Disclaimer: this blog is deferred due to lack of wifi while in Syria. Also, it is extremely difficult to fit in every single detail that occurred during this journey so I sincerely apologize in advance for anything I have unintentionally left out.
We went to sleep around 1am last night. It was an absolutely perfect way to end such a productive day. After our heavenly time with all the children in the field (and I mean it when I say heavenly!), we got to work again. All the food we purchased was put in an empty room in another home across from where we were staying. It was time to weigh the sugar, tea and rice then put each into smaller bags for the individual families. We had a room full of men and young boys helping us. The only women were Nesrin and I which was unique for them. This was my favorite part. I wanted the men to see that a single woman can be and is fully capable of working beside a man. Trust me when I say they were astonished. I was asked to take a break at least five times and without hesitation, my answer was no. I worked the entire time while drinking tea and making as much conversation as possible while Nesrin translated. We finished after midnight and I still wanted to continue. “What’s next?!” And Ziad, who had been sitting beside me, looked at me with a blank face. I looked at him seriously. He responded with partial admiration and shock. “Nothing else until tomorrow,” he said. “Why?” I quickly responded and he said, “Don’t you want wifi??” And I said: “Wifi? We don’t need wifi. We have work to finish. Yalla!” And the whole room started laughing….
I eventually gave in. It was pretty late and we had been running around all day gathering food, supplies, etc. So I agreed to ending our work only if we would get up at 7am to finish the bagging and start the distribution. Ziad shrugged his shoulders saying yes but I could sense that none of the men were going to wake up that early. I smiled and said, “Inshallah”. We took a group photo and said goodnight.
Waking up on Sunday morning at 6am was incredible. I was ready to conquer the world. No really.
I felt an empowerment that I have never experienced in my entire life. Here I am, 27 years old, in a foreign country, don’t speak nor understand a word of their native language and willingly choosing to risk my life during a horrendous civil war so that I may provide aid to these beautiful people. Why you ask? Because even though I am not Syrian and I am not Muslim, I am a human being and every single person surrounding me is a human being equal to myself. Why should my life be valued any higher? Or any different? And why should my positive intentions be questioned?
Nesrin and I do our usual morning preparation: splash water on our faces and brush our teeth. We decide to go sit in the field and say some prayers. We figure taking a moment to ourselves with the upcoming hustle and bustle of the day will help prepare us. Considering the lack of sleep and shower, we are in complete bliss.
As I anticipated, the men are dead asleep or so we assume. A little boy from the village walks up to us and Nesrin asks him to go wake up the men. He looks reluctant but obliges. Nothing happens. We decide to head to the room where all the food is and continue where we left off. We begin opening the boxes with our Swiss Army knife, separating the items so that the bagging process would be easier. Next thing you know we hear a loud bomb. Now here’s the thing – we have been hearing bombs from the moment we stepped foot into Syria. It has become apart of our daily activity to hear the bombs and see them in the distance. But this particular bomb was louder than the usual bombs we had been hearing since we arrived. Nesrin and I rush outside to see that they dropped it in the next village over. Our faces drop. My first thought is: the hospital! I worry if its been discovered then I start reflecting on the day before and all the shops we visited in that area. My heart aches. Such good hearted people. Why??? Nesrin is now a couple feet ahead of me amongst the children staring in the distance when two more bombs drop in the same area. They are getting much louder. The women and the children from the village start saying “Allahu Akbar” meaning God is great. I get goosebumps all over. The women start crying as their children come running out to watch. Nesrin turns to me with tears and I put my arm around her. What can possibly be said when witnessing this?
Suddenly more bombs are being dropped and getting closer to us. The men are awake and yelling for Nesrin and I to cross the gravel road. We run back into the food room, grab our jackets and head to where the men are. They are half asleep and shaken up. I don’t know what to say. They are speaking to one another but of course in Arabic. I look at Nesrin who is quietly crying realizing that right now certainly isn’t the time to ask her to translate so I simply stand beside her and say “it’s going to be ok, I promise”.
