A Syrian woman studying in the U.S. describes the terrifying reality of having to flee her homeland, knowing she may never be able to return and see her family.
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I’ve always dreamt of wings. To be a bird, a butterfly. I wanted to glide over oceans and discover what was beyond Mount Qasioun. I wanted to pack notebooks, in which I would write about strangers I met, the food I ate, languages I spoke. I wanted to fly out, then back home.
The first time I got on a plane was in 2003, on a flight from Damascus to Cairo. I remember holding on tight to the arms of my chair, afraid because the wind might take me too fast.
I started learning English when I was 10. I fell in love. Then, my dream went from traveling the world to traveling to the U.S.—to practice my newly adopted tongue, to get a Master’s degree. This dream had a name: The American Dream.
But being a citizen of a Third World country, Syria, I put my dreams on the top shelf, well out of sight. A few years later, in 2011, when the revolution broke out, rebels protested demanding the release of their children who were guilty of painting the word Freedom on their school’s wall, and people were killed. That’s when my dusty dream fell off the shelf and became a bitter reality.
I was never interested in politics, understand. I hated it when my father turned on the TV to watch Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya. Can’t we sit down as a family and talk instead? I would beg. He’d give me a look that terrified me, pick up the remote and turn up the volume. I knew what was happening at home but nothing beyond.
At the end of 2011, protests broke out starting from Daraa and spreading to other cities. Arrests increased, death tolls increased; from the streets, from homes, from jobs, even on public transportation, thousands of families fled to neighboring countries. One day, at Damascus University where I was studying, officials searched students’ belongings and bodies. We were just students seeking education.
One day in 2012, on a break between lectures, we heard shouting. Twenty men burst onto campus carrying guns on one hip and cuffs on the other. We were lost in the unknown.
That day was my first taste of uncertainty. A few more minutes passed and a protest broke out in the pharmacy building, and those same men returned—dragging students across campus by their hair with cuffed wrists where their veins were pulsing. The men shouted, Don’t you dare mess with us. Is this the freedom you want?
The sight of a grown man being dragged across campus by his hair, tears in his eyes, voice shaking, lost between the humiliation of being seen and the fear of what the next minute could bring. The look on his face petrified me, but also made me want to run and pull him away, to whisper in his ear that I will tell his mother that he will be okay, but how can I promise something impossible. Her son won’t ever be the same. She might not see his face again. He will have scars on his back from the belt raised and lowered 58 times. Then I realized we all take action.
My father refused to let me even talk about politics after arrests took place in our neighborhood. But when I saw those students I imagined myself or my brother dragged away.
One day, one of the women at the gate asked for my ID, and she pushed me. Hurry up, she shouted. I found my ID. Now open your bag let me see what you’re hiding. As she stuck her hands in my purse, she was looking away. I lost my temper and said, If you’re going to search, you should look. I felt blood rushing into my head, realizing to whom I’d said this. She slapped the purse onto the ground ARE YOU BEING DISRESPECTFUL? I stood there looking into her eyes, No. She pushed me again, and without thinking I slapped her hand. As she started calling men to arrest me, I ran into the crowd. I told my father. He turned away from the TV looking at me in anger mixed with fear, and he said I could no longer stay in this country because I was known now, and I was too impatient and would end up in jail or dead. Maybe executed like my friend whose executioners later learned that he was not the guy they were looking for—he just had the same name.
In 2012, My father convinced me to travel to Cairo for “a visit.” I held the handle of my bedroom door, knowing that this might be the last time I would ever see my bed, my journals, and my clothes behind me.
One month in Egypt turned into one year. Books were my friend. I had nothing else. Twelve of us shared one bathroom, including grandma, who took the most time being helped in and out. Egyptians were not fond of Syrians. They thought we came to steal their jobs while they were recovering from their own revolution. My sister and I were shouted at or handled in the streets even in the company of our father.
To Americans, too, the idea of refugees is worrying. Many think that we are criminals. Few understand the rigorous screening.
Refugee. Forget about my name. Forget about my identity. Forget about my education. I am seeking refuge. I live in a tent. I wait for charity to eat. My school is under rubble. My friend was killed. I am grateful I haven’t yet lost a brother, a cousin, or a parent to a bullet, explosion, or torture. I need refuge.
More than 11 million Syrians are on the run.
6,200,000 are internally displaced.
13.1 million are in need of humanitarian aid.
48 percent of Syrian refugees are children who’ve lost everything.
In December 2015, the U.S. completed 9,000 airstrikes on Syria.
