This essay was originally published on Mar. 14, 2016. Read more in Tablet magazine today about the consequences of the Syrian Civil War here and here.

***

It is said that one true loyal friend is worth a thousand relatives. I had plenty of time to dwell on that saying when, displaced by the Assad regime’s February 2012 invasion of my neighborhood in Homs, I moved to the coastal Syrian town of Tartous. Like millions of other Syrian refugees, I was about to learn who my true friends were. To my surprise, those who offered me the most moral support during my darkest, most despair filled days on the coast wouldn’t be my relations or Arab acquaintances. They would be friends in Calgary, Toronto, and Richmond.

Of course, I hadn’t lacked for friends a little over a year earlier, back in my home town of Homs. In the middle of January 2011, I was busy setting up my own training business and had just moved into my new home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in what was then the most livable city in all of the Levant. Most important, I was engaged and looking forward to getting married in the summer. I felt like I was on top of the world.

Alas, I also had the worst timing in the world. In March, protests against the regime broke out in the southern city of Dar’a, and it didn’t take long for the revolutionary fervor to spread to Homs, which by April was being dubbed the capital of the Syrian revolution.

Capital or not, I was having none of it. In those early days I was neither for the regime nor the opposition. Life was great for me. The last thing I wanted to do was rock the boat and upset my idyllic existence. After years of living in three different countries in the Gulf, I was looking forward to settling down in Syria, and I wanted nothing from the government save for an environment in which I could make my own way. A little over a month into the protests, and I was firmly in the “leave me the heck out of it” camp. That all changed on April 17. While I was spending the evening visiting relations in my ancestral village of Talkalakh, a funeral procession in Homs morphed into a massive demonstration and sit-in of tens of thousands at the landmark New Clock. It was Syria’s Tahrir Square moment.

It was also a situation that was intolerable for the Assad regime. That night, the regime’s shabiha thugs and mukhabarat military intelligence opened fire on the demonstrators, killing dozens. Men and women were chased down in the streets and murdered. Homs had never witnessed such brutality in living memory.

It was no less than a declaration of war against my home city and the event that finally broke me out of my complacency. The next day, I contacted the BBC and started giving interviews to its assorted services. The previously apolitical Aboud, as I came to think of myself, had become, by virtue of the regime’s unrestrained barbarity, an implacable opponent of Bashar Assad and any institution that supported him. Take my story, multiply it by the stories of a million other Syrians, and that is how you end up with a conflict like Syria’s. Not “Western imperialism.” Not “Zionist-Wahabi plots.” Not “jihadist fervor for a new caliphate.” Ordinary people were forced to take sides in a war they neither wanted nor were looking for.

For the next year, I did my best to stay out of the clutches of the mukhabarat while providing news interviews, the BBC being the only outlet I trusted. Many other activists got careless, each imagining they would become media superstars like their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts. By the end of May most of them were languishing in the regime’s jails.

For my part, I never let on to anyone that I was an activist. I reported only what I had seen or overheard from reliable sources. My isolation made me less effective as a source than other, more visible activists, but it also meant I was relatively safer. Only my brothers would have recognized my voice while speaking in English, and if I couldn’t trust my own brothers, then to hell with it, there was no hope for this whole “freedom for Syrians” thing we were all caught up in.

As the months went by, the revolution began to take on an increasingly militaristic and armed aspect, and by the first Ramadan of the revolt two-thirds of Homs was in open rebellion against Bashar Assad. Deep in my neighborhood of Inshaat, with rebels and the army in open confrontation at almost every crossroad, I continued to give interviews, safe in the knowledge that by then, if the mukhabarat had wanted to get at me, they would need an entire regiment to enter my area.

I needn’t have worried. By February 2012, the regime was no longer concerned with individual activists. Soon, they would be coming for the whole city.

***

On Feb. 6, 2012, I first heard a sound I would learn to dread. It is a sound I will fear and loathe for the rest of my life.

A distant boom, so soft you aren’t sure you actually heard it. Then a faint whistle, steadily growing stronger and louder and closer, more ominous with each passing second, until it turns into the sound of an explosion. You pray the next sound and sights you see and hear are shattering glass and dust. Every boom and whistling in the air is the sound of incoming death. Feelings of gratitude for having survived one of these is immediately followed by the guilty knowledge that almost certainly someone else didn’t. This is what it is like to live under an artillery attack. After a week of this, I knew that I had absolutely no stomach for war.

