My latest trip to Syria last month was different from all the other trips I have previously made to my country. The previous trips when I visited the refugee camps were joyful, optimistic and hopeful. The refugees continuously reassured me that they had a commitment to building a new and better Syria. This most recent visit was different.
When I arrived there to work with a group of women all of whom had lost their husbands in the fighting, I felt the darkness everywhere. The towns along the route to the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Sarmada were decimated. There were checkpoints along the route where armed men and children stood menacingly. Nobody smiled or even made eye contact. It was easy to feel afraid but, luckily, our car was not stopped at checkpoints because we were a group of veiled women driven by an older man