Malek Satoof was born in Sheikh Alwan village in eastern rural Aleppo. “My village is quite remote,” he says, “far from the main highway. Most of the people there work in agriculture or tend to livestock. It has absolutely no government infrastructure save for the elementary school, and has no commercial establishments besides a small grocery store that doesn’t provide everything people need. And so people had to travel to a nearby village that had some stores and government facilities when the need arose.”
Malek belongs to the Sheikhan clan, the majority of whom live in the town of Ain al-Arab and in Turkey. Though Malek’s branch of the clan are still in communication with those who live in Ain al-Arab, they have lost contact with those living in Turkey.
“Rural Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Hasake are all areas that are about 90% reliant on a tribal system. The existing relationships between the Arab tribes and the minorities they live alongside, are characterized by harmonious coexistence. For example, my grandfather, father and cousins all speak Kurdish. Even though our village has no Kurds in it, it has two neighboring Kurdish villages, with which we enjoy good relations, with no hint of ethnic discrimination between us. My brother and some cousins all ended up marrying Kurdish women, and this gave no one any pause.”
Malek dropped out after completing junior school because he found his studies too difficult, and because, as he says, he was quite rash and immature at the time. The schoolhouse was in a neighboring village, and Malek had to make the trek there on foot. Regardless, a few of his eight siblings did manage to complete school and go on to university, getting degrees in law and architecture.
Malek traveled to Lebanon in 1996 to find work; as there were so few opportunities where he was, and the few jobs available came with poor salaries.
“Many Syrian workers long to find work abroad,” says Malek, so that they can earn more money, as salaries in Syria don’t offer the possibility to improve one’s living conditions.”
It was easy for Malek to find work in Lebanon because some of his brothers and cousins had already gone there before him. His problem was rather his sense of alienation as an adolescent who had left his home and village behind at the tender age of sixteen to take up residence in a new country.
Malek became immediately aware of the general Lebanese animosity toward Syrians, and experienced discrimination both in the way people talked to him and treated him. Syrians also weren’t compensated as well as their Lebanese counterparts and were expected to work longer hours.
Malek worked in construction for four years, then returned to Syria to fulfill his obligatory military service. When he finished, he went back to Lebanon for work. A year and a half into this venture, he suffered a severe workplace injury when he and a colleague fell from scaffolding four floors up. Malek broke his hip, his hand, and lost his spleen after it ruptured and caused intense internal bleeding. His Syrian colleague did not survive the fall.
Malek had surgery in Lebanon and underwent more operations in Syria. It took him two years to recover from his injuries. The fall, however, left him with a pronounced limp, and his father stepped in to help him financially. This made Malek feel dependent and helpless, despairing of ever being able to improve either his health or financial situation. This feeling abated somewhat when he got married.
Malek married his cousin in 2007 with support from his father, and, with the help of his brother, who worked at the public hospital in the nearby town of Al-Bab, was able to land a temporary three-month work contract at the hospital. Malek hoped to get a permanent position there, especially in light of his disability, but this did not transpire. With the encouragement of a relative, he took up work in a cotton gin in Aleppo, where received a regular salary along with other incentives. He was further spurred on by the fact that transportation was both easy and cheap between his village and Aleppo, only 35km away.
Malek worked as a security guard at the cotton gin, keeping track of the trucks entering and exiting the compound, carrying bales of raw cotton, cotton seeds and cotton scraps, used to manufacture clothing in garment factories.
Malek describes that period, which lasted about four years, as one of the best of his life, where he made many new friends, and with whom he remained in contact even after leaving the job.