Then Aiman tells us to come into the room below the house. This is where the men have been sleeping. We remove our boots, go in and sit. Ahmed lights a cigarette, Manar grabs the laptop looking flushed in the face and Aiman sits quietly. The walkie talkie is on and men are speaking Arabic roughly. It’s fuzzy and full of static. Not that it matters since I don’t understand anyway. It is at this moment I think to myself, I’m glad it sounds like jibberish. Most likely whatever they are saying would only stress me out. I sit back and take a deep breathe as I hear another bomb drop. Even closer. A couple of men come to the door, talking to the others then leaving. Ziad appears and looks worried. He checks on both of us. I smile saying ‘good morning’ and Nesrin nods. She is a bit emotional and I look at her unaware of what I can do to calm her down. This is the most startled I have seen her. She is silently crying. I say: “It sounds bad but it isn’t. Nothing is going to happen”. Both Ziad and Aiman assure her the same thing (this I am assuming as they are speaking in Arabic to her and smiling warmly). Another bomb drops. Ziad, who has been standing, slips on his sandals to see where it landed. I look at Manar, who is the only uncomfortable man in the room. Aiman cracks a joke at him. I ask Nesrin what they are saying out of curiosity. She replies: “Manar said this is the worst I have seen it and Aiman said this is nothing”. I giggle. Perception varies person to person. What a perfect example. My reaction versus Nesrin’s reaction. Ahmed, who is sitting to my right asks if I need wifi and I say yes thinking I should contact my family just in case…. just in case.
Thirty minutes later, Ziad asks if Nesrin and I want to go distribute the medical supplies we purchased yesterday to the hospital. For once, I don’t respond immediately. I think to myself that is exactly where all the bombs are dropping. I turn to Nesrin and say, “want to go?” And we get up.
Ziad is driving, Ahmed is in the passenger seat next to him and we are in the back. I stare out at the country side and realize that my mind is silent. It seems even my mind is a bit uneasy as to the what if, the possibility of dying… Ironically I am not scared. I genuinely believe that if it is my time then it is my time but can that be prevented? Do we play a role in our fate? Can we change it?
We arrive at the hospital as the van is unloading all the medical supplies and baby milk. We walk up viewing the boxes. I begin opening them to check the expiration dates and the quality of the supplies. Thankfully the expiration dates are in 2014 and some in 2015. I take a deep breath of relief that they will now have the appropriate and necessary supplies to assist their patients as well as possible. I look around at all the men standing in and out front of the hospital. I wonder if they are fearful? I question their worries and especially their thoughts. Have they questioned my character in crossing the border into a war zone? Do they assume it is my job as an advocate of an organization? Or has Ziad informed them already that Nesrin and I have come out here on our own dime and by our own choice?
The man who manages the hospital is smiling and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. I thank him for his help in purchasing the supplies and he responds with: “Allah yihmeekown” meaning may God protect you. Of course I am thinking the same for him. I tell Ziad to ask the men to carry the supplies in. I don’t want to cause any unusual attention to the hospital. I try my best to keep my mind at ease but I can’t help to look up at the sky. I was told already that the helicopters and airplanes can’t be seen from the ground. In other words, you can’t see when the bomb is being dropped therefore you can’t avoid it. I take another deep breath.
We head back to the village and I sense some tension inside myself. I decide to go back to the room we were in earlier where the men are lounging. I walk up to the door, start removing my boots and see that Manar is exactly in the same spot where I left him on his laptop and Aiman is sitting in the same spot as well smoking a cigarette… I plop down and try to relax. I am eager to expend my energy in physical activity yet at the same time, I feel utterly exhausted. Ah!!!!! I can hear Nesrin outside with the children singing a song in Arabic. We both brought with us handmade cards for the children and she is giving them out. I’m not up for going outside yet. Twenty minutes later, a young boy runs up to the door saying “Nesrin! Nesrin!” And I respond: “Ok ok I’m coming” without moving an inch. I know that Nesrin is asking for me to go to the food room and begin the bagging process. I start getting up slowly…
I cross the street and walk into the room. They have written on a piece of cardboard how many of each item that will be bagged. I examine the process and realize there is none. So I say: ” Nesrin, hand me all the cans of meat and sardines. Also all the wafer and chocolate bars. Manar and I will prepare those items and place them in the bag once you and Ahmed are done with the sugar, rice, pasta, oil, etc.” By providing this method, the bagging speeds up and nothing is being put into the bags twice. Once I put in the cookies and chocolate bars, I slide the heavy bag to this older man who is the only one sitting on the couch with small pieces of rope to tie the bags up. Two younger boys are at the door waiting to pick up the bags and place them out ready to be put into the truck for distribution. We decide to stop when we run out of bags. I am a bit frustrated and I can’t hide it. “Why did we run out of bags!?” Nesrin repeats my statement in Arabic and we both look at Ziad. He responds and Nesrin translates saying: “he said the man at the store told him there were about 100 bags but it seems he cheated us.” Sigh. I want to ask Ziad why he would only purchase 100 bags as we are attempting to package at least 200 but I decide not to. No point in arguing. Plus I can sense Ziad’s frustration and I don’t want to attribute to it. Fortunately the truck arrives and the young boys begin to load it with the bags that are already done. Nesrin and I take a bathroom break in anticipation of going out and distributing. We discuss giving out the food bags along with some toys depending on seeing any children around. Agreed. We are pumped!!!
