This is an account of what it’s like to be far from loved ones who are living in a war zone. It’s a type of survivor’s guilt. This isn’t meant to illicit pity. Just understand that I will not always tell people what I’m going through, partly because I want to escape from it myself. I don’t expect you to relate. I don’t need big hugs or apologies. They make me feel guilty. I need people with ideas that help me hold out hope that some good will be gleaned from this horror. I need help doing something concrete to help refugees. I need reassurance that my family will survive. I need things no one can give me.
This is rough. I’ll probably re-edit at a later date.
| In the past, the green belt around Damascus would have come about to
the tops my|
ears in this picture. Sprawl has made food scarcer and more remote from city dwellers.
On Wednesday November 29th, 2017, I woke up to a call from my father in Syria. He’d been to our family farm. He just wanted to share his experience assessing the damage that had been done there by looters or “rebels.” We’re not sure which to call them. Some local rogue government militias and some villagers in the area have started their own civil war on class and are taking their frustrations out on absent landowners kept away by closed checkpoints and shifting war zones. These “rebels” blame families like mine for not helping them more, but the government took all our wealth away more than half a century ago. The village we once literally owned thinks we owe them a school, a well, a mosque, a clinic and many other things that we could not do for them on our own.
|A view of my uncle's table grape vineyard. One of the family's only incomes, mostly unharvested since the war.|
So, when my dad calls from Syria and reminds me that about a year ago, looters torched our farmhouse after taking everything from antique furniture that was my inheritance from my grandmother to copper wires out of the walls, and even attempting to steal the floor tiles, I’m caught in that zone where I think everyone should know about this, but everyone is a foreigner who can’t relate. All they will feel is pity, or admiration for my “struggle”, or dismay at my need for attention. Perhaps they will think I feel entitled, because unlike so many refugees, my family has yet to lose everything, and I personally have a roof over my head. It is personal, though. Our farmhouse wasn’t looted or burned because it was on the road to somewhere. It was targeted because of my family name. Then I just want to scream, and it becomes a hum, white noise in the back of my head, blurring my senses to keep my subconscious squarely sub.
I learned early in my childhood to compartmentalize between my two countries. Regardless of which end of the world I was on, I was ten thousand miles away from half my loved ones. That was in the days before internet, when it could cost a fortune for just one minute of international long distance on the telephone, and snail mail could take a month each way between Syria and the US. I had to live without knowing the day-to-day news of my family. We were on opposite ends of the planet.
Since the war, my compartments are a lot thinner. My co-workers probably think I’m a moody person. I’m by no means manic, but under the current circumstances I’ve had many days when I could barely force a smile and every minute felt like an eternity in a corrupted universe. On one occasion a co-worker asked me how I was doing, after some bombings she’d heard of taking place in Damascus. I confessed to her that I was having a harder time than usual compartmentalizing, but couldn’t speak much more than that because I couldn’t wrap my mind around both worlds at the same time. How do I speak of the nightmare of hearing about bombs in my city and not knowing where they were or where my family was at the time. The news rarely if ever reports the neighborhood accurately, and my family members live in several different areas and try to go about normal business when it is possible. They even send their children to school when they dare. I know from experience that a loved one could miss certain death just by stopping at a traffic light. On the other hand, my cousin was car-jacked (possibly by ISIS) only blocks from home.
|Damascus in snow.|
On other occasions, people don’t know anything is going on. To them, I’m just being sullen, but my mind is ten thousand miles away, with my dad who sits inside his house wrapped in blankets to keep warm with steel shutters closed against random gunfire, my aunts and uncles, just as cold, who live less than a mile from an ISIS stronghold and are sometimes hostages in their own homes because of shelling. I might be thinking of my cousin, a mother of four, who spent last winter getting only one hour of electricity a day, between one and three hours of water at random times every three days and gas rations that either fueled a car or heated her house. He situation is similar to those of many Damascenes, but her village suburb doesn’t offer a full supermarket and a car could burn a quarter tank of gas just going through the checkpoints between her and the nearest government produce cooperative. Syria is high desert, so it’s freezing at night, and the winter winds are like knives even through a winter coat. Damascus is just below the snow line. My father and my cousin both live in mountain suburbs that get snow regularly. I can’t tell you how many times I have wished myself there with them, because even to suffer along side them would seem more productive than my empty life.
On a daily basis, I smile and give great customer service to people who are too lazy to read a sale sign, and want me to risk my job to give them a discount to earn their loyalty for the company I work for. Meanwhile, I’m thinking how shameful it is that I’m safe, clean, warm, clothed and fat in my own house while I have relatives who are using their life savings to buy eggs.
Once, a supervisor saw how agitated I was and asked me if there was anything he could do. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that it felt like someone had been dancing on my grave all day long and I was desperate to get off work and check online to see if there was anything about Syria in the news. Instead, I reassured him I only had to get through six more minutes of work: he didn’t need to worry. I wouldn’t let him try to identify with my experience. I knew he couldn’t. He stopped trying after that. When people ask how my family is, I reply “everyone’s safe, as far as I know. We’re lucky,” but I add silently in my head, “so far, they’ve only assassinated two of us and killed three others.” By the time my cousin once removed – I called him uncle – died last summer, from illness unrelated to the war, I didn’t bother trying to hide or explain my pain. I no longer felt compelled to justify the lump in my throat or the tears welling in my eyes as I worked.
|Before the war. The farmhouse my father built, while it was under construction.|
When I saw this video last year, I wanted to show it to everyone, “see, I have lost something! I’m not just a crybaby!” But, I was appalled, at myself. It was, after all, our farmhouse, not our primary residence, and I was ashamed that anyone would feel so loyal to my family that they would stand next to a burning house and film it while bullets were flying all around him, so I didn’t post it. I just went about my days at work and home with my brain blurred out. Let gossips and co-workers make what they wanted from it.
My compartments are usually strong. I have programmed myself so that I can go days without consciously remembering there’s a war ravaging my childhood neighborhood and annihilating my loved ones. When I do think of it, I just go blank. Now and then, though, it gets under my skin and makes my head spin.
My father is now safely in the US.
Here is the video of that fire in 2016.
On official reports, it is listed as a result of shelling.