My Syria: A Sparkler Shares Her Fears and Hopes for Her Homeland
NarniaSparks sent us this powerful post in order to help inform other Sparklers about the events in Syria. We hope you all read it!—Sparkitors
Have any of you read this post? Lonks wrote, “They had to read the stories of labor and death camps in the newspaper every day, and simply hope that any family they had overseas were safe.” That sentence struck me to the core, because the scenario was so familiar: I am a Syrian American, and my people are faced with a horror much like the one described: the Syrian government is killing its own people, and the tragedy affects me and my family every single day.
“Why are there so many of those?” I asked, pointing a poster of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, which were more common in Damascus than jasmine blooms or stray cats.
“Because everyone in Syria loves the president,” my dad had always told me.
Th above is one of my earliest memories of Syria. I remember believing that Syria was the lone island of democracy, peace, and morality among the sea of chaos in the Middle East. Syria had a president, for crying out loud! That meant that he was fairly chosen by popular sovereignty, right? Oh, how mistaken I was.
Visiting my mother’s hometown of Hama every summer, I noticed that a quarter of the town was rubble. It’s an ancient city, but all the buildings were no older than my grandmother. The government demolished all of the older homes—the alleyways made it too easy to escape from that part of town during the rebellion, when the army would go door to door and kill men above the age of fourteen. In that same city today, I have two male cousins of that age, and I fear that they are in the same danger.
Out of all the bewildering unspoken rules I learned in Syria, I often violated one in particular: I always spoke my mind about politics in public. Each time, my cousin would shush me, and I’d protest with a, “Hey, free speech!” I didn’t know that free speech didn’t really apply in Syria, and my family would quickly steer the subject to safer, non-political waters.
Last summer was the first summer I learned about any of this. In June, I asked my mother about why Bashar Al-Assad had been president for as long as I could remember. She took me off the balcony of my Tehta’s, or Grandma’s, apartment, overlooking bustling and crowded Mezzeh (a residential area of Damascus), and inside to the sitting area.
As she explained that every election, Al-Assad somehow won about 98% of the vote, I looked back over Damascus. I was afraid to ask more. What scared me most was the nonchalant tone with which my mother relayed the information. Rigged elections had been the norm in Syria since the ruling Ba’ath Party took over, the same year my parents were born.
That summer, I began to fit the pieces together: the passing remarks about Hama’s revolt in the 80s, the fact that outdoor conversations were whispered, the cousins of my mother that I had never met. I started to realize why my little cousins would cry if my older cousin would threaten to call the police to get them out of her room, but not if I pretended to be the Boogey Man.
Since my last visit, Syria had transformed from my home—wonderful, jasmine-scented, and filled with dangerous amusement parks—into the new Syria. Dying Syria. It was the Syria where the people feared their government. It was the Syria that blocked blogs and Facebook. It was the Syria that abducted my mom’s cousin twenty-nine years ago because he, unlike many, went to the mosque to pray. He hasn’t been seen since.
I left Syria that summer, dreading ever having to go back. I didn’t want to return to the place that once felt like home, but now felt like I was being watched. Maybe I was exaggerating. Maybe I was being dramatic. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so naïve as to believe that the Syrian government was free of corruption. Nevertheless, I couldn’t see Syria in the same way anymore.
Then I watched as tyrants fell in Tunisia and Egypt, and rulers elsewhere in the region began to feel the heat. Despite what my parents told me about a Syrian revolution being bloody, or possibly sparking a civil war, I kept my fingers crossed behind my back, my hopes rising.
Weeks passed and Syria seemed the same as always, and I realized that perhaps the tide of change was going to recede before it reached Syria. The week I accepted that it was futile to hope for change that could turn Syria into my Syria, was the week protesters went to the streets in Deraa. Since then, protests have spread out over the country. 180 people have died.
The buzzing bazaar I bought ice cream in last summer has every store shuttered, and is now filled with thousands of protesters. The adjacent Omayyad Mosque, once a safe haven, has now been witness to the brutality of the riot police. The statues of presidents that stood over the entrance to every city are being toppled. My grandma and cousin’s neighborhood, which then felt safer and more comfortable than my actual home in the States, has seen protesters tracked and taken from their homes by the secret police and army.
The police and army are nothing like what you’ve seen before. The secret police are agents of the state in civilian clothes whose jobs are to hang around in public areas and listen in to conversation to see if anyone is speaking out against the government. They try to sniff out treason before it even presents itself. There is a special part of the army made up of handpicked criminals, and that is the army you see on the news, throwing tear gas canisters and firing at protesters. That part of the army is the one that comes to decimate revolting cities.
Somehow, math homework doesn’t exactly take my mind off the danger my family is in. I take out my phone every day to check the news and the latest death tolls. Of course, I’m also checking to see if violence had spread to Hama, Damascus, and Homs, where my friends and family live. I get home and get on Facebook, not to check my notifications, but to check up on my cousins (Facebook is blocked, but many people use proxies to get around it). With every glance at the news, I can’t stop myself from thinking, is my cousin in that crowd? Could my friend be in this picture?
Finally, last week, I talked to a friend in Hama. I asked if her family was safe and if there were any protests. She replied that they were safe, but there were protests in Latakia and Deraa. I heard from multiple sources that the protests had spread farther than that—even a few within the city she lives in—but I didn’t say anything. Was she worried that someone might see the conversation, or is the government that good at keeping things quiet within Syria? After I finished talking with her, I realized that the people in Syria might be in the dark about just how powerful the protesters are. This, on top of everything else, made me angry. The Ba’ath Party oppresses Syrians, he doesn’t take care of his people, and now he isolates them, each feeling weak and alone within their cities? This is personal—I’ve accumulated over a year of my short life in Syria and I’m a citizen. What the government does to one of us, they do to all of us.
My mother, before buying tickets to go to a protest in Washington D.C., warned that if it wasn’t a massive turnout, the Syrian government would have no hardships in finding the names of everyone present and storing them in their databases as potential enemies of the state. That, of course, means that I very well may never return to Syria, unless there is a 100% regime change—not just a change of president, or of family, or a change of cabinet members. What Syria needs is a new constitution and to dissolve the current government. Syrians are a determined people, but I’m not sure if even they can defeat the harsh regime. Still, with every poster torn down comes a piece of dying Syria. I will undoubtedly continue to support and help the peeling away of this repressive shroud over Syria in whatever small way I can, whether it’s joining a Facebook group, or going to a protest, or writing this post. If the revolution doesn’t succeed, it looks like I’ll get last summer’s wish—I’ll never go back to the homeland.
Thank you so much for writing this post, Narnia! It was such a brave action, and we know it will profoundly affect many Sparklers!
How do you feel about the events in Syria? Did you know about them before reading this post?
Related post: Living Through the Egyptian Revolution