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The Bird Man

Logo https://stories.growinghome.earth/the-bird-man






Like his five brothers and three sisters, Khaled grew up loving plants, flowers and animals, especially birds.

But much more than his siblings, he had a wild, restless heart that took him to places and into situations he could never have imagined.

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Young Khaled would have laughed at the idea that he would flee his country to end up a poor, sick man in an inhospitable land.

But that is what happened. This is Khaled in 2017, living with one of his sons in Domiz refugee camp, 60 miles north of Mosul in Iraq.

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On this dry and dusty land, he grew the kingdom that has been his salvation.

This is Khaled's story.

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In 1989, 16-year-old Khaled puts together a makeshift bomb and heads to his uncle's village. His uncle has announced he is marrying his daughter to a man Khaled thinks will bring shame to the family. He detonates the bomb outside the village so that everyone hears the explosion.

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When his relatives sit down with him to discuss the matter, one of his cousins stabs him in the back and leg with a knife.

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Khaled’s grandfather learns what has happened and tells him he should get married to keep him out of trouble. Out of respect, Khaled agrees.

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Shortly after his engagement, he goes to Iraq to join the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces fighting Saddam Hussein. When he hears that one of his childhood friends is getting married, he returns home to celebrate.

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At the wedding, he notices Leila on the other side of the room. He immediately falls in love. He breaks off his engagement and starts pursuing her, to the fury of his family and the family of his prospective bride.

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However, he is wanted by the Syrian regime for his involvement with the Peshmerga. He promises Leila he will come back for her and flees to Lebanon.

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In Beirut, he works as a gardener. For wealthy clients, he builds a birdcage as an extra feature. He saves money for years to realise his big plan: getting Leila and moving to Europe. Then the people smuggler is arrested and Khaled loses his money.

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With no other options, he proposes to Leila. To his surprise, her parents agree to the proposal. He later learns that for the seven years they were apart, Leila had not accepted any offer of marriage. She had waited for him.

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Khaled and Leila get married and move to Damascus where the police are more relaxed towards Kurdish people, provided they keep a low profile. Khaled works as a carpenter and decorator. Leila has two sons, Judi and Hassan. The family lives happily in their third-floor apartment filled with flowers, plants and birds for 24 years.

Then a series of events changes everything.

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Khaled is diagnosed with colon cancer. Soon after, the protests against the Assad regime erupt. While Khaled and his family are visiting relatives in Amuda, near the Turkish border, they hear that they are being thrown out of their apartment. The owner, a colonel in the Syrian army, tells Khaled that if he comes back to the apartment, he will be arrested and accused of taking part in the protests. Without a home or belongings, the family decides to flee to Iraq.

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Khaled is shocked by the appalling conditions in the refugee camp. There is no tent available for them and Khaled wants to leave. But because of his illness, he cannot walk long distances and the family has no money to pay for the journey to Europe.

Khaled realizes that they have to build a life where they are.

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Wherever Khaled has lived, he has collected plants and birds. An absence of green and his chirping companions suffocates him. When they are eventually given a tent, Khaled immediately starts growing flowers and keeping birds.

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His illness also prevents him from doing physical labour, so he decides to raise birds for money. But whenever people come to buy his birds, he cannot go through with the sale because he has grown too attached to them.

Instead, he builds and sells birdcages. He gradually saves some money, and after 4.5 years of living in a tent, the family is able to buy a house with concrete walls from a refugee leaving the camp.

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Hassan and Judy at first attend school in the camp. However, Leila is unhappy with the quality of the education and home schools the boys instead.

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Three years ago, around 50,000 people lived in the camp. Today, almost half of them have left, often selling their self-built houses to refugees who have stayed on in the camp because they are unwilling or unable to leave. They expand their houses or use the land for farming and gardening.

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Khaled has developed a daily routine. In the morning, when his family is still asleep, he feeds the birds, waters the plants and tidies up the garden. At this early hour, the birds sing a lot. This makes Khaled happy. He talks to his birds and feels they are listening and talking back to him.

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First he feeds the birds in the cages, then the ones nesting and the fledglings because they get special food. He protects the young birds from the cold nights and hot days until they are strong enough to deal with the temperatures on their own.

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When he is taking care of his birds and flowers, he forgets he is a refugee in a camp. Despite his illness, he believes he can still give and create something.

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After a day of exerting himself in the garden, he looks at the work he has done and feels happy and relaxed.

On good days, he feels like he holds the world in the palm of his hand.

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One year ago the family took in four-year-old Jane, the daughter of Khaled's nephew who also lives in the camp and whose wife died of leukaemia. The new wife does not want the child around.

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Khaled’s neighbours are puzzled by the fact that he gives more space to his three gardens and his birds than to himself and his family. He, Leila and the children live and sleep in the same room.

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But when he goes into the garden, he feels like he is entering his kingdom. In the camp and beyond, he is confronted with borders, rules and restrictions, but in his garden he is free to work how he wants and create something unique.

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It is unlikely that Domiz will ever be closed. On the contrary, it is gradually becoming an established city with shops, restaurants, schools and other facilities. The refugees expand and improve their houses because many see a future for themselves here.

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Although the atmosphere in the emerging city is energetic and largely optimistic, the inhabitants’ freedom is still highly restricted. People are not allowed to build a second story on their homes or, officially, to start gardens in front of their homes and tents. People do it anyway, but if a neighbour complains, the camp authorities can come and destroy the garden.

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Sweet-smelling jasmine is Khaled’s favourite plant. When he has guests, he sits in front of his flowers like a guard. He once told friends that “these flowers are more important to me than you because they know more about me than any human being ever could”.


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Khaled and Leila are still in love. Every night they sit together in the small garden surrounded by the flowers and birds.

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While another couple might engage in romantic conversation, Khaled and Leila prefer to sit in silence.

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