[Deepest apologies for the delay. For reasons unknown, I am having writers block. I can not seem to describe nor express meticulously my last trip in Syria. I feel that my words are not drawing the precise experience I had including the immense emotion I felt. It is for this reason that I have posted more photos in hopes that these framed moments can speak for the words I am lacking. Also, I highly recommend re-reading the blog: Reunite, Familiarize and Provide before starting this one!]
DAY THREE – Progress and Play
We wake early to go to the hospital. The medical supplies have been purchased and I want to review all the items to confirm the important medication was purchased and the expiration date is at least 2 or 3 years from now. This takes me awhile to do as there are many boxes to open and check. Once this is accomplished and I photograph all the supplies, we leave to purchase the food items we need in order to create our food bags. We drive around for hours; stopping at two different places and don’t make a single purchase. I ask Ziad why and he explains the price of the rice and a few other items have doubled. Uh oh.
An interesting fact is that the exchange rate is extremely different today from yesterday. It is now 190 Syrian pounds per US dollar.
This is a perfect example of the civil war and its DAILY impact on the people. Zero consistency means no stability which equates to a very low survival rate.
Ziad said his good friend, Khaled can get us the food items at a fair price so we go to his home. On our way, we stop by the location where Tala, an activist has begun a program/project to work with children at a variety of schools/refugee camps . I get out of the car and introduce myself to her. I explain that I’ve brought with me coloring books and colored pencils for the children to play with and keep. She is grateful and asks me to return either the next day or the day after that.
I am SO excited to meet more children! Not to mention, it was a huge relief to speak English normally. The seldom times I do speak English, I speak extremely slow and must use incorrect grammar for Ziad and Ahmed to understand me. To make it even more difficult, I am confined to certain words due to the fact that their English vocabulary is limited. And even when I do speak slowly and incorrectly, they have trouble understanding me. This is what happens where there is a huge language barrier! Just imagine how much is lost in translation. EVERYTHING!!! (This, of course, makes me miss Nesrin so much! Inshallah we will return together again soon….)
We arrive at Khaled’s home and sit outside on a big carpet to discuss the purchase of all needed food items. A woman and two young girls run out bringing pillows to us and asking if we want coffee or tea. The hospitality in this country is remarkable and endless! Ziad does the majority of the work as he can speak Arabic proficiently and he knows the town and all the people. I am incredibly grateful for Ziad and all the other men (Manar, Ayman, Ahmed, Hamdo, Nidal, Mohammad, etc, etc etc) that have dedicated their time to my mission. It is extremely inspiring to see the amount of effort and time given by so many people in the village I am staying at in support of my humanitarian efforts for Syria. Mashallah! This proves that a single person CAN without a doubt unite people. Even if the person is not the same race or religion.
I am a real, breathing example of this.
The view from Khaled’s backyard is breathtaking…. look below
I feel so much peace when in Syria. Maybe it is the beauty of the country, the endless hills and mountains that surround the gravel roads? Or the horses, sheep and other animals that freely wander around? Or the kind, welcoming people who invite me into their homes making me feel as comfortable as I would be in my own home? Maybe it is the joy in the eyes of the children when they are with me within my own village or the smiles on the faces of the men I interact with who curiously ask why I am here providing this aid. Maybe it is the resilience in the demeanor of the men AND the women as they courageously wake day-to-day and continue living as their country burns into pieces. Sigh. I don’t know.
The irony is amidst the peace I also feel so much frustration and anger at the same time. Every time I hear a bomb and/or rocket, I am reminded of the war and the reason I am here. I am reminded of the brutal truth of such a wretched circumstance. I am reminded of the thousands and thousands of innocent human beings that have died ruthlessly. This is our world today. We as complete strangers, without giving the opportunity to know someone automatically find reason for jealousy and hate.
Why is this?
Believe it or not, I actually met a Syrian woman while in Syria who upon hearing of my humanitarian efforts for Syria and the people of Syria actually asked me “why Syria?”.
