The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Confronting the Pain of Unspeakable Loss

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is an unforgettable story of survival. The author, Christi Lefteri draws on her experiences as a volunteer with refugees to craft a powerful portrait of the refugee experience.

Nuri and his wife Afra lived a simple life in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo. Nuri was passionate about his work as a beekeeper. The bees made him feel alive. He loved to listen to them humming their song. He was inspired by their ability to work together.

“I looked after the bees. I understood their rhythms and patterns. I spoke to them as though they were one breathing body with a heart, because, you see, bees work together.”

Afra was an artist. She had a way of seeing things. She inhaled the world like it was a rose. Her paintings aroused the senses, capturing the exhilaration of life.

They had a son, Sami, whose eyes were the same colour as his mother’s. In the back garden, jasmine grew over a canopy. There was a fig tree and a swing. Sami loved to be outside. He loved to play with his friends, but they are all gone.

In Syria, silence held danger, it could be shattered at any moment by a shell bomb or the sound of gunfire or the heavy footsteps of the soldiers.

The war destroyed everything. The loss to Nuri and Afra was incalculable. Nuri’s beehives were vandalised and destroyed by fire; their neighbourhood was decimated, buildings torn apart, friends and family killed or forced to flee; their home was bombed leaving a huge crater in the back room; their precious son, Sami, died in the blast, the trauma of which robbed Afra of her sight.

Life is about survival. Whenever we are confronted with the unthinkable or the unspeakable, we are left grief stricken, broken and traumatised. When engulfed by tragedy our only consideration must be – ‘What must I do to survive?’

Nuri and Afra have but one option – to escape. They embark on a perilous journey across stormy seas, through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. This was a dangerous undertaking with no guarantees.

Their only consolation, Nuri’s cousin Mustaffa and his wife Dahab have gone before them and are seeking asylum in Britain.

But it is the inner journey that has the greatest potential to derail our best intentions and to rob us of a future.

Some refugees who make it to a safe haven remain imprisoned by their thoughts. They are locked in the past.

Both Nuri and Afra are suffering from PTSD, although their symptoms are markedly different.

Afri is unable to see. The last thing she remembers was her son’s eyes. He was looking up at the sky. Dr Faruk, who examined her, provided the following explanation.

There is a possibility that the force of the explosion or the bright light damaged the retina in some way, but it is also possible that the blindness you are experiencing is the result of severe trauma – sometimes our bodies can find ways to cope when we are faced with things that are too much for us to bear. You saw your son die, Mrs. Ibrahim, and maybe something in you had to shut down. In a way something similar happens when we faint out of shock.

Afra sleeps a lot but is aware of her surroundings. She is able to sense danger. She knows that Nuri is unwell, his behaviour erratic, his awareness of reality distorted.

‘You are lost in the darkness, Nuri,’ she says. ‘It is a fact. You’ve got completely lost somewhere in the dark.’

She still draws. She feels the pencil marks on the paper. The colours may be different but there is a vibrancy in her pictures.

The picture she had drawn was so different from her usual artwork – a flower-filled field overlooked by a single tree. The colours were wild- the tree blue, the sky red. The lines were broken, leaves and flowers out of place, and yet it held a beauty that was mesmerising and indescribable, like an image in a dream, like a picture of a world that is beyond our imagination.

Nuri feels some satisfaction at his ability to manage the practical details of their escape. But internally he is falling apart. He is angry and restless. Sometimes he falls asleep in ridiculous places like the storage cupboard and the garden.

Nuri imagines danger. He sees white planes searing through the sky. There are bombs, the sound of which is too loud for his senses. They are in fact a flock of seagulls. Somone thrusts a camera in his face, the flash blurring his vision. Nuri thinks the round black object is a gun. He struggles to breathe. His face is hot, and his fingers numb.

Nuri has an imaginary friend, Mohammed, a young boy with black hair and dark eyes. He does his best to look after him, but some things are beyond his control. Their conversations are lively. Only later does Nuri come to understand that Mohammed is his own creation. Even so, he honours the memory.

I now know that Mohammed will not be coming – I understand that I created him, but the wind picks up and the leaves rustle and there is a chill in the air that gets beneath my skin, and I imagine his tiny figure in the shadows of the garden. The memory of him lives on, as if somehow, in some dark corner of my heart, he had a life of his own.

In reflecting on Nuri and Afra’s experience, there are four key elements to their survival.

(1) A loving relationship

War placed a heavy burden on their marriage. Their loss was unimaginable. But love holds them together. They may not understand who they have become. They may not welcome the changes in their partner. They wonder whether it is possible to find themselves again. Nuri contemplates the fear that threatens to overtake them. He says,

“There is an expression on her face I recognise from years ago, and it makes my sadness feel like something palpable, like a pulse, but it makes me afraid too, afraid of fate and chance and hurt and harm, of the randomness of pain, how life can take everything from you all at once…”

(2) A lasting desire to cultivate their interests

Although blind, Afra continued to draw. She encouraged other refugees with her drawings. Angeliki came from Somalia. She didn’t like to talk about the past, a past which had ‘wounded her heart.’ While looking at the drawing Afra had given her, she said,

‘But this picture, it will remind me of another world, a better world.’

Nuri found a bumblebee at one of the places they stayed. It was on the ground, by his feet. He put his hand out and the bee crawled onto the palm of his hand. Nuri noticed that the bee didn’t have wings. He knew it had been banished from the hive. Its future was precarious, but he would do what he could. The bumblebee provided an important link with his past. But the bee also mirrored his present predicament. They were united in their struggle to survive.

(3) A clear purpose

Following the disintegration of their life in Syria, Nuri and Afra embark on an arduous journey to find a new home. Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa, is living in Yorkshire, England. He has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees to keep bees. In a way Mustafa has demonstrated to Nuri and Afra what is possible, and they are determined to join him no matter how long it takes. It is this sense of purpose which keeps them moving. They discover that there are cities like Athens that have a reputation as places where refugees surrender their dreams and give up.

“Athens is the heart. Everyone comes here on the way to wherever. People get stuck here.This is the place where people die slowly, inside. One by one, people die.”

(4) A strong basis for hope

Nuri used his email account to communicate with his cousin Mustafa. He was reluctant to say too much. He was embarassed by how much he had changed. He feared Mustafa might reject him. He says,

“I do not want Mustafa to know what has become of me. We are in the same country, but if we meet, he will see I am a broken man. I do not believe he will recognise me.”

Nevertheless, something that Mustafa said keeps him moving and believing.

“Where there are bees there are flowers, and where there are flowers there is new life and hope.”

People who have lost a friend or loved one to suicide can identify, in part, with the refugee experience. They know what it is to be traumatised, to have their life shattered, to be abandoned, cast off, alone, with no place to call home – a safe space, secure, predictable. Their chances of survival are enhanced if they value and engage in loving relationships, pursue their special interests, know what they want from life, and are grounded in a hope that can withstand the tempest.

It should come as no surprise that people who are suicidal have no desire to engage with others, no interest in self-expression, no clear purpose apart from ending their pain, and no basis for hope. People who are suicidal aren’t contemplating survival.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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