We walk out and my heart jumps seeing the bags in the truck. Nesrin quickly jumps into the truck handing her phone for a picture. “Puneh! Come! Picture!” So I get on and we take a quick photo. Nesrin decides to stay in the back of the truck with the two young boys as I jump off to get in the car with Ziad and Ahmed; the car with a trunk full of toys. We start driving and Ziad stops as his brother pulls up saying that they got more bags. “I’ll stay and continue bagging…” And Ziad’s expression says no. I quickly add, “it’s ok, I will stay and I will see you guys soon. Have fun!” And I get out of the car anyway. I walk to the truck and make sure Nesrin feels comfortable with me staying behind to continue bagging. Her reply: “If you want to?” And I say: “I’ll go with you if you want me to but you can do this without me. Plus I will try to finish the bagging by the time you guys get back”. She says ok and they drive off.
I start walking back to the food room and the men in the village who were looking forward to resting in their homes start walking back along with me. The bagging continues and the men seem tired so I try my best to make it easy by doing most of the work. Suddenly, out of nowhere I hear a loud “boom” and the ground rattles. “Allahu Akbar” says the old man sitting on the couch and the woman in the other room screams. I look up from the food I am bagging, out the window that is directly in front of me and realize the bomb was dropped approximately 600 feet away from me. The walls start shaking and the screaming grows. I turn to see Manar with a frozen face and the old man yelling at me to get out of the room. I am trying to stay calm, as I remember that they drop 2 or 3 bombs at a time. I brace myself without moving a step. Manar is now sitting down on the couch. The ground rattles again as another bomb drops now behind me. Manar motions for me to sit down beside him and I do so without delay. He is smoking a cigarette already and looks extremely unsettled. This makes me gravely uncomfortable and my stomach turn as his personality is easy going and fun. My mind is racing with only two questions: is the next bomb going to drop on this house? And is anyone I have spent the past day and a half with injured from the last two bombs? This is really happening. This is happening in the village I am in. This is not miles away, this is not in the distance. This is right here. I try to breath and become conscious of the noises around me: women screaming and children crying. The women and children I know. This can not be happening. The old man is now screaming at me. “Boneh! Yalla! Yalla!” And I get up, weary of what I will see outside.
Manar quickly grabs his brown coat and we walk out to a scene that no movie or video game can possible depict. The people in the village are scattered. All I hear is Arabic, screaming and loud crying. There is black smoke to my left and right. Manar is walking briskly and telling me to hurry up as I follow him to cross the gravel road… As we get closer, two cars speed by with blood on the doors and people screaming inside. I barely see the driver and off they go towards the hospital. Manar has now grabbed my right arm. He is looking to make sure no other cars are coming as he pulls me to the other side. Aiman is yelling at him in Arabic. This is the most soft spoken man ever. He looks distressed. I see Ziad’s wife by the room under the house. Her serene face is now disturbed and her eyes are blood shot red. I turn again as another bomb drops. Two cars are speeding from opposite directions and almost hit. A loud shriek from the tires sliding on the dirt road. The truck has bloody injured people in the back screaming, crying… My eyes can’t process what is going on. I stare in disbelief. I don’t even know where to look anymore. Manar is yelling at me to go into the room. For some reason having a roof over my head seems like a bad idea. I don’t move. Again, Aiman yells at me in Arabic. I don’t understand a word he says but the message is clear. I signal for the men to come in the room with me remembering that they can’t be in the room with the Muslim women. More cars are speeding by to the hospital. More yelling. More blood. More tears. More screaming. The hospital is not prepared from what’s coming, I realize. Only one doctor. How will he assist everyone in a timely manner to ensure saving lives? Sigh. My heart is aching in ways unimaginable.
