August 6, 2016
My last day at the camp clinic, I was overwhelmed with sadness. Sadness at the situation my fellow human beings are having to endure. Sadness that my time of helping them was over. Sadness at their sense of hopelessness as there is no end in site to the border closures. I tried to be uplifting. I really tried. I saw a 16 year old girl who came in for chief complaint of headache. She was sharp as nail. After I introduced myself, I said “what’s up?”. That’s what I usually say in the States when I see a teenager. Without missing a beat, she said “I live in a refugee camp with every day being the same as the one before, what do you think is going to be up?”. Maybe when I was younger, I might have been offended by that comment. I mean, I was only there to help, right? why give me the attitude? i didn’t cause this problem.
I didn’t feel that way at all. She was right. Every day for them is like the day before. The boredom (on top of the dirt, dust, heat, diseases, disgusting port-a-potties that they have to use as a bathroom, same food every week) is also killing them. Some of the refugees had told me, so-and-so who came with us went back to Syria with his family. WHAT? Actually going through the journey in reverse to an area where it is raining barrel bombs? I can’t even understand that. And many of them said: “well, at least the bomb falls on you and you die with your dignity instead of this humiliation”. I can’t believe how many of them actually said that…but they did.
There are so many more stories I can tell. But I don’t want to keep reliving the trauma myself. So I am going to end with two. These were ones I translated for my friend, the communications major. She interviewed two women who were Kurdish. I can’t remember how many kids the first woman had but she had one young man was killed, one was imprisoned and one fled to Germany. The one in Germany has 4 bullets lodged in him and he has a 4 or 5 year old boy who this lady is taking care off in the refugee camps. Her daughter was married off at a young age but because of the conflict, she has been divorced (we didn’t press her on what that meant. did the son-in-law go join the Free Syrian Army…was the stress of the conflict spilling over into their marital life? it wasn’t really clear).
One of the saddest things this woman said was that she had no information on her arrested son. That was killing her. Many Syrians are in that situation. No information on their arrested loved one. It’s one thing if they are dead, and you just know that with some sense of closure. But it’s totally another thing to keep wondering? Are they being tortured everyday? (If they are alive, chances are they are). Will they ever be released? Will I ever get to hug my son again? ever? Will I ever kiss him? Smell him? Will that ever be a reality? Or is he already dead? Did they bury him or just throw his body away (many stories of that…bodies just being tossed). Of course, they all say the not knowing is way worse than knowing he was tortured to death.
This lady’s eyes were so empty. Her eyelids were perpetually swollen. But despite that. Despite all of that and the difficulties of the journey and the difficulties of the living conditions, we asked her multiple times, is there anything someone could provide for you that would make your daily living here better. “No, I just want this situation to end”. Really? There is nothing somebody could buy for you here that would help you? “No, I just want this situation to be over”. How about a mosquito zapper? She laughed. Where would you plug it into? Good point. I, personally, would have a long laundry list of things I could identify that would make my living situation in the refugee camps more tolerable. Such resilience in the face of such unbelievable adversity.
The last woman we talked to on my last day there really wanted to protect her anonymity. She wouldn’t agree to be recorded, her name used or anything. She spoke for a very very long time about everything she saw. But I will just share one brief story. She said the situation was starting to get bad in Homs. Everyday, they would hear the bombs falling and the bullets flying. She said her and her kids would sometimes hide in the bathroom and that even though the refrigerator would be a few feet away, they would be too scared to come out of the bathroom to get something to eat. Despite being hungry because it would be too dangerous. She said they tried to keep the kids going to school as long as possible but eventually, checkpoints were opened along the kids’ routes to school and the military would search the kids’ backpacks and ask them if they were hiding bombs in their backpacks. Many times the bodies of the dead people who were killed by sniper fire would not or could not be retrieved because people were scared they would be killed themselves if they went out into the street. When the kids started seeing the dead people in the streets, they started to get scared, started having nightmares. And so finally, they were removed from school.
This woman kept telling her husband let’s get out of here (Homs). But he kept telling her, I still have a steady job and we are not involved in the conflict. We not on either side (non-military and not from the “Arab Sunnis who were being targeted by the military”). She said I would fight with him every day about leaving but he was being stubborn so we didn’t leave. One day, she witnessed a raid at the company where her husband worked. She said the paramilitary forces came in and arrested 12 men. They handcuffed them and put them in the trunks of cars. The TRUNKS OF CARS. Everybody knew that the men that were taken away that way were slaughtered. Slaughtered. like sheep. With knives to their necks. I lost it during that translation. I had held it together this whole time….but when I was translating that part, I just couldn’t. I told my friend, Anjali, that I know this sounds unbelievable. LIke that this lady is totally making it up. Or that she is dramatizing or that maybe it’s a bad horror movie she saw and is relaying but the reality is that many people from different areas of Syria have witnessed the same thing. One day (I hope) when these crimes are tried at an International War Crimes Tirbunal, people will collect these corroborated stories.
After this lady talked for about an hour, Anjali tried to clarify something with her. “So was this last part about ISIS?”…She laughed. “ISIS…we haven’t even gotten to when ISIS started terrorizing the population too yet….”
So when you see the images on TV of thousands of people, walking thousands of miles, trying to cross in to your country and you are wondering why this is happening. I just gave you a very small glimpse of it. Very small. I dare anyone who wants to keep the borders closed or is anti-refugees to come to Greece and just spend one day talking to five people. I dare you. Then let’s talk about the refugee problem.
And finally. I know this won’t be popular with many people. And perhaps you may think I am political. Let me assure you, I am completely non-political. I have ZERO interest in leadership and politics. ZERO. And perhaps people like me are the most threatening because I have no vested interest in politics or leadership and so I am just saying things as I see it. The only conflict of interest I have or selfish motivation I have in saying this is that I want this world to be a safer place for my children.
So many of these kids have faced disappointment after disappointment. The world really has abandoned them. No one should grow up with this much trauma, torture and abandonment. No kid should watch his mom slaughtered, his sister raped and his dad arrested. So when somebody or an entity promises a vulnerable kid in this situation to be there for them and “have their back”, it is no shock that a disillusioned group of kids will flock to and pledge allegiance to them. I am sure you know where I am going here.
I know the conflict in Syria should seem like it is none of our business (by our, i mean, citizens of America or Britain, France, Switzerland, etc etc). But in reality, as you can see, the conflict in Syria is an issue of national and international security. Let’s not continue to put our heads in the sand and victimize ourselves by saying “why do they hate us?”. These kids who have the potential to be the prime fodder for ISIS don’t “hate us”. They are a product of this current situation that I have just spent the last 5 days highlighting for you.