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.

Vietnam/Cambodia. Somalia/Rwanda. Iraq/Syria?

Me, on mount Qassioun above Damascus, 2009
Me, on mount Qassioun above Damascus, 2009

I’ve been looking for a publicist. Imagine my surprise, when in the middle of a recent chat about books, author platform, and realistic publicity goals, she asked me what people in Qatar thought about the conflict in Syria. Apparently the war has finally caught the attention of the average American. We had this conversation despite stats that Miley Cyrus has garnered 12 times more hits than the Syrian crisis.

The arguments for this conflict are dismally familiar: an Arab dictator, using chemical weapons against his own people. The specter of the Iraq war looms, reminding us the childhood parable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not necessarily a story for kids. Unlike the Cold War, we are wary of arming freedom fighters today who will likely become our antagonists tomorrow.

I have lived in the Middle East for the last 8 years. I studied Arabic in Damascus for six weeks. An amazing city, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited capital is dying along with her residents.

And yet I still didn’t pass the New York Times’ quiz on Syrian News.

The situation is complex; the history is contemporary.

Many of us may not have been alive during the draft but we have seen the photo of the young Vietnamese napalm victim.

You may not remember what the conflict in Somalia was about but you probably saw the movie Black Hawk Down.

We couldn’t have pointed to Rwanda on a map but cried buckets as Don Cheadle portrayed Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda.

Perhaps that moment hasn’t come in Syrian conflict. Maybe at the height of this media age, we haven’t had the soundbite that will move us to action.

The United States has a track record of being burned in conflict (Vietnam) and then staying out when the world’s largest military could be useful (Cambodia). Such flip-flopping of foreign policy makes people skeptical of America’s intentions.

Maybe the world has lost its stomach for war; after all, John Kerry’s off hand suggestion that Syria turn over weapons to the U.N. has already been accepted in principle by Russia.

The fact is the conflict has been building with thousands of men, women, and children dying.

Perhaps now they are getting the attention they are due. Experts say we are called to action because chemical weapons are illegal. What about the other thousands who have died since the conflict started?

Perhaps their photos didn’t shock the international community as much as the shrouds of all shapes and sizes a few weeks ago.







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Hierarchy of Sorrow: Boston, Delhi, Damascus

Syria (Photo credit: ewixx)


Last week from a sofa in a hospital room, after having delivered our second baby boy, I woke up at 1 a.m. Adrenaline or jetlag like false sense of sleep saturation had me reaching for my phone in the pitch black of the room. Across the coffee table, a good friend who had volunteered for night duty was resting. The baby was in the nursery. I went on Facebook.


The news feed of many of American friends, at home and abroad, was filled with the news of the bombing at the finish line of the Boston marathon. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the photos and had to turn off the phone to stem off the hormonal induced shock at the images, facts, and sounds.


As the facts unfolded – 3 dead, many more wounded – a puzzled reaction swept the part of the world I live in, the Middle East.


What about people in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, was the question circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. Where is the empathy, shock, horror, concern for them?


A former student and now friend posted “I’m sorry to hear about Boston, sorry for all the casualties. Pray for Syria, it deserves far more sympathy. Pray for Syria twice as much!”.


Having studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I have been watching the escalating tensions there with dread and anger at a “leader” who would treat his people as pawns.


But the assertion of my student made me uncomfortable.


Can we weigh on a scale those who are more deserving of empathy? Is it judged by the number of causalities?


Or, as mainstream American media seems to suggest, do we rate based on a scale of how the tragedies happen? Are civilians in peace time, running a marathon or going to work, more deserving than those who are living in a country entrenched in civil war?


I don’t know. I do know from my hospital bed, recovering from having a baby, that most frail and dependent of creatures, the symbol of all that is possible of humanity, I resisted the notion that my loyalties predict my sympathies and said as much to my friend on his wall:


“I understand what you are trying to say but let’s remember our hearts can juggle compassion for all. Clearly the media, government and politics cannot. I stand with Syrians as the land where I learned Arabic and hope that governments will stop turning blind eyes. Sympathy is not a competition. The more we learn that, the more we can come together as one. (not intending to lecture, your post did strike a chord with me as a new mother X2 from this past Sunday). I want my children to live in a compassionate world, better than the bi-partisan one I inherited. Now we pray for Iran, regardless of how we feel about nukes/presidents/etc.”


We had a great discussion (yes on Facebook wall posts as he was abroad).


Later in the week the question came again on Twitter: “Boston boston. Pls send your view: rape in Delhi why again and again?”


The commenter was talking about the rape of a 5 year old girl whose body had been dumped in a dumpster and found with foreign objects, including a candle, inside. I had read of the case with horror and posted about it on social media as well. As an Indian woman, mother, wife, and daughter, I was ashamed, distraught, and troubled by not only this incident but all of them since the watershed December case with a pharmacy student on a bus. Indian media commentators were asking: why did we care so much about her? What about the 5, 6, 10 year olds (and the ones we never know about about)? Don’t we care about them?


All of which brings me back to the same question: how much room do we have in our hearts? Can we only care for those who know immediately? Or is there some larger, universal ability to feel compassion that comes with our “advanced” technologies in the era of 24 hour media?


I do know when I saw the photo of the 19 year old, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the remaining bomb plotter, my heart clenched. Somewhere, something went horribly wrong for this younger brother. I couldn’t help but think of my own boys, presently 2.5 and 1 week old. What would they grow up to do? Would the older one mislead the younger? And could the younger use this as his excuse for wrecking havoc?

In the end, it all comes down to relationships. Right?




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