It is a moment like this where I am dumbfounded by this world and deeply concerned of the human beings in it. Why would she question my help to her country versus applaud it? Why would she feel threatened by me when we are in support of the same struggle? I do not know.
(By the way – there is no way of knowing if what I hear is a bomb, rocket, missile, etc. I only know if I ask someone and the only reason they even know is because they have lived the war 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for over 2 years. Either way, they all sound awful in their own particular way; a loud bang is a loud bang and the outcome being casualties of human life is tragic all the same).
Ziad and Khaled have finished their conversation. Ziad gave Khaled the list of items and the money to purchase everything we need to hand make food bags. In the meantime, they have brought out tea AND coffee. Of course, just one option isn’t sufficient and of course we drink as it is rude to say no. Two women have come out to sit with me, staring at me and intrigued. The children do the same except their shyness hinders them from getting as close as the women. The women ask the basic questions: where are you from? Are you Muslim? (They ask this because I am wearing a hijab (head scarf) out of respect). When they hear that I am an American and not Muslim, their intrigue grows immensely. They are surprised and impressed by me. A non Syrian and non-Muslim woman is in Syria to help people she does not know! This is not common for people to come across which saddens me SO much. It should be COMMON! In fact, it should be an every single day requirement. If you are reading this now, then you should get up and help someone who has no racial or religious similarity to you… A stranger that will do nothing for you in return. HURRY!!! YALLA! GET UP! RIGHT NOW! GO!
When we arrive back to my village, I decide to take any energy I have left and play with the children. How can I not? As we pull up, they are running towards the car screaming “Boneh! Boneh!” And speaking to me in Arabic. As usual I don’t understand a word but I don’t care anymore. I grab some chalk and run towards the vacant building (while they run after me) where we played the day before. The children take the chalk from me and rewrite the English words from the day before. Then excitedly say the word out loud with the biggest smiles on their faces. Most of them remember how to pronounce the words from the day before and I am elated!!! There are no words to express what I feel in this moment.
Woke up and needed to go for a morning walk alone. One of the young boys saw me and joined me. We didn’t go far and instead sat under a tree where I could remove my hijab (head scarf). It felt incredible to have the wind flow through my hair and my neck feel cool instead of covered. I played some music from my iPhone and sang while the young boy sat beside me and giggled while watching me. As usual, I wish so much to communicate with the children. There is a world of information to gain in such conversations. To know their thoughts of the war, to know their struggles and fears, to know how it is they interpret what they have seen, if only.
I returned to Ziad’s home and was told that some of the food was delivered. Manar, Ahmed, one of Ziad’s older brother and son began bagging the food in another house. Instead of joining them, I went with Ziad and Hamdo to check on the milk and the rest of the food items.
After confirming the rest of the milk would arrive either today or tomorrow, we went to visit Hamdo’s family. He has two sisters and there were two teenage girls and four teenage boys that came into the room. I wrote for them some English words/phrases, numbers and colors. I had Ziad help me write the word in Arabic as a study guide. I taught them how to pronounce each word and asked them to rewrite it in order to remember. One of the teenage girls was beautiful and very smart. Her eagerness to learn was intoxicating. Towards the end of our stay, she kept asking me to stay with her longer or if she could come with me to America. My heart ached. She reminded me of myself when I was her age. The thirst for knowledge and the courage to go far in life was glowing out of her eyes. She sat close to me, interlocked her arm with mine and kissed me many times. So sweet and fragile! Sadly, this young, brilliant young lady does not have the opportunities I had at her age. She lives in a third world country that is in the middle of a horrific civil war. Most likely, she will marry young, have children and take care of her family and remain in the house. This will be her life. Does she have the thirst for more? Of course. Will she have the choice to seek it? Most likely not.
