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There’s More Than One Way to Lose a Life

Rahaf Harfoush is a Syrian-Canadian digital strategist with a deep passion for exploring how technology affects the way we work, play, and communicate. She is based in Paris and currently working on her second book, entitled ArchiTechs: How to Work, Govern & Learn in a Hyper-Connected World.

Written by Rahaf Harfoush Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

As I follow the Syrian crisis, I find myself thinking of Sliding Doors, the 1998 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. It shows the two parallel lives the main character might lead, depending on whether or not she catches a train. It’s one decision, one small insignificant moment, that ends up completely changing nearly every aspect of her life: her job, her partner, and even hairstyle.

For me, my own Sliding Doors moment was far more pronounced. In 1989, my parents decided to leave Syria for Canada, forever changing the future that would have taken place had I stayed. A multicultural and tolerant society, first-rate healthcare and social services, a world-class education—these were only some of the many advantages I had. I have no doubt in my heart that their decision to leave Syria saved my life.

But my mind always wanders back to that decision point, as I try to imagine what it would have been like had we stayed. It could have so easily been me protesting in the street, getting arrested by the police, living under a brutal regime. It could have been my family torn apart by death and violence, forced to flee, forced to become refugees.

The “what might have been” has become heartbreakingly clear in the struggles facing my family members who stayed behind and have had to weather this conflict.  While the loss of life has been devastating—a grievous blemish on humanity’s already questionable track record—I’ve learned that there is more than one way to lose a life.

I look at my cousin whose apartment was ransacked a few weeks ago, stripped of anything valuable by desperate people trying to survive. My cousin moved his young wife and daughter to my aunt’s house. He’s closed his business and they are all living on their savings. My aunt has trouble sleeping, suffers from bouts of depression, and consoles herself by imagining a resolution to this conflict that will lead to a state of normalcy. I don’t have the heart to tell her that the normal she has known is as dead as the 40,000 people who have lost their lives in the past 20 months.

My grandfather refuses to leave Damascus, the city he’s lived in his entire life. He knows if he leaves he’ll lose his house. He has decided to tie his fate to that of his fellow countrymen. “If I die here, so be it,” he often says in the face of my pleading. As the conflict intensifies, I struggle with the helplessness of knowing it’s getting harder and harder to leave anyway—airports are closed and the roads to Beirut are dangerous. I’m not sure he could leave, even if he wanted to.

A family friend spent his entire life savings buying an apartment before the crisis started. Last month, the entire apartment building sustain heavy fire. Now the building is too unstable for him to live in. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

I think of the Syrian children, some whom have been out of school for over two years. They face an uphill battle trying to catch up. I think of new college grads, once bright-eyed with possibilities, who now watch their cities being completely destroyed. What’s going to happen to them? What’s going to happen to the 2.4 million displaced refugees, who were forced to leave everything behind and flee to safer territories?

The cost of this conflict will be felt, long after the regime falls. The economic instability, the increased sectarian fighting, the psychological trauma suffered by those who have witnessed horrors—these are the scars that the Syrian people will have to bear as they try to move forward, while their country and the life they’ve known fall apart around them.

As we’ve seen on Syria Deeply, the Syrian crisis is complex and governed by the agendas of a number of parties who have heavy interests  in the country’s future. Russia, China, the U.S., Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, the coalition, the opposition, the rebels, the Muslim Brotherhood are just some of the people who stand to gain or lose on Syria’s future.

Caught in the middle are the millions of civilians who just want to live a quiet and peaceful life.  I grieve for each of them. I grieve for their despair and their struggles, and most of all, for the lost potential, all of the parallel universes in which they are prosperous, happy, and safe.

I was lucky enough to have caught my train, a mix of coincidence and circumstance that carried me far away from this conflict. I can’t help but think of those who weren’t as fortunate, the ones who were left behind.


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