Amal had only two pressing concerns that night: make dinner for her husband Sherif and put her three-year-old daughter, Ayah, to bed. It was a quiet day; a rarity in war-torn Syria. The sky wasn’t clouded in smoke. The smell of sulfur wasn’t as thick in the air. If one focused only on the languid movements of Amal’s family of three, it would be hard to discern that the city outside their door was under siege.
Then the sounds fractured the facade. Amal wasn’t sure which she heard first: the explosions or the screams. All she knew was that something terrible had happened, and if the ringing in her eardrums didn’t give it away, the cacophony of shattered glass, desperate pleas and restless feet did.
In a string of mechanic movements that she would later only recall with shaking limbs and half-glazed eyes, Amal did the only thing that she knew how: picked up Ayah, cocooned her against her pregnant belly, clutched Sherif’s arm until it was streaked with white – and ran.
She ran as the stairs behind her collapsed from the impact of missiles, ran through the muffled pleas of her neighbors being crushed by cement, ran as her home – the place she moved into after marrying the love of her life, where her daughter’s outgrown clothes were saved for her second child – became nothing more than a mass of broken furniture and burnt photos, an emblem of a life once lived. Similar to the country that housed the wreckage.
“There was destruction everywhere you looked,” Amal said while Kareem, the baby she was pregnant with at the time, now two and walking, hugged her tightly. “When we went down, I was holding my daughter closely so that if we were hit, I would die, and my husband was holding me so that if we were hit, he would die.”
Amal and Sherif consider themselves lucky. They survived. They found refuge in the form of a three-bedroom house in the suburbs of Homestead and are slowly redefining their lives.
Others are not so lucky. You will find them stranded in Syria or dispersed in the outskirts of bordering countries. You will find them bleeding on the streets while government troops barricade them from basic necessities. You will find them trapped in refugee camps on the fringe of salvation. You will find them smuggled into makeshift rafts and crowded cargo ships. This is the life of most Syrians today. This is the life families like Amal’s are escaping.
A COUNTRY IN DISTRESS
The Syrian uprising was an echo of the Arab Spring, which started with Tunisia’s successful revolution in 2011 and spread to countries such as Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. While stories of war now dominate Syria, the uprising began with peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, violent undertones soon manifested after the dictator deployed troops into streets filled with unarmed civilians. Small rebel groups assembled to fight the army, and with this civil crossfire and political vacuum came the rise of the Islamic State (IS), a terrorist group aiming to create a state in the Middle East governed by a skewed interpretation of Sharia law.
The growing presence of IS has taken a toxic toll on Syria. To the West, the group is known for beheading videos and for taking credit in mass murders. To people living in Syria, the group is ubiquitous, redefining the daily battles Syrians are forced to endure. IS members line crowded streets and leave a trail of bullets and blood in their shadow. Abductions, rape and murders are commonplace for them. Sherif’s brother, Ahmed, was stopped on his way to a grocery store and ordered to join IS. When Ahmed refused, he was beheaded without a flicker of hesitation, leaving six kids without a father.
“I raised the kids with my own kids,” Sherif said. “When we came to the States, we couldn’t bring them with us, and they sent me messages like ‘Why did you leave, why did you leave, why couldn’t you take us?’”
For the past five years, Syria has been defined by untreated wounds and demolished infrastructure, by fear creasing the expressions of most faces and fire creasing the surface of most facades. According to PBS, 470,000 Syrians have lost their lives since 2011. That number is only slightly larger than Miami’s population.
By this point, most Syrians see only two options: fight or flight. Yusuf is one of the people who ardently fought for political freedom. He has blue, tired eyes that speak of a sage most men aren’t able to attain at 27. Half his face is coated in a dark beard and despite his experiences, or maybe because of them, his broad smile pierces through it.
“I wanted to do something,” he said. “I wanted to open people to the revolution, so I went to Homs, which was the center of the revolution, and created a few movements around the city with my friends.”
This was when only the roots of the uprising had been planted, and Yusuf was still a medical student. Most doctors acquire years of experience before they have to take responsibility for a life – Yusuf didn’t get that liberty. Instead, he banded with a team of people, some doctors and some helpful commoners, to create a makeshift underground hospital since medical centers are constantly targeted by the government. Yusuf was on his way to the hospital one night when his brother ran screaming to stop him. Special government agents had found the location. They had killed everyone inside.
“We lost half our friends from medical school and half our neighbors,” Yusuf said with a splinter in his tone.