The other teenage girl was quiet and very shy. I found out she is ill with a form of blood cancer and dying soon but she does not know! Her parents have not told her and don’t plan to. This shattered my heart into a million pieces. I can understand their need in protecting her from the pain of knowing death is close but they are also robbing her of the limited time she has here on earth. The limited time that she can very much take advantage of in some way! It is in fact her life, though it is being cut short. She should know the circumstance to decide if she wants to live differently while she is alive. Right??! Think about it. Think about what you would want if your life was ending soon…. Would you want to know as soon as you can so that you can live your life differently? Fully? Experiencing whatever it is you want with whatever time you have left? Or would you prefer to go and die when you die without knowing and no warning?
We then stopped at Khaled’s shop where Nesrin and I purchased the cookies for the food bags on our previous visit. I remembered immediately and Ziad was impressed.
Then Ziad asked me if I would want to go visit Hasan in his home. He reminds me this is the last place I visited before Nesrin, Ahmed and I urgently left the country after the bombs had dropped near me.
Of course, I remember immediately.
This dreadful day will always remain fresh in my mind.
It seems that house visits is a common and frequent event here. I suppose there isn’t much else to do anyway and without the use of technology, this is the means to stay in touch with one another. It is actually much more personal than phone calls and text messages. This is what we call in America “quality time”. This is what we are lacking and without a doubt need more of.
Another interesting fact is the family relationships and proximity of living is entirely different from the states. Prior to the war, family members mostly all lived in the same village, coming and going from one another homes by walking a few minutes. And this is how they prefer their lifestyles to be. Ziad’s mother can walk to his home in a less than one minute from her own home and when I asked him a few days ago if he liked her coming to his house every day, he replied without hesitation:
“I would love for my mother to live with me and be with me always”.
Wow!!! Beautiful! This reminds me of my father who has told me countless times that he dreams of having a big home for all his children and grandchildren to live in…
Woke up to loud banging on the door at 7am and yelling “Abo Majeed! Abo Majeed!” I turn over in frustration and try to go back to sleep. Again, maybe an hour or so later, loud banging and “Abo Majeed!” in a different tone. Going to sleep at 4am isn’t conducive when the home I am staying at is frequented by all the people in a 50 mile radius. Ziad is popular to say the least. On a daily basis he meets with a variety of people such as the poor in need of milk, food, etc or commanders in the Free Syrian Army that need to discuss with him the current status of the war. If only I could understand what is being said. SO much is lost in translation. Actually, let me be forthright and say that there is really no translation at all. For a woman of detail and immense communication, this is a huge struggle. Every day I have to remind myself to be patient and breath. Not to mention, I have annoyed Ahmed a lot by asking, “translate, translate!” or pleading “speak English!”. The upside to my constant nagging is his English has improved a lot 🙂
If I am not woken up by visitors knocking or calling out, then I have Ziad’s children running into the room riding this little bicycle and/or fighting with one another. They will come near me and grab anything that I have beside me like my notebook or eye glasses and run off… little rascals! It’s a good thing I love these kids.
Did I mention how beautiful they are?
Here, see for yourself:
The day begins by preparing the food bags… It is time for me to do some serious work and get most of it done. First step is to establish a method of organization in the room and assign tasks for each person so that the work is done quickly and efficiently. I like to work fast and prefer to continue working until the work is completely done. This was an issue the last time because we ran out of the thick, clear bags we used for all the food items which ironically happened again… This time, I laughed about it. I was entirely fine with it since I was sweating profusely from the heat. At this point in the day, I have already removed my hijab making it clear to the men that I don’t care! I would rather be cool instead of having heat stroke. Good thing everyone in the room knows me personally (most are members of Ziad’s family aka close friends of mine) so no one has a problem with my dire need to not work with my head covered.
We have agreed that we will put in each food bag:
3 bags of sugar* (1 kilogram)
3 bags of rice* (1 kilogram)
1 bag of tea* (.25 kilogram)
4 bags of noodles
1 bottle of oil
1 large can of butter
*Each bag of sugar, rice and tea are purchased in large quantities so we must weigh and bag them separately so you can imagine the time it takes to create food bags and how much work! Again, I am SO BLESSED to have all the people in the village come together to help me!