I make my way to the room and as I hastily remove my boots, I see most of the young children inside with Ziad’s wife and her sister in law who is clutching her newborn baby. Some of the children are crying. Ziad’s wife is sitting near the door with her legs bent to her chest. I can’t communicate with anyone. I see my backpack with all the children’s coloring books inside. I quickly zip it open handing the puzzles to each child in hope it can keep them occupied. They take it from me but it doesn’t phase them. That glow in their eyes I had gotten accustomed to was fading. What do I do?! Children are my speciality. I sit down and interact with them one by one, helping start the puzzle process and speaking in English. Bombs are dropping in their own village, and here I am, a foreigner amongst them. What the heck can I do to change anything? My true moment of despair. Two of the kids start fighting. I try to split them up but have no power. The mom comes in and slaps the youngest boy hard across the face. Sadly the boy seems unaffected. I feel futile and I hate it.
Next thing you know I hear a woman sobbing, by the door, mumbling in Arabic and all the other women begin to cry uncontrollably. Has someone died? A family member? A child? Oh god. The tears are flowing and endless. I don’t know what to do. I have never felt so useless in my entire life. I can’t communicate and yet I still try to offer sympathy. Who I am to relate!?
Another woman comes to the door looking miserable and yelling loud at her kids. She is telling them to come from the looks of it. They get up slowly as tears begin to cloud their vision, gathering their puzzle pieces on the board and follow her out. Minutes later, two of the children return crying gently and handing me the puzzle back. What the…..
Here is a child who doesn’t have any shoes and maybe two outfits total, standing before me, dirty, sad, tears slowly falling from his eyes down his little cheeks and returning the puzzle. Nothing I do matters. It doesn’t help and it does not change anything. These people are in the middle of a ruthless war against a government that has zero remorse. The severity of the situation becomes RAW and real to me in this moment. I feel ignorant and foolish. I sit back down on the floor feeling overwhelmed and interact with Ziad’s beautiful daughter,who hours before came running to the door when I walked in shoving her apple, tightly held in her little hand, into my mouth. How can I protect her? How can I protect all these children? And these women… How do they standby, idle and waiting? Watching their husbands leave the house everyday to go assist other families within this village and surrounding villages and other children uncertain if they will even return back to their own children, their own home.
Nesrin walks up to the door, kneels down flushed in the face. She doesn’t say a word. We exchange the most blank stares. I have no idea what is on her mind. She stiffly mumbles: “I thought something happened to you” and I respond by putting my hand on her knee. A few minutes pass and Ziad peeks in to check in on me then disappears. Ziad’s wife begins speaking to Nesrin in a very low tone while tears begin to roll down her face. Nesrin’s eyes start to fill up with tears as well. Then I hear loud sobbing and another Syrian women from the village is barely standing, with her left hand against the wall with her forehead against it and her right hand on her right knee saying that her sister has just died. Her sister has died. Her sister has died. I think of my sister naturally and I get chills all over. Her sister has died and she was newly married and 9 months pregnant. Nesrin is trying to console her and hold her up but the woman is falling apart. Nesrin is crying with her. How could you not? I contain myself miraculously. Some of the children start crying as well and I sit paralyzed. Devastated. Such cruelty and heartbreak these beloved souls have to experience, tolerate and endure.
I can hear the men in the background yelling to navigate something. I get up, slip on my boots and go see. A huge fork lift is on the dirt road trying to push away the debris that is in the middle of the road. How did that even get there I wonder? Did a bomb hit a building nearby? I can’t even keep track of the bombs anymore. I start counting how many fell in the village but I’m not quite sure. One, two….three…..four?
