year and whether it will rain for the barbecue you’re hosting tomorrow night.

READ MORE: Our explainer on what is happening in Aleppo right now.

I’ve spent the last 12 months working very closely with Syrian people in my job as a journalist at Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT World. Before I moved here for work I sweated all that small stuff. M7 traffic jams would drive me bananas. Now I’m just glad there isn’t a pipe bomb on the bus. When I used to go to dinner, I’d get frustrated with poor service. Now I’m too busy checking for random backpacks under tables in case they’re a bomb. Shopping centres still give me the creeps. I avoided them in Turkey because they’re such an attractive venue for terror attacks.

When I first moved home from Turkey my mother asked me why the hell I was going jogging with my handbag. I explained it’s because the security laws in Turkey allow a soldier to stop you at any time, search your bag and demand ID. If you don’t have it, they can take you away.

I was at a wedding on Hamilton Island last month. It was a great day, but it sparked memories of the last wedding I was at on the Syrian border. It ended with a 14-year-old suicide bomber killing 56 people at the reception. One moment people were celebrating with their loved ones, the next they were burying them. United by love and eviscerated by hate.

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It was impossible to watch my Australian friends tie the knot without thinking about the woman I met a few month prior, who buried her mother, her husband and their two children just hours after she witnessed her friends ‘tying the knot’.

There was a man in my life in Turkey. His name was Darryl. He was my adopted street dog. Dogs are treated terribly in Islamic countries, often beaten and tortured. For a dog that was used to sleeping on the street and trawling through garbage bins for scraps, Darryl took to the domesticated life very quickly. He ate organic chicken, boasted an impressive toy collection, although his favourite was my old toothbrush, and his sleeping quarters were at the bottom of my bed. I loved him very much.

Darryl was shot in the attempted coup in July. But he’s a hustler and he made it.  My newsroom was raided in the coup. My colleagues held at gun point. 256 civilians were killed that night. My definition of a ‘bad day’ was rapidly reshaped.

Aaaaaaand…. That’s a wrap! Signing off for the final time in #Turkey

A photo posted by Natasha Exelby (@exelbynatasha) on

It’s easy to become melancholic about the atrocities I’ve witnessed, but then I recall the wise words of a Syrian man I met at a refugee camp in Macedonia. Hasan was 72 with the kind of wisdom that only comes from losing a wife, two sons and three grandchildren to airstrikes in Aleppo. He was wearing a brown suit jacket covered in mud, trousers that were three sizes too big and shoes that were riddled with holes. His hands were weathered but gentle. His face was crumpled but kind. His piercing green eyes were despondent but charming. I told him it was hard to enjoy life knowing the evil that’s in the world.

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He shook my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, “we are fleeing for a better life, so don’t waste yours feeling sorry for us. You must live it, or what are the rest of us fighting for?”

Refugee children in Syria. Image via Getty

So it’s in that spirit I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a glorious new year. I encourage you to think about the people of Syria, and South Sudan, and northern Nigeria, and Yemen and every other corner of the globe that’s burdened by bloodshed and bad will. But don’t forget to laugh. Don’t forget to live. No matter what your plight, if you were born in Australia you got lucky through no doing of your own, and you owe it to the Hasan’s of the world to grab life with both hands, and celebrate like there’s no tomorrow.

Want to help but not sure how?

People wanting to donate money should go to The White Helmet Brigade. They are the bravest most selfless people I have ever met. The run towards the bombs every day and into the burning buildings. They have the money to leave Syria but they don't because they don't want to leave anyone behind. They want to help the people in besieged areas who can't get out.

Natasha Exelby is an Australian journalist living and working in Turkey for the country's state broadcaster, TRT World. She has worked very closely with the Syrian people in her time there.

Feature image via Instagram/Natasha Exelby