Russia completed 400 airstrikes within six days.
Screening involves layers of security checks. Syrian refugees are subject to an additional layer because they represent the biggest refugee crisis in the world. Sometimes, screening takes two years. Questions: the first thing I remember as a child, my family history, my education, my friends and their families, what they do, my purpose. My goals and dreams in a country I might or might not call home. The questions assume that my dream for America is bigger than shelter.
A year after we arrived in Egypt my family convinced me to apply to study in the U.S., my old dream. I applied for a student visa and stood three hours in a long line of mostly Syrians, carrying passports and hope. Three hours in Cairo’s heat praying for something I did not want anymore. When I reached the embassy, I heard my heart. Also the squeaking of my old bedroom door calling me to come back. The plain white pages on my journal seemed lonely and uninviting. I sat another three hours in a chair with leather ripped from the many hopeful bodies that had sat on it. I thought of home, school, my midterms and friends whom I’d promised I’d see again. But my parents paid a lot of money for this interview. Number 346 to window 5. I picked myself up and dragged my feet to face my future.
Miss, stop applying.
We will never grant you this visa.
I didn’t even want it. Three hundred and sixty-five more days. One thousand dollars. Hours of in line and sitting in torn chairs.
Many books read in a bed that wasn’t mine but became stitched to my skin.
If I leave, will my family and friends miss me or will my body fade into the past?
Dad, it’s time for me to go home.
We were leaving Syria, the first time I saw my father cry, and I was in the backseat paying respect to every tree swinging, congratulating every building for remaining standing, and singing “Because You Loved Me,” by Celine Dion. My father played Celine Dion in the car no matter where we were going, and he never failed to sing along, which was impressive because he didn’t speak English. On that ride, I was angry at Celine, as if leaving was her fault. I ignored my father’s tears and looked away, angry.
The trip from Damascus to Beirut used to take two hours, but now it takes six hours. Every 20 to 30 minutes, the car was stopped at a checkpoint where two or three young soldiers with their camouflage and palpable fear ask for IDs. Most of these soldiers are illiterate, from poor families who can’t afford to send their young men out of the country or to school.
In Syria, if a household has more than one son and the sons aren’t in school, they get drafted and assigned areas randomly. If they are lucky, they get a nice checkpoint where an occasional explosion or arrest could happen. If they are not, they open fire on their own people.
Beirut is beautiful in December. Christmas lights everywhere, Christmas trees decorated, and snowflakes slowly and shyly kiss pedestrians’ cheeks. Everyone was on the streets that last December night before we left. As I was greeted at the restaurant where we stopped for dinner, my eyes begged strangers to take my hand and keep me home. But who could understand? They had problems of their own.
Outside after my student visa was granted, at Gate 7 in Lebanon International Airport, I held my mother’s hand. Don’t let me go. I will be a good girl, I promise. I promise I will never come home late. I will listen. But my voice failed me and I forgot the languages I knew. My vision blurred. I hugged my parents and turned quickly, knowing if I looked back I would never leave.
I was 22 when I passed the red door into a house that held my loneliness for the first four years I lived in Austin, Texas.
I never celebrate New Year’s Eve anymore. Another 365 days of having tried to forget the smell of jasmine at the entrance of grandma’s house, the curve of the street leading to my house, the sound of the neighborhood’s boys playing soccer, and my father yelling at them to stop hitting our garage with their ball. 365 days of learning to say I pledge allegiance to a flag. One nation. Where is God? What is liberty? How is this justice?
The sounds and smells of America are different. Cars pass quickly, strangers speak a language I thought I knew.
I look in the faces of strangers for familiarity and I fail.
Loneliness knocked on my brain. Many the nights I sat in my room right before going to sleep, wishing I still shared a wall with my mother. Loneliness was when I knew my favorite aunt got cancer and could no longer say my name over the phone. We didn’t say good-bye. Loneliness was when Eid came and left, and came and left, and I knew my family had gathered without me. Loneliness was when another aunt died, and I called my mother. She sobbed. My sister, my young, beautiful sister. How could she be gone? I wished I could hold her and tell her that the war is cruel. But instead, I sat in my car unable to speak, the green light told me to go but where do I go now. I had no one to tell me that it will be okay. Instead, I was stalled, mired, stuck, and a man behind me honked and cursed.
My friend is dead. My aunts are gone. My family is there, and I am far away dreaming, not the American Dream, but my Syrian dream of returning home, if I ever can. And I refuse to settle down or surrender, accelerating to no destination, because I think if I do, my loneliness would bury me.
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