Eventually, a ceasefire allowed residents of my area a chance to vacate our homes. The absence of civilians made the business of fighting and looting a hell of a lot easier for everyone involved. So, on that February morning, I abandoned my home, into which I had poured all the fruits of the years I had spent working in the Gulf. I considered myself lucky that I could still walk out of it.

After a few weeks at my grandparents’ home in my ancestral village of Talkalakh, I decided to move to the one place where I thought the war wouldn’t reach, the coastal city of Tartous, deep in loyalist areas. If the regime had wanted to arrest me, it had had plenty of chances during the dozen occasions when my name was checked on wanted lists at army checkpoints, and so as long as I kept my nose clean, it was as safe a place as any to wait out the war until the regime totally subdued Homs, which I expected it to do within a few months.

A few months. No refugee in history has ever left their home in the belief that they wouldn’t eventually come back. Reality always takes a while to set in. The moment when a refugee realizes that they will never see their home again is a devastating one.

Living in a 10-square kilometer bubble, I soon learned there was another emotion that could take a mental toll as terrible as fear; the feeling of having been abandoned. By the summer of 2012, numerous acquaintances from Homs had upped and left Syria, having been secretly preparing exit visas months in advance. Former friends, eager to put the country and the conflict behind them, even took to cutting off communication on social media. An increasing number of countries started barring entry to Syrians, and it felt like the world’s doors were being slammed shut on us. “The Friends of Syria” would be a term I would grow to bitterly resent.

YouTube screen grab obtained by AFP on March 25, 2011 showing a Syrian protester tearing up a poster showing former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad from a banner upon the entrance of a military officers club in the Syrian city of Homs. (AFP/Getty Images)

Hardships, any hardships, are easier to endure when you know there are people who care for you and what happens to you. It was during this time that I found moral support from a very unlikely source; an African-American friend in Richmond and Jewish friends in Canada, individuals whom I had known before the conflict but whose friendship during these dark times would be the sole source of constant support I would know for the 18 months I ended up spending in Tartous.

If I was depressed, they would send me funny clips on YouTube. If I sulked, they would stay up all hours to lift my spirits. If I complained about the shortages in shops and restaurants (even the shwarma itself having by that time become well-nigh inedible), they would send me pictures of sumptuous feasts. Granted, one can’t eat JPEGs, but it’s the thought that counts. No, really: Just the fact that someone out there cared for my mental state of mind did a great deal to sustain me during my darkest days in a city where my existence was so precarious.

Surrounded by die-hard regime loyalists, and being a native of a city that was the epicenter of the revolt against the regime and all it stood for, I expected every week to be my last. Every unexpected knock on the door filled me with dread. In such a state of mind, it is impossible for a person to think or plan beyond a week at a time. Every week, Tartous would receive even more displaced people from all over the country. Military funerals for the regime’s dead were a weekly occurrence. Out in the streets, women outnumbered men 20 to one. You never knew when your favorite grocery seller or fruit vendor or barber would close shop, having been hauled off for military service. You never knew yourself if and when you yourself would be called up.

It was September 2013 when I made the decision to leave Syria for good. And just like my previous decision to become an activist, the decision to leave Syria was prompted by yet more heights of savagery by an already savage regime. For months we had been hearing of the increasingly horrific tales of the barbaric “Islamic State” and their atrocities in Raqqa. A friend of my brothers’ in the city had had his hand cut off for “theft.” It was at that point that I almost came to a peculiar decision; as bad as the regime of Bashar Assad was, if he won the war it would be a terrible Syria, a dark Syria. But there would still be a Syria, I wouldn’t be stateless. Better to deal with ISIS first and then the regime later was exactly the sort of attitude the regime was hoping to cultivate among Syrians and the world at large, and I was close to buying into it.

And then the son of a bitch went and used Sarin chemical weapons on two Damascus neighborhoods. The night the British parliament voted down a motion to bomb the regime, Assad’s shabiha in Tartous celebrated with gunfire and gloating. Whatever the Kremlin-aligned media outlets said about the chemical weapons attack being a sort of “false flag,” not a single person in Tartous believed that Assad hadn’t gotten away with blatantly rubbing Barack Obama’s nose in his own so called “red lines.” Henceforth, there would be no more “red lines.” Bashar could slaughter at will, and his supporters knew there would be no repercussions from the West.