Once we finish bagging 200, we load three cars with approximately 90 or so bags in each and start the distribution. Ziad and I have made a handwritten list of 15+ villages that are in the surrounding area who are in need of help. Some of the families are all living in one room, most without electricity or showers. Some women (families) are without a husband, father, brother or son to help in providing financial means which creates a huge burden in purchasing food and other necessities.
When we arrived to the first village, I was surprised to see the vast difference having only driven 15-20 minutes. Ziad explains that recently they have chosen one man as a “manager” within each village to keep track of all the families within that particular village. The managers’ responsibility is to stay informed of the needs and current circumstances of all remaining people within his village. This allows food distribution to be done safely and without attracting attention. Unfortunately, the fear of bombs, rockets, etc has increased. The long-standing war has confined their lives and even though they have adopted several methods of survival, there is still a huge gap between their lives before the war and DURING. Many young males who were extremely motivated and interested in attaining college degrees (some of which were currently enrolled in school) are now forced and/or personally feel obligated to join the Free Syrian Army in hope to make a difference and SAVE their country. MANY of which have died or will die in combat.
The distribution of food bags begins and Ziad asks for my iPhone to photograph each woman receiving a food bag. I don’t feel comfortable taking the photos myself so he takes my iPhone and kindly takes the photos. Ziad knows the importance of keeping track of everything I am doing because the individuals who have donated their money to my humanitarian efforts will be able to see and know where their money is going. Immediately after he takes a photo of the first woman to take a food bag, I ask him to stop. He looks utterly confused. I whisper to Mohammad that I can not bear seeing the look on her face of humiliation. That is not my purpose. That is not the message I want to give to these people. Ziad argues that it’s not a problem and they don’t mind. I tell him, it is a problem for me and I mind. He hands me back my phone and I put it in my pocket. The distribution continues and I carefully watch these women taking bags of food from the truck. I wonder who in their families have died in result of the war? And the suffering they have experienced because of it. I wonder if they sleep on dirt or cement floors? Do they have running water? And all the other countless necessities they are lacking to live comfortably.
Minutes after my phone has been put away, I notice the difference in the women surrounding me. They are staring and beginning to smile. They are whispering to one another so I ask Mohammad to please ask them in Arabic if they have any questions they want to ask me. Three women start speaking at once and Mohammed translates:
“Thank you for coming here to help us again.”
“Please come into my home for some tea.”
“May God protect you.”
I smile at them and while placing my hand on my chest say, “No need to thank me, please.” Then I quietly ask Mohammad why don’t they don’t ask who I am and what I am doing here. Ziad interrupts us to say, “Everyone knows you. They have all heard of you. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t you and they have asked me many times to take you to their homes”.
I am speechless and have chills all over my body. I don’t know how to respond to this. All I can think is I don’t deserve this. I am only doing a little to help and yet still I feel I am doing nothing. I stand up, as the men have said it is time to go before more people come and the crowd becomes noticeable from afar. The women all come towards me and instead of putting my hand out to them (as I’m sure they are accustomed to seeing), I kiss them all one by one as the men eagerly stand by waiting and telling me to hurry up. I look them each in the eye and smile while embracing them tightly and tenderly. Words can not express what I feel in this moment. To say that I am BEYOND blessed to be exactly where I am does not describe the emotion I feel whatsoever nor can it describe the emotion that is shared when I embrace each one of them. As we drive to the next village, I realize that the humanitarian aid I am providing inside of Syria is just one part of what I am offering. It is my presence, my being here in the midst of a violent civil war and willingly standing beside them that is the true gift.
“Good work is giving to the poor and the helpless, but divine work is showing them their worth by walking beside them during their struggle” – written by me minutes after we drove away.