ISKENDERUN, TURKEY- In my arms squirms a smiling three-month-old little girl who has no idea she was conceived in the midst of a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people. She has no idea her mother escaped their home country with her four older siblings a mere month before she was born. She has no idea she is one of the one million refugees (by UNHCR counts) who have escaped the Syrian civil conflict. But one day, probably sooner than desired, she will hear her family’s stories of fear, suffering, and horror.
I sit with a father of five on the concrete floor of his temporary home, next to an unlit coal heater. His eldest daughter who is around my age serves us coffee according to traditional custom, despite my protests that I don’t wish to burden their household. She seats herself next to me, alongside her sisters and their husbands and children—14 in total—and the horrors of civil war begin to unfold.
The patriarch of the family narrates the public rape of his colleague’s daughter and how the same colleague’s son was killed execution-style in the living room. He recounts the gruesome aftermath of massacre of Syrian soldiers by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The severed heads of Syrian soldiers were lined up on one side of a high school gymnasium and bodies on the other, so that families were forced to piece them together for burial. One of the girls around my age pulls up a picture of an emaciated man on her cell phone and launches into a heated mix of Arabic and English, describing her brother-in-law’s 50-day imprisonment in a government jail. He was forced to wear the same t-shirt and pants with no shower the entire time. Maggots had eaten parts of his skin and his beard was snarled and uneven. His eyes were the most striking to me—they looked dead, glazed over, as if he had already seen death and life wasn’t worth it any more.
The patriarch tells me his own family’s story—how they fled their town in the middle of the night, wearing only pajamas and carrying only the most important documents. They made their way to the Turkish border, stopping only to pick up other family members in neighboring towns. Miraculously, they were allowed to cross into Turkey and found distant relatives in the Iskenderun area. For now, they are safe. But they fear for so many others who are not.
We move to a nearby apartment, where two 18-year-old guys have taken to sleeping on the floor. They greet us with smiles and jokingly welcome us into their bachelor pad. Once we start talking about their experiences as soldiers in the Syrian Army, however, all jokes are off. They deserted the army a few months ago, escaping in the night with what little money their fathers were able to send from Damascus. Their mothers and sisters are living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Their brothers and cousins are still fighting in Syria. Neither has seen his family in 17 months.
One of the guys tells me, “I have cousins in the FSA. I have uncles in the Syrian Army. I cannot kill my family. I cannot fight for one side and risk killing the other. For this, I escaped.” This reflection on his choice to desert strikes me as so simple, yet so fundamental in defining such a complex disaster. They put their smiles back on and joke about having to go work an odd job in town to pay for rent this month. We thank them for their time and move on to the last family of the afternoon.
A boisterous woman answers the door with two toddlers peaking out from her skirt. She ushers us into the house, where eight other women are sitting around talking and a few other children are playing with plastic toys. The calm atmosphere becomes charged as each woman describes her individual story of leaving Syria for Turkey. Most of the women were schoolteachers who left for the safety of their own children. Their husbands remain in Syria either working to send them money or fighting on either side of the war. One woman of the women begins to bawl. She is eight months pregnant with two other children under the age of five. Her husband sends money, but it is not enough to feed her children anything but bread and oranges. All of the women nod their heads in solidarity with her tears—their lives are dominated by the stress of keeping their children fed, worrying for the safety of their families still in Syria, and wondering if they will ever be able to return home.
As I begin to say my thanks and goodbyes, one of the young women grabs my arm. She looks me straight in the eye with her ash-colored orbs expressing a striking combination of desperation and resignation. She asks me to tell my country “Do not forget Syria.” I aim to honor her request.
The Syrians are not just “victims of war”, or “refugees”, or “a voiceless mass of sufferers”. They are people with families, ambitions, dreams, and lives that, until recently, were quite similar to those we, in the U.S., lead today. As we mourn this week’s tragedies and chaos within in our own country, I implore you to keep the suffering of those affected by disaster worldwide in your thoughts. As Kofi Annan once said, “We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.”