Boom. Again. This time I can’t see it and though I attempt to look, Ahmed is yelling at me and signaling with his hands to go back inside. What good am I in that room?! I have failed in trying to entertain and play with the children. I can’t possibly console the women without communicating. I look to see Nesrin whispering in the ears of the crying woman. I pass her and go back in the room. She follows me in and instantly I look her straight in the eyes and say, “we have to make a decision and we have to make it right now about our safety”. She says nothing.
“Nesrin, we are all we have. We have to make a decision right now on what to do. We are no good to these people if we die. Who will come later to help again!? Think about your daughter”.
“Ok we have to go”, she replies and starts getting up. We walk out and up to Ziad. I can’t even hear her speaking Arabic with all the noise around me. I just notice Ziad’s concerned expression. He is worried for us. But why us? We are no one. His sole concern should be his wife and children. His family members. His village. It seems he agrees with Nesrin because he is walking to his brothers home where Ahmed, Manar and the other men are. I wish I knew what they were saying or better yet, what is going through their minds. Fear I expect and uncertainty? Who knows.
A few short minutes later, Ziad says something to Nesrin and she turns to me, “He said to grab our things right now” so we make our way to his home and into the room we have slept in the past two nights. Both of our backpacks are packed so we grab them, our chargers and turn to see Ziad’s wife sitting on the stairs in the hallway, looking hopeless and fatigued. Beside her is her sister-in-law with her newborn baby and Ziad’s little daughter, Chahid staring up at me with those beautiful eyes. She doesn’t like strangers, I was told from the beginning. It hasn’t even been 48 hours and she jumps in my arms, greeting me with her food to eat and now I must leave her. I bend down to look at her and tears swell up in my eyes. I don’t want to leave her. I don’t want to leave this home that feels like my own and I don’t want to leave this family. I don’t want to leave this village. My work is not done here. It is too soon. There is still so much to do. I hug her tightly and she is saying something to me in Arabic but I can’t understand. I kiss her over and over again. I stand up knowing if I take any longer, I won’t leave.
Right then, I hear one of the men yelling “yalla, yalla”. Nesrin and I say our goodbyes as we walk out quickly to jump in Ziad’s car which is around behind the house. Ahmed is in the passenger seat already. Aiman, Manar and the other men are standing nearby. My heart is BREAKING. I reach into my pocket to grab some Syrian pounds. My hands are shaking. I call out to both Aiman and Manar. They get closer to my half opened window and I put my hand out with the money as tears fall down onto my cheeks. “Please take it…for all your help…” Neither one of them put their hand out. They only step back, without hesitation, shaking their heads and saying in Arabic “God bless you”. Unreal. These two men chose to stay, risking their lives every single minute of the day in such a wretched environment to make bread at the bakery and help the village. How can they say this to me?! I don’t understand at all. We drive away.
Ziad is driving particularly fast. We stop for him to get gas. I try to pay, both Ziad and Ahmed say no to me with frustrated looks. I refrain from arguing. We drive again fast through another village and pull up to a home where Ziad’s two friends are sitting in a parked car. Ziad is speaking in Arabic and Nesrin translates that he asks if they can drive us to the border. They agree. We get out of the car and Ziad asks if we want to hand out some toys in this neighborhood. Both Nesrin and I say yes. We grab as many as we can each hold and walk to a few homes, handing out toys. We finish and sit to wait for Ziad and Ahmed. This sweet, elderly woman offers us both a chair and some water. She begins to speak to Nesrin in Arabic and I sit back mentally drained. Nesrin starts to translate without me asking. “Her son was ill and went to a hospital, seeking medical assistance. When they found out his named was Sadaam, they tortured and killed him. He died suffering and when they returned his body to her, his face was blue and bloody, his body mutilated. She saw him in the worst condition.” I look at this elder woman in the eyes and can see her pain clearly. She gets up to get a photo of him and while showing us says: “I try so hard everyday to remember him this way but that awful image of his dead body doesn’t leave me”.
We are now getting into another car with Ziad’s two friends. Nesrin and I stand side by side in front of Ziad. I whisper to her “I want to hug him” and she sternly replies saying “no, you can’t.” I respond, “Then translate this to him exactly please: my heart breaks to leave you” and she translates. I look up at Ziad and he has tears in his eyes. I turn and get into the car, sliding to the other window. I am fighting back tears but I can no longer control them. My eyes are swelling up profusely. Then suddenly, the door is opening and I know immediately why. I get out of the car. Ziad and I hug tightly. My heart feels at ease. We let go, I get back in the car and he closes my door. The window is cracked open and he is speaking to the driver, Ayman. He steps back from the car, looking at me. I say, “see you soon” and he smiles.