Yet Yusuf’s resolve only hardened. He started reaching out to more like-minded Syrians. He carried all his belongings in two bags – one with eight medical textbooks and the other with clothes – so that if he ever had to run, he would have his possessions with him. He ventured to Damascus, where the embers of the revolution hadn’t caught wind quite yet. There, he and his roommate garnered enough attention to start one of the first protests in the country’s capital. They had only accounted for about 50 people to attend, and Yusuf said they were shocked to see the number of participants flow well into the hundreds. They weren’t all civilians.
Later that day Yusuf woke up in a dark, L-shaped hallway with his back on a wall, his shoulders pinned tight between two unconscious men. He had been beaten with the spiked ends of chairs. His body was torn open at some parts, painted black and red at others. His lips were chewed up, face swollen, arms plastered with the fingerprints of electric shocks. Cigarette burns outlined his skin. Half his beard had been ripped off by an officer’s bare hands. Yusuf, like many Syrians caught in the turmoil, was arrested at the protest, where both the actively involved and the indifferent bystanders are equal targets.
“Part of the police’s enjoyment is putting a few people on the ground and jumping on them; you might break your ribs, you might break your face,” he said. “They put you through six to seven hours of intense, non-stop torture.”
Yusuf’s experience is not uncommon. In Syria, prisoners of war are tortured in inhumane ways in exchange for information. According to Amnesty International, 17,723 prisoners have been murdered since the start of the war – some of them in front of Yusuf’s eyes. If no one outside your prison cell knows your whereabouts, you can be a prisoner months. Yusuf, however, was able to escape five days later once his parents found a connection inside.
FLEEING THE FRONTLINE
After their home was destroyed, Amal and Sherif had no choice but to retreat. With no supplies and no extra clothes, they traveled by foot through Tell Shihab, a small village between Dara in Syria and Jordan, to a Jordanian refugee camp where they would remain for three years.
About 4.8 million refugees have fled Syria and 6.6 million have been displaced within the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have taken in most Syrian refugees, and select European nations such as Germany and Sweden have opened their borders to allow Syrians in as well. Still, many refugees are trapped in refugee camps, living in conditions that make squatter settlements look like castles. Despite international efforts to make the camps habitable, Amal recalls horrifying tales of abuse and neglect. She said the hardships don’t end outside Syria’s border.
Syrian refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan, meaning no stable source of income flows in. They are stopped in every corner of the country and forced to show an ID, even for something as simple as entering a park. Rights are limited and racism omnipresent, according to Amal.
When it was time for Amal to give birth to Kareem, her second child, she said she was inundated with insults and disrespect from the medical staff. The stitches from her caesarian became infected, leaving her sick for months. But she was strong – she’d been through worse. It was her children who she was worried about.
“All they ever saw was the dark. They were curious about the look of light,” she said. “I said, ‘Ok fine, I won’t have a life, but what about my kids? I won’t have a future, but what about their future?’”
Living in the camp was hardest on Ayah, who was born around the same time as Syria’s first protest. For Ayah, birthdays were replaced by funerals and tombstones of would-be moments came to define her life. While children in other parts of the world were hearing birds outside their windows, she and the other 3.7 million Syrian children born during war heard bombs. At the camps, the majority of these children have little in the form of clothes, toys, food and education. They can hardly remember a life before the bloodshed. Ayah’s first words were “Ya wali, ya wali,” which translates from Arabic to “My tragedy, my tragedy.”
“Every time she saw someone cry, she would cry next to them,” Amal said. “When we left the house to escape the missiles, we stood next to my neighbor who had a boy around Ayah’s age. The missile struck the little boy and he fell right from his mother’s arms – it’s a sight I’ll never forget.”
In the wake of the exodus from Syria, President Obama pledged to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, a decision that has been battled both in political debates and by federal governments. Thirty-eight Syrian refugee families are reconciling loss with liberation and trying to find a foothold here in Miami with the help of the Florida Refugee Assistance Committee, a Muslim relief organization that integrates refugees into society.
Syrian-born Sali Abbarra, a member of the committee, works firsthand with families like Amal’s. Abbarra and her team do it all – furnish houses for the refugees, assist with rent payments if needed, secure jobs for adults, set children up in schools and support families with everything, from the trivial to the taxing. The committee works with five different agencies that alert them of a new families’ arrival two weeks beforehand.
“We are with the refugees starting from the day they get here, supporting them emotionally and financially,” Abbarra said. “If we don’t go and see them, we are on the phone with them every day, sometimes every hour.”