In such circumstances, it would only be a matter of time before the flow of refugees from Syria into Lebanon became a tsunami. My suitcase had been packed and ready for months, it was just a matter of settling my mobile phone bill and calling a driver I knew to take me to Lebanon, and then a plane to Istanbul. And so I turned from displaced person, to a refugee in every meaning of the word. When I crossed the last border check in Lebanon, I thought I was leaving the war behind me. I never dreamed that the war would follow me to Turkey, or precede me to Europe and North America in the form of ISIS terror attacks.

To be a refugee in the Middle East is a difficult existence at the best of times, but to be a refugee from a country that has turned into the source of seemingly never-ending chaos the world over is to be regarded as a global pariah.

As someone who has lived in both opposition and regime areas and seen the effects of the war on both communities, people often ask me my predictions on how events will unfold in Syria. To which my reply is always; why are you asking me? I’m just a Syrian, and Syrians no longer have the ability to determine the outcome of the war in our own country. It’s all in the hands of the seven or eight regional powers that have gotten themselves involved. The opposition is almost totally reliant on the Saudis and Turks and Qataris, while the regime owes its  existence to the Iranians and Hezbollah and Russians.

Any Syrian from either side who claims their side is “winning” is delusional or an idiot. No one is “winning” when over half the population is displaced or have become refugees. Syrians are a people who now find themselves totally dependent on other countries, whether it is for means to conduct the war in Syria itself or as asylum seekers outside of the country.

Refugees have never had any political clout, as stateless individuals they have no means to advocate and affect political change, which makes them easy targets for opportunistic politicians looking to score political points with no fear of repercussion. So, when European countries start to confiscate material items from Syrian refugees, a Syrian is left with little choice other than to submit to such rules or head off to another country. When countries insist on taking in only refugees from certain religions, there is nothing “unlucky” refugees who don’t meet the criteria can do except to look for another country. And when the issue of refugees becomes a race for presidential candidates in the United States to prove which one can outdo the other in sheer xenophobia, there is scant little refugees can do to change the political rhetoric. Ban the 5-year-old orphan refugee. It’s not like he or she has anyone to advocate or defend them.

And yet somehow, against all the odds and despite the generally hostile environment in which Syrian refugees find themselves the world over, compassion and charity have come from the most unexpected quarters. When I was in Tartous, it was my African-American and Jewish friends abroad who kept my spirits up. Now, Syrians as a people are starting to learn who their true friends are.

It is astonishing, absolutely astonishing, that there have been so many instances of Jewish and Israeli organizations and individuals who have gone out of their way to assist and help Syrians in need. No one could have faulted the Jewish people if they had taken a strictly hands off attitude to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. And yet from the earliest days of the conflict, Israeli medical teams have been offering lifesaving medical assistance to wounded Syrians. Israelis have gone into Jordan to provide aid to Syrian refugees. Tireless IsraAID volunteers are on the ground in the Balkans, ready to receive and assist the massive numbers of refugees fleeing the wars in the Middle East. And despite some understandable ambivalence on the part of many in the Jewish diaspora, many Canadian Jewish congregations have gone through an enormous amount of effort to sponsor Syrian refugees for resettlement.

And while refugees have no means of advocating for themselves, numerous American and British Jewish organizations have taken up their cause, petitioning governments in their respective countries to address refugee issues, and challenging politicians looking to exploit the fears and suspicions that inevitably come with any refugee crisis.

One true friend is worth a thousand relatives. As a Syrian, these past years have taken an enormous personal toll on me. I no longer recognize the person I was back in those optimistic days in early 2011. I no longer expect support or assistance from our “relatives,” those Arab countries who were the first to close their doors to Syrians. I and millions like me were driven from our homes by fellow Syrians and Arabs fighting under the banners of Hezbollah and Iran.

Over the years I have spoken by phone to Syrians in Israeli hospitals and marveled at the world-class cancer treatment and limb-replacement operations given to Syrians unstintingly and a great cost to the Israeli medical system. I have been amazed as one Jewish organization after another in the West has spoken up in defense of Syrian refugees, while countries in the Gulf make excuse after excuse as to why they can’t take in even a few thousand Syrians. Wars and their consequences tend to bring out the worst in individuals and societies, but the Syrian conflict has also been an occasion where extraordinary people have demonstrated acts of astonishing kindness and compassion to refugees who have nothing to give back in return save their gratitude.

One day, the war in Syria will come to an end, as all things come to an end. I know who my own friends were during my darkest hour, and as a Syrian my most earnest hope is that Syrians remember those who stood by us in our most pressing time of need. We may not be able to reciprocate, but at least we can say “thank you.”

***

You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.





PRINT COMMENT