One Syrian Family’s Story of Staying

Smoke rises in Aleppo as fighting continued on 12/26/12 by Freedom House

I had breakfast with a friend last week. Someone I’ve known yet not seen for years. We bumped into each other again picking up our children from sports camp. The years had changed us, we were now working mothers and we both had Syria on our minds. I spent the summer in Damascus learning Arabic in 2009. The friendly people, their patience with my half assembled phrases, the ancient nature of ruins like Palmyra: I loved Al Shams (the sun) as Syria is known.

“My father sent us the paperwork for our property,” she said. “For safekeeping.” She described her father’s unwillingness to leave their home.  “The people of Aleppo spent their money on their houses rather than on airplane tickets. Whenever they had money, they would buy property in their city, following a very common adverb: ‘the money you don’t spend in your land is neither yours or your children’s’.

As she spoke, her brown eyes dewy with worry about her father, the images of refugees being pulled from Hungarian trains or capsizing in the ocean on their way to Greece scrolled across my mind’s eye.

“I told him, Daddy, you can forget about it. That is all paper.” She flapped an imaginary stack of contracts, flying away in the wind. Her voice rasped with the knowledge the final period of her father’s life was being spent in mortal danger, safeguarding the same property he had spent his youth garnering for her and her siblings.

Which would we chose, forced with the option of uncertain life as a refugee, refused from most countries, or certain peril, a resident of the house you had worked so hard to provide for your family?

The conflict in Syria will change this generation and those who follow. What often gets overlooked in the rush for food and shelter is that the survivors could use family counseling and mental health support. (Not to diminish their experiences in any way, but wouldn’t it be great if we could access family therapy over our lifetimes?

1. How many of your family members remain in Syria?
My parents, grandmother and uncle are still there.

2. What keeps them there?
My father is descended from a feudal family that lost most of its properties between Abdul el Nasser’s Agrarian Reform Law and the Syrian Baath reform (between the 70’s and 80’s).  He refuses to leave the house even for a short vacation. He is scared of not being able to come back to Aleppo and getting stuck somewhere else as stranger. It’s as if his final duty is to guard the houses and lands he spent his life fighting for.

My mom is more flexible. She would take the 10 hours of risky roads to reach the only international airport from where she can fly out her to meet us. The 2-3 month visits per year makes her strong enough to go back to fuel-lacking cold seasons and year round lack of electricity and water.

My grandmother is a 90 something. She was out of Aleppo for 6 months in order to get medical treatment. As soon as she was able to handle the return journey, she made it back to home. She said she felt like her soul had been given back to her when she was surrounded by her belongings.

My uncle is a pediatrician. He sent his kids to pursue their university studies in the US, accompanied by their mom. Very few doctors are left in Aleppo. This is how is managing to keep his private clinic open.

3. What do you want readers to know about the crisis in Syria?
Syria is full of ambitious young people. She is a country of very good resources but with a repressive regime. I am not surprised at the amount of violence we see happening. How can we expect people who suffered of all kinds of humiliation, torture, and suppression, for 40 years, to fight the regime’s bullets as peaceful protestors or with yoga? They use the same language that has been taught to them.

I really believe in education. Nothing can heal the ruined generation, but at least we can save the future one.

4. How can we help either those fleeing or those staying?
The main help is to raise the voice to stop the WAR. Assad’s regime preys on innocent people.