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Syria: Always Home for Refugees, Now Creating Them

Written by Reem Alsalem Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

I did not know Syria before the conflict started in 2011. I had been to it once in 2008, accompanying my boss on a two-day mission. Nevertheless, it had gone by so quickly that I now have an extremely foggy recollection of that trip. It’s such a vague memory, I would not be able to even tell you what we did during those two days. I had always said that I wanted to come back and visit Syria properly, but just as quickly as that idea had come to me, I would dismiss it under the excuse that it was so close – “just a hop away,” as we would say in Arabic.

It never happened. Not until a month ago, when I would finally go to Syria to and visit Homs, Tartus and Damascus. Reflecting back on that visit, I was not sure what was worse: not to have seen Syria in times of peace, or to have known it only to realize how much it has been affected by the conflict.

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It was not long before I started to realize that Syria’s humanitarian crisis was going to affect me in a way that was different from all other crises I had witnessed. I increasingly found it more difficult to fight my own tears while sitting listening to an elderly refugee woman recounting her story, or watching a man burst into tears because he finds it difficult to admit that he cannot care for his family. “Pull yourself together,” I would scold myself. “You are being ridiculous.”

In addition to the anger I was feeling at myself, I was alarmed at how emotional I was getting every time. After all, this was not the first time I had spoken to or dealt with refugees. I have been working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for 14 years now. Though I have been deeply moved by the stories of many refugees and internally displaced people I have encountered, I have always been able to keep it together, focusing my attention on how I could help. Over the years, my coping mechanism to deal with the countless tragedies and stories of suffering that I have confronted, witnessed and listened to has been to focus on the objective and don’t let sentimentality get in the way. It worked, until now.

Now after several months in the region, the Syrian refugee crisis has psychologically and emotionally drained me.

<div> <p> It started the first time I saw Syrian refugees lining up at the Tripoli registration site in Lebanon. It was as if an arrow had been shot through my chest. Only then did it really hit me that Syrians had indeed become refugees. Almost immediately the faces of one family were substituted by the faces of my own family: there I could see them standing, my brother, my three sisters, my mother, even my one-year-old niece. </p> </div>

<div> <p> You see, in terms of culture, lifestyle and background, Syrians are probably the closest to us Palestinians/Jordanians. So if the unthinkable had happened, and Syrians were now refugees, was it soon our turn? Who’s next? </p>

<p> Many of us dismiss images and stories of forced displacements as something so far removed from one’s reality, until you come across that one refugee or person that makes you realize that he or she is actually not that different from you, and that it was perhaps more an issue of luck that you are not them. Over the years I met many refugees with whom I shared something in common. This, however, was the first time where I was now face-to-face with people who were so similar to me and my family that I could easily have been in their shoes. </p> </div>

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of it all is to see how shocked Syrians themselves are. I have spoken to so many people, who have said: “We never thought this would ever happen to us.” Even those who were poor, such as the Bedouins or even some of the less fortunate farmers would tell me kennah mastoorin (“We were making ends meet.”). Trauma has become an inescapable part of their lives. They are traumatized because of the shelling they have endured, seeing the homes and businesses they had invested in for decades turn into ashes, seeing a family member ripped to pieces, running out the door with the kids on their backs, finding themselves in a new country with no money and no work, realizing they aren’t able to provide for their children, and realizing that for the first time they have to ask for help.

In my recollection Syria was like a bristlecone pine tree, rooted firmly in the ground. It was so solid that for decades it has been home to successive waves of refugees: Armenians, Circassians, Greeks, Turkmen, Palestinians, Iraqis, Somalis, Sudanese, Afghans. For me it was a given that it would always be that way. So to see it turn into the most dangerous crisis we see today, threatening to engulf the whole region in only two years, was unexpected.

The Syrian crisis also shattered another historical tenet that defined my pride as an Arab. Back in our old school days, we were always taught that the Arab world had three important pillars: Iraq, Syria, Egypt. Forming part of the Fertile Crescent, these countries were the cradle of civilization. Syria in particular occupied a central part of every dynasty that set foot on it, be it Roman, Greek or Ottoman. Even in modern times, it was Syria that gave birth to Pan-Arab and anti-colonialist movements, and it was the place where they flourished.

<div> <p> So for me as an Arab, watching the second of these pillars descend into anarchy and chaos (Syria following Iraq), with the third riddled with unrest (Egypt), it has disturbed me and made me quite worried about the future of this region, and the fate of its generations. </p>

<p> Each day, I find myself wondering where this region is heading and what will become of it, and of all of us. It’s a very lonely reflection, as I realize that very few people around me, even my fellow Arabs, have registered the scale of the catastrophe and the potential disaster that is looming if a solution to this crisis is not found. It is quite tragic, since many have not even managed to see the humanitarian consequences as they look at it through a political lens. So rather than seeing refugees who are more than 70 percent women and children, they see only armed groups, battlefields, front lines and  powers fighting for control. If they only knew that all these families were once in their shoes, eating the same food, sitting on their benches, would that change anything about how they see this crisis? </p>

<p> <em>These are Alsalem’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.</em> </p> </div>

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