The Syria You Cannot See, See it From My Eyes

Jomana Qaddour is a Syrian-American attorney and Co-Founder of Syria Relief and Development, a nonprofit humanitarian organization working in Syria and neighboring countries to help those in need.

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Jomana with family in Banyas, Syria, Aug. 2004

I am a byproduct of Syria and America, the first child of Syrian immigrants who settled in the U.S. not long after my birth. But my connection to Syria didn’t end with that settlement. Between school years, my childhood and teenage summers were spent playing in familial courtyards in Homs and Damascus, eating my grandmothers’ savory foods and running to their arms when arguments with cousins escalated or my parents denied me something I truly wanted. I can remember vividly the sights and sounds of Old Damascus and Homs, the city I was born in which has now been under government siege for more than two years. But most importantly, I remember being happy. So happy that memories of those summer visits carried me through the school years here in the U.S., all while looking forward to my next visit, to my family’s homeland. I am not just American, I am Syrian-American.

My depiction of Syria may or may not surprise you. The Syria of my youth certainly doesn’t resemble Syria now. My parents’ home in Homs was robbed clean three years ago, and a year later part of it was destroyed during bombing. My extended families who I spent so much time with during my childhood years have either been living under siege unable to leave their homes or scattered throughout the world living as refugees. My father could not attend his own mother’s funeral when she passed away. And my youngest siblings have grown up not knowing the beauty and warmth of the Syria of my youth.

No matter how many barrel bombs may fall, how many lives may be lost, how many children forever scarred and how many buildings crumbled, Syria is worth saving. Every last life, every last mind, every last brick, is worth striving for a resolution to the conflict. Have you ever run through the ancient streets of Aleppo? Ever seen the structural beauty of architecture that lays claim to the oldest inhabited cities in the world? Ever been torn apart from family you grew up loving but could no longer see? If you had, you, too, would know just how worth saving Syria is.

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Jomana’s grandmother at the Prince Islands in Istanbul, Turkey, June 2015

This June, I had the honor of traveling to Istanbul, Turkey to spend ten days with my maternal grandmother for the first time in more than five years. She decided to travel outside of her home in Damascus to visit my mother and I again, possibly for the last time. Those ten days took me back to summers drinking her perfectly brewed coffee while listening to Fairouz, one of the Arab world’s most iconic singers, on the radio. I stole glances her way at every chance and found her doing the same to me, both of us wondering if we would ever meet again. I tried to memorize the contours of her face, the softness of her skin, what it felt like to hug her; I tried to memorize all of her.  When I arrived back in the U.S., the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. The grief was immeasurable, like the grief of loss. And Syrians know loss all-too-well.

Seven year-old Ahmed and his five year-old sister lost their mother and older sister during a barrel bomb attack and they were taken in by their grandmother soon after.  Ahmed’s emotional pain after the loss was intense; so much so that at such a young age, Ahmed attempted suicide. Ahmed arrived at Syria Relief and Development (SRD)’s hospital where he spent three weeks recuperating and is now in our psychosocial support program. Ahmed lost hope but our staff spent time with him to restore it. And just like Ahmed’s life, the lives of my grandmother and extended families, just like the Syria of my youth, it is all worth saving. The memories of what were live inside each Syrian and the possibility of what could be again keep us struggling every day to help see an end to the pain and suffering the conflict has caused.

Despite the many tragic stories I hear about through my work with SRD, I still believe strongly that there will be a resolution to all of the chaos and that Syrians will re-emerge as a resilient people, willing and able to rebuild their destroyed country. Syria will never go back to being what it was. That Syria is gone. But Syrians will recreate a new Syria that will hopefully embody the new generation of Syrians who can learn from the country’s previous struggles.

— Jomana Qaddour