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Voices from Syria
October 10, 2014
In light of intensifying military actions in Iraq and Syria, Keith Gentry reflects on his recent visit to the Turkish-Syrian border and the many Syrian refugees he met. This article offers to share some of their stories.
President Obama’s decision to expand the offensive against ISIS by bombing targets in Syria brought me back to my field work last month with Syrian refugee children. I had a unique opportunity to travel to the Turkish-Syrian border with a graduate class at George Mason University. Twenty other graduate students and I spent eight days in Istanbul and southern Turkey, learning about the Syrian revolution, meeting Syrian activists, and working with Project Amal ou Salam to bring educational workshops to Syrian refugee children in schools and orphanages. My heart is heavy with thoughts of the critically injured Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, with the amazing and beautiful children in the orphanages in Reyhanli, Gaziantep, and Güveççi, and in the eager faces of the children in the refugee school near Esenyurt. While my work was incredibly difficult, I was inspired by the resilience and strength of the Syrian people, especially the children. Rather than bum everyone out with the darker aspects of my journey, I’d like to share some of the profound stories that I collected there, and how I was affected by them. These stories illustrate that, no matter how brutalized and battered, Syrian refugees have strength. They are resisting war all around them in ways large and small. The coalition bombing campaign, however, is actively hurting their efforts on the ground.
Westerners tend to view conflicts in other areas of the world at the macro level. It is easy to lose the human face of the conflict and overlook what small groups are doing to survive and protect themselves. Though the Syrian conflict is a convoluted mess of revolutionaries, an intractable dictatorial regime, and hosts of Islamists militia groups, it is also much more than that. The Syrian conflict is over a million children displaced by fighting, spread out over a number of camps and orphanages across the region. These children have names and personal narratives, and they will inherit the future of Syria – or whatever is left of it. Yet, the conflict also contains countless stories of Syrians rejecting violence and helping their neighbors the best that they can. To be sure, there are many victims of rape, torture, and other terrors – real people who have lost so much in these three years of fighting. But, when we focus exclusively on the victimization of the Syrian people, we tend to lose our ability to connect and empathize with them as human beings.
Sometimes we have to look at the worst in humanity to find the best. Many of the children we encountered have experienced unimaginable horrors, things that many of us cannot even bear to comprehend. These children themselves, they are absolutely amazing. They want to laugh, play, and simply be children. Seeing a little boy with burn scars all over his body and who had lost his father bounce around like a normal five-year-old was nothing short of miraculous. Many of the very young children have been “adopted” by some of the older kids. The sight of a ten-year-old girl dutifully comforting a nearly inconsolable four year old moved many of us. Many of these children are surviving, and some even thriving because of the incredible generosity of others, ranging from individual go-getters, to concerned NGOs, and foreign governments. Turkey, for instance, has shown incredible generosity in the face of a difficult and protracted refugee situation by establishing schools, camps, and providing medical assistance. I should note that more is needed to help the externally displaced, but Turkey is leading the regional effort to support them.
I feel compelled to talk about the strength of one young woman in particular. She is well connected, both politically and socially, inside and outside the Assad regime. Her status easily affords her the chance to live comfortably in Damascus, free of the horrors associated with the revolution. Instead, she has chosen to live a remarkably dangerous and clandestine existence. She has used her resources and connections to brave regime blockades in order to bring in urgently needed food and medical supplies to desperate people. She has evacuated people from regime-controlled areas when their safety was at extreme risk. I was particularly disturbed by one story she shared. The Assad regime systematically uses rape and torture to spread fear and attempt to deter revolutionaries. One of these regime units decided to “make an example” of two brothers for their seditious behavior. They brutally raped their young sister in front of them and their mother. As if the horror of the rape wasn’t enough, the brothers felt compelled to try to murder their sister rather than bear the shame of her rape. The mother intervened, took her shattered little girl from their village, and gave her away to neighbors. They secretly moved her between towns until my friend was able to pick her up. Because of my friend, she was able to get medical care and is now safe, with a loving family.
Every morning marks the beginning of another day in hell for her and the people she fights to protect. She will wake up, alone, and do whatever she can to help her people. They are suffering immensely and feel largely abandoned by the world. This story could be dedicated, in its entirety, to her moral courage, but neither she nor her people seek accolades and recognition for their courageous acts of love and defiance. Rather, she would ask that we simply love her and her people. Rather than donate money or aid, she asked that we, the international community, show her people that we truly care about their suffering.
