In the last few years, Syria has been associated solely with violence, terror, displacement, and war. The tragic events and crimes taking place there have become the only images we see of the country.
My first memories of Syria go back to 1994 when I was a seven-year-old Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. The three earliest memories I have from my life all happened during that distinctive year.
My first recollection is the final match of the World Cup. We were living at the Bourj El Barajneh refugee camp, a 1 km2 area (0.4 square miles) that had been, and still is, home to 20,000 Palestinians who live there in horrific conditions since their exile from Palestine in 1948.
On a hot summer night, our neighbors and a few relatives crammed our tiny living room to watch the game. We were split between passionate Brazil fans and diehard supporters of the Italians. Everyone was fixated on the small screen throughout the entire match which ended in a penalty shootout. During the match, I learned that the team Brazil fans were supporting the country so ardently because it welcomed many Palestinian immigrants in the early 1990s, while those pulling for the Italians did so because a group of Italian nurses had helped Palestinian refugees after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. I decided to go for the Italian team because my mother was a surviving victim of that massacre. Through soccer, I learned my first lesson in history and politics: there is always a personal reason in supporting, or decrying, a country. The game ended and Brazil won. I was disappointed, but I still enjoyed the celebrations that followed, and was entertained by my mother teasing our Italian-supporting neighbors.
The second memory is one we all share, whether we are living in a refugee camp or a castle. It was my first kiss. In a conservative refugee camp, kissing is taboo, and back then, even local TV shows did not air any intimate scenes. The first kiss I had seen was my parents, by accident. It was only a glance before I ran away giggling. The second kiss I saw was the beautiful Thalia, a Mexican singer on the Spanish telenovela, Maria Mercedes, which was aired by the local Lebanese television station. Although my grandmother and aunts told us to cover our eyes with our hands when a kiss was on the screen, I snuck a glimpse through my fingers. My first kiss was nothing close to Thalia's, as mine was rushed and secretive. Also, I turned red like a tomato after, which Thalia never did. Through my first kiss, I learned that taboos are relative to the generation enforcing them. I also learned that some taboos are fun to break, a lesson my grandmother would not appreciate.
The third memory was Christmas 1994. My parents promised to take us for the first time on a trip outside of Lebanon. I had always dreamed of traveling, and my dream would come true, but only after a few obstacles and disappointments. I cannot describe my excitement when my mother told us that she would take us to see the Pyramids in Cairo. Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived when our travel visa to Egypt was denied. It was the first time I learned that it is hard for refugees to travel anywhere, especially when the majority of Arab countries explicitly deny access to Palestinian refugees. My mother told me that they were afraid we might settle in their countries, while my father explained that many Arab governments viewed Palestinians as a threat to their security. I never understood how a family like ours would be viewed in any way as a threat.
We were all very disappointed, and in the wonderful way that mothers will, in an effort to save our first vacation, she proposed that we go to Syria, the only Arabic country that welcomed Palestinian refugees without a visa. We would be taking a bus, not a plane, so I was still disappointed; but nevertheless, I convinced my seven-year-old disappointed self to be excited and look forward to the trip. I think this is when I first learned the importance of making an effort to be positive in all circumstances. It is an important lesson that has grown up with me.
On the way to Damascus, my mother was acting like an official Syrian Tour guide. She wanted to lift our spirits after the Egyptian disappointment. She told us that in Syria, Palestinian refugees are treated very well. Unlike the majority of Arab countries, refugees were allowed to work there just like Syrian citizens. They also had access to public health care and education. My father would interrupt every now and then, mentioning great things about the country -- it had no national debt, offered its citizens free education and public services, and encouraged local production and employment. My mother would maneuver the conversation to tell stories about the sites and people we would soon be seeing -- the Ottoman-styled buildings, the mosques and churches, and the old souks.
We had a great vacation, and I could see evidence of everything my parents had lauded. To me, Syrians were happy, had much pride in their country, and treated guests, whether refugees or not, with respect and generosity. The trip did not cost us much at all, as prices in Syria were very low compared to Lebanon, and so it became a vacation we were able to take every other year. My brothers and I made friends there, and would take turns visiting each other.
It was years later, after I had moved to Canada, that the revolution started and claimed many innocent lives, including many of those friends we had made as kids. On Facebook, I saw that the rebels had killed a friend of mine, and later that year my 29-year old cousin had the same fate.
In 2014, I visited Lebanon and the surrounding region, conducting interviews for the last book in my Confessions of a War Child trilogy. I spoke with many refugees, and regardless of their position on the war and the conflict, I could see in their eyes the longing for their peaceful motherland that had once upon a time proudly welcomed people from all over the world. Now, it has become a war zone, a victim to increasingly complex political games few people can understand.
From my personal experience and memories of Syria, I have yet to fathom the conflict nor what ignited it. I have heard many stories and theories; some make sense, others don't. Even the Syrian refugees I interviewed in Lebanon have become lost trying to understand this "revolution of democracy."
Could it be that behind the happy picture of the country was an oppressed nation? I knew of corruption in some government sectors, from a Syrian soap opera, Yawmiyat Mudeer Am, that freely aired for years in the late 1990s. It criticized corruption in a comic way. I did not know that the nation would tackle this corruption with a widening circle of exploitation, violence, and terrorism. As I mentioned in my first novel, Syria has become "like a chess game, played with people instead of pawns."
Trying to remain positive, I will hold fast to my peaceful memories of Syria and dismiss the news headlines and stories, whatever their stand is or what side they're on. Only through this positive approach can I remain hopeful that one day, Syrians will return to their homes and rebuild their country, fixing corruption in a civilized and organized way. Only by clinging steadfastly to a memory of a happy Syria can I believe that one day those who contributed to both sides of the current war will commit to help the victims of the conflict. Syrian refugees are dying in the cold, and the price of a jacket is far less than the price of a weapon.