Our drive begins again…..
Still I feel no relief. We drive for about an hour until Ayman pulls over to get some water and snacks. Both Nesrin and I step out for some air. It is clear we aren’t ready to leave. We try to pay for the snacks and Ayman declines. The drive begins again and we are on an actual cement road. I am surprised so I ask Nesrin to translate. “What road is this?” And Ayman says it is the main road to from the major cities such as Aleppo all the way to Damascus and is protected by the Free Syrian Army. Protected? Hmm, I am confused. It seems that there is a mistaken belief that the Free Syrian Army has liberated areas but that isn’t necessarily true from my personal understanding. “So no recent attacks via bombs have happened on this road?” Nesrin translates and before I get a response, I see a bombed building. Nesrin reiterates to me that it is protected but not from the airplanes. Deep breath. So it is not liberated. The military has the upper hand one hundred percent and again, I am infuriated.
Our drive lasts two hours until we get near the border. Ahmed asks for our Turkish cell phone but I remind him that it has no minutes. He asks Ayman and Ayman says his cell phone battery is dead. Ahmed uses our cell phone battery in Ayman’s phone to contact Mulham and tell him to help us cross the border. We must wait till we get confirmation that our driver is ready to take us to the border AND the other driver on the other side is ready to pick us up. Fifteen minutes later, a taxi driver pulls up and we switch cars heading to the border. Ahmed tells us to wait in the car as he and the driver get out to ensure the other driver is on the other side of the border and it is safe to cross. Ahmed returns and says to Nesrin: “Walk at a steady pace but not slow and keep your head down unless I say otherwise. Yalla.” Backpacks on and we begin our cross. As we start going through the barbed wire, I notice a Free Syrian soldier saying something in harsh Arabic to our driver. I hesitant but remember to keep it cool so I continue following Ahmed though I’m scared. We keep walking up a hill then down again and through the trees. My heart is racing. I am tempted to look up, cautious of military airplanes but I know better. We see the car and jump in. All of us sweating and quiet, backpacks still on our backs. The driver gets in and starts driving at a fast pace. Nesrin whispers saying that the Free Syrian soldier wasn’t going to let us through. Phew, close call. Mulham is calling and I hand my phone to Ahmed. The last driver is on the way.
We get dropped off and wait in a desolate town. We are now in Turkey and yet I am still unsettled. The car pulls up and Mulham gets out. We are all happy to see him. He drives us back to the Watan office as Nesrin explains what happened inside. I sit quiet. My mind is racing. I feel such deep regret and guilt for having left. We pull up to the office and we get out of the car. Everyone starts walking towards the office, but I can’t. I can’t go in. I can’t be in a confined place. I can hardly breath outside, let alone indoors. I put my backpack down then bend down to the gravel road myself. Mulham is standing nearby concerned but silent. Sama is messaging me repeatedly, gravely worried and I tell her we are ok. Without knowing, I begin to cry.
I get up to walk away and the tears are falling like a waterfall. I start sobbing unable to be quiet in my sadness and agony. I cry out loud and I am certain everyone can hear me. I don’t care. I cry and put my arms up above my head in hopes breathing will come easy. I cry for the country and I cry for all its beauty. I cry for the mountains, the hills, the fields and the flowers. I cry for the animals, all the living things that are dying because of this war. I cry for the village that took me in as if I was one of them and I cry for all the people who whole heartedly and selflessly came to work beside me to give direct aid. I cry for every single soul I encountered and met. I cry for their well being and safety. I cry for the women to remain strong and the men to continue with their bravery. I cry for the children, their purity, creativity and imagination never to be affected by the dismantling of their homes and country. I cry for my inability to save all the lives my heart grew to admire and love on this journey.
And mostly, I cry knowing that this is only the start of what I will do for these people. This is my calling, my passion, my drive. I will spend the rest of my life as an advocate for the human race and for all children of the world, NO MATTER the reason of struggle and regardless of the people who don’t believe in me.