People in Syria just want to leave. For those under attack, the country of their birth no longer wants them and, because the war continues, the only solution they see is to give up everything and try to find a life elsewhere.
I am listening to a mother of three young children describe, through her tears, the terrain she, her husband and the children traversed as they escaped the Syrian civil war. She doesn’t want to be named. Her husband has also declined. They fear that family back in Syria would be at risk if they did. The conflict has put many innocents in the crosshairs of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Assad regime has painted Syrians who disagree with him in broad strokes, much the way Trump does with immigrants and those he believes are enemies. Either you are with Assad or against him. Areas of Syria that are kind to Assad remain intact. Other places, where people are fighting for the right to live peacefully, lie in ruins.
I feel a familiar panic. My anxiety is peaking.
I have never experienced war, but pain on the face of a fellow mother speaks to me. What would I risk for the safety of my son? What wouldn’t I risk?
The wife looks in my direction. “Can you help? There is someone who wants to come to the states, can you help?”
“I wish,” I respond, not sure what else to say.
I want to help. No child should be exposed to violence or fear. No mother or father should be so shaken that they have nightmares as they try to build a new life, haunted by the ghosts of war, ghosts that bear the faces of family members lost.
I feel my own tears rise. It’s time for us to leave and the only thing I can do is tell their story. It feels hollow — inadequate. It is. I want to change the world, and I used to believe a story could do just that. I’m not as sure anymore.
Driving to the Jewish Family and Career Services center to meet this family, which has been in Louisville only a short time, I’m listening to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place.” It’s a song about finding home, comfort and joy. It’s a song about finding someone to share those luxuries.
At the center, I push the intercom button and am buzzed in. At the end of a short hallway, there is a small rotunda. Looking around the room, I notice a Muslim couple seated across from me. The woman is dressed in a brown abaya and a flowing pink hijab secured with a pearl pin, her husband in jeans and a blue-and-white-striped shirt. They are not much older than me. I’m wondering the obvious things: If this is the family I will interview, what do they think of Louisville, of the United States and the new president?
I am also experiencing doubts. Am I the right person for this assignment?
Another Muslim woman joins the couple and is wearing a hijab, too, but also jeans and a tunic. They greet each other just as my party arrived to ferry me to the interview. This is the family, a husband and wife with their interpreter.
I’m feeling trepidation. Trauma is nothing to take lightly. It is unpredictable, and I don’t know how they will react. I’ve never talked to anyone who’s lived through war. Thankfully, today, my job isn’t to dig, but to listen.
The husband speaks. He is polite and wears the lingering aura of a survivor on his face. His father, two nephews were killed during the conflict. His mother is in a coma. He is weary and rightfully frustrated.
The civil war in Syria was in the making for many years before it ignited in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings, when 15 young men were detained for writing graffiti. In response to this and the death of one of the young men, peaceful demonstrations were held. The long, silent tensions of the people broke to the surface.
What followed was the Assad regime’s brutal backlash against the protesters. The backlash killed many protesters, and others were imprisoned. The military began to splinter and an offshoot group rose with the intent to overthrow the government.
Since the fighting began, nearly 500,000 Syrians have been killed.
“There is no justice unfortunately. Let’s say, if you commit a mistake here, and you will be judged for that, it’s fine; but over there, say, one of your cousins did something — just because you are from the same family, both of you will be in the same situation. They will also judge you,” the husband said.
The war left the family with no schools for the children and very limited access to medical treatment. “What you see in the media is really like nothing. If you just go one week over there, you would come back feeling like a different person. You would lose your mind. We still have those memories that come to our nightmares. We wake up very terrified. We still see those things in our minds,” says the husband.
“We were living in a popular city. It was a city called Homs. Homs was one of the first cities that was targeted and affected by the war,” the husband tells me.
To get to Jordan, the family paid someone to help them escape. Much like the coyotes of Mexico, they are people who profit by ferrying people into Jordan. Jordan is not a wealthy country and feels pressure under the exodus of so many Syrians to their country. A lucky few make it to Amman, the capital.
The wife clarifies their journey.
“The way we took to go to Jordan was through a desert, and we didn’t pass through many checkpoints. Instead of taking six hours to get to Jordan, it took us two days. It was a very tough journey.”
In Jordan, the family landed in Amman and lived there for three years until an offer came to come to the United States. Now in Louisville, the family is finding some quiet. There are challenges still. Finding work is one — the husband has an interview this afternoon after our conversation. The family comes to the center for career help. They also find emotional support there, to deal with the remnants of their fears and anxieties, having lived through something of which Americans have little concept. We are, in many ways, innocent of the destruction and human cost of war.
The wife begins to smile a bit toward the end of our conversation. She received a call from a nephew this same morning.
“My nephew said we have a surprise for you. They said, ‘We are packing our luggage because we are coming to visit you.’ I was laughing, because I wish this could come true one day.”
Her husband adds, “You know people there are very exhausted and have psychological problems. If you meet a Syrian guy, and you see him laughing or smiling; believe me if you go to his heart, there is a lot of pain.”
I don’t understand war. I refuse to understand it. I do understand being human and being humane. Something needs to shift in Syria — in the world of warmongering — for the sake of basic decency and the quest to live free.