It’s not always an easy adjustment. Some refugees are unaccustomed to the extensive work hours required in the U.S. Many suffer from mental health issues, haunted by recurrent flashbacks. There is a significant language barrier and ever-changing laws they must accommodate to.
“Imagine having a big house, living a big life, and all of a sudden you lose everything and you don’t have anything close to what you need to be able to live,” Abbarra said. “It’s so important to give refugees the chance to come here and start over.”
There are also many social barriers that refugees have to grapple with – particularly how the American population will receive them. According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of Americans supported Obama’s plan to accept refugees when it was first proposed. Then the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks happened in Paris, and the unfounded identification of one of the terrorists’ passports as Syrian shifted public opinion. Afterwards, more than half of Americans agreed that the U.S. should stop accepting refugees from Syria. In many cases, it’s difficult to separate refugees from the stigma against them.
“When you mention Syria to someone in the Middle East or to someone who knows about Syria, the first thing you think about is hospitality and warm hearts,” said Nader Abbarra, Sali’s son and a senior at UM. “Now when you think of Syria, you think of war and you think of poverty, and a false statement attached to refugees is they’re poor, helpless people … in reality, this person was a neuroscientist, an engineer, a fashion designer, a designer, but they lose all that once they become refugees.”
Nader is helping his mother with her committee and working with a friend to create a school for Syrian refugees in Jordan. He said one of the most monumental issues facing refugees worldwide is a lack of education – almost one million Syrian children currently do not have access to any educational facilities. Without that education, they cannot work, cannot communicate in English, cannot integrate into society. Even in Miami, there are no programs tailored to refugees that compensate for the discrepancy between children’s educational level and their physical age.
Nader’s school will double as an educational facility that trains students in technology and design, and a work facility where students can make use of these acquired skills. Nader takes on the international while his mother narrows in on the regional, but there are more ways to help the silently suffering refugees. According to Abbarra, donating to local or international committees that aid in assisting refugees, opening up job positions to them, or simply dissolving mental barriers by listening to their stories – by trying to understand – is more than enough, or, at the very least, is a start.
FINDING THE LIGHT
On most afternoons, the door to Amal’s house stands open, with only a white sheet separating the living room from the front yard. Amal greets guests with a tray of Turkish coffee placed on a delicate floral platter, eager to communicate using the limited English she learned from Ayah, now in Kindergarten. Sherif prepares for his shift at a Middle Eastern restaurant. Ayah and Kareem play hide-and-seek in the shrubbery. She no longer cries when she sees someone else cry.
Passing by the family on the street, one would never know they were refugees. One would never know the atrocities they’ve witnessed or the tragedies they’ve endured. They made jokes, they laughed, they talked about troubling times with an air of resolve and determination, an air of procured peace.
“We have to keep going because of the kids; we have to smile, we have to live. No more tears. No more sadness. We cannot keep crying,” Amal said.
From his bedroom in Chicago, Yusuf said he wants people to know his past does not haunt him. He recalls his experiences as positive ones because they have given his life a purpose – he is a resident anesthesiologist at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, keeping himself from becoming too accustomed to the comforts of Western life so he can return to Syria to save the people he couldn’t before. He had to live in a car for months when he first moved to Chicago, jumped from couch to couch before finally settling down, and now goes on extreme camping trips to enhance his survival skills. Yusuf said this was the type of life he was meant to have ever since he got involved with the revolution, recalling the days he spent walking with two bags carrying all his belongings.
“l don’t want to live spoiled, I don’t want to live in my comfort zone,” he said. “I would never complain because I’m surviving to reach the end of the tunnel and go back to the front line.”
President Donald Trump has threatened to deport all Syrian refugees. That would mean that families such as Amal’s would have to pack their belongings, pull their children out of school and return to a life of terrorism and turmoil. That would mean that people such as Yusuf would have to abandon their efforts at reformation and return to makeshift hospitals and prison cells. That would mean that no matter how much progress these refugees have made, all of it can be taken away – a different kind of missile breaking through their homes.
Still, Amal said she will keep her front door open to let the natural light filter in. After being trapped in a war and then a refugee camp for years, she wants her family to know that they are free. They understand that the culture will be different, but they want to work to embrace it. They are not terrorists, not operatives, not ideologically-driven by any dangerous agenda. They are just a family who held each other close while the foundation of their lives was torn apart, and they still hold each other close as they put it back together. They want us to know that despite their split roots, they can still blossom and grow – they just needed to find a place that lets in light.
*Some names have been changed to ensure privacy.
words_asmae fahmy, editor in chief. photo_valentina escotet, photo editor.