We visited a city called Gaziantep, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, a mere sixty miles from Aleppo, where the opposition President Obama wishes to support is fighting for its life not only against the Assad regime, but also the barbaric Islamic State, which has greatly complicated the already convoluted revolution. We had the immense pleasure of spending a day with roughly 150 refugee children, many of whom were orphans. Some were marred by burns, scars, or other evidence of the horrible brutality from whence they came. We were warned that some of the children might act coldly towards us for a few hours, if they ever engaged with us at all, but we were determined to do our best to give these kids a day they could remember fondly. Some of the kids took some time to warm up to us, and though the language barrier was frustrating, they were so incredibly happy to have a play day. We met them in a nice park with a playground and divided them into groups and planned activities for them to do at various stations. By the end of the day, we were all exhausted. As we were waiting for their caretakers to finish taking attendance, we sat in a big group and passed out juice boxes and snacks. The kids were full of smiles and they wanted to sit next to us and for us to help them put straws in the juice boxes. They were remarkably generous and offered to share their snacks when they saw we did not bring any for ourselves. They would not take no for an answer. After a surprising amount of hugs, the children boarded a few small buses to return to their lives – buildings that doubled as school and home. Before we departed, the Turkish administrator of the organization that cares for these children asked to speak with us. He was remarkably kind and appreciative of our presence. He told us that it was a bit of a rarity for outsiders to come and spend any time at all with the children. I was genuinely surprised by how much our small contribution meant to him and it was difficult for me to accept his gratitude. After all, I felt that we were essentially a group of spoiled Westerners who got to play with a bunch of cute kids, then roll back to our hotel. I didn’t want him to thank me… Thank the activists who risk their lives helping people inside the destroyed cities and towns in Syria. Thank the people who really do something, not me. During the bus ride back, I wondered how great the sense of abandonment felt by these children and their caregivers must be if our tiny contribution truly meant so much.
Our next stop was Reyhanli, three miles away from the busiest crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border. We visited an orphanage there that is supported by the American Rescue Fund. The kids receive excellent care from a handful of amazing volunteers. The space is a little cramped, but is surprisingly comfortable – an important aspect during the sweltering heat of the summer. Just a block away from the orphanage is a rehabilitation center for Syrian refugees. I was incredibly apprehensive about this visit. As a veteran, I am used to seeing and hearing stories of fellow service members devastated by IEDs or other sorts of attacks, but this was considerably different. Many of the refugees that I met at the rehabilitation center felt alone and forgotten. I saw them lying in their beds waiting for their horrific wounds to heal, awaiting news about the prosthetics they desperately needed to replace their amputated limbs, and waiting for texts or phone calls from anyone that still cares. One story from the center absolutely shook me to my core. We met a man who I will call Mohamed. I won’t detail his exact injuries to protect what family he has left in Syria, but they were severe. He had been injured a few weeks ago by a mortar strike in Aleppo. When our group was introduced as Americans, I expected a rather cold reception. I was surprised that Mohamed was quite eager to speak to us. He told us how he was recruited by his neighbors to fight for the opposition, how he was injured, and then passed around to different hospitals as he was evacuated from Syria. He even showed us a cell phone video of when he was first brought into the hospital after his injuries. He thanked us profusely for our visit and said that we had renewed his strength to continue his journey. He explained how no one from the various oppositions’ political leadership or any of the other good guys could be bothered to check on him or anyone else in the center. He felt completely forgotten by those for whom he fought. This revelation was particularly upsetting as my group had just met some of the people he was referring to, in a posh Istanbul hotel no less, replete with elegant suits and extensive security details.
The Assad regime, however, has not forgotten. Mohamed’s wife and son were just recently arrested by the Syrian intelligence services. He swore he would go on, for his family’s sake, when he got out of the center. He had to find them, no matter the cost. He asked us to share his story to whoever would listen. Before walking out the door, I grabbed his hand and hugged him; it was the only way I knew how to promise him that I’d do my best. As for Mohamed, my Syrian brother, I will never forget his determination and his genuine surprise and appreciation that some Americans would travel so many miles to visit him when his own leaders had forgotten him.
This trip helped to remind me that we, as people living comfortably in the West, cannot solve the crisis at the micro level. Nevertheless, there are things we can do to help: donate toys, money, or clothes to the orphanages located on the Syrian border; (the American Rescue Fund, UNICEF, and other smaller groups fund many of these places); encourage your friends and family to critically analyze the situation in Syria; and personally visit the refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. There are a number of organizations that visit Syrian camps and orphanages. It’ll change your life. Take a moment, especially if your Arabic is passable, to write to some of the people recovering in the rehab centers. The notion that strangers from far away are thinking of them is powerful and truly makes a difference.
The situation on the ground in Syria will worsen dramatically as the coalition continues the campaign to destroy ISIS. The Assad regime has all but been given a free hand to intensify its indiscriminate bombing campaign against the Free Syrian Army in the northwestern parts of Syria. The intense media campaign dedicated to ISIS ensures that an increase of barrel bomb attacks will get little to no coverage. Moreover, our bombs are adding to the human misery in Syria. Not only are US warplanes targeting sites just a few miles from the children that we visited, but they are also attacking groups that have been protecting civilians from both the regime and ISIS. Finally, we will find that our campaign has been largely ineffective. ISIS has shown remarkable resiliency and the ability to adapt to our air superiority. Our bombs alone will not destroy ISIS, nor will they help those defending themselves against a murderous regime in Damascus.
I will leave you with this. In a moment of particular weakness, I reached out to a friend and explained what I had been witnessing and how it was affecting me. She told me a short children’s story that I had never heard. In the story, a young man walks up and down a beach every morning to rescue starfish that washed up along the shoreline. He always did his best to take the starfish back to the sea. One day, an older man mocked him for his foolishness, saying that his actions will not matter in the grand scheme of things; there are simply too many starfish along the miles of beach. The young man responds, for the ones I do rescue, it means everything. Just as the young man in this story could not save every starfish, we cannot save every child, nor can we make every Syrian refugee feel loved; but for the ones we are able to reach, it means everything.
Keith Gentry is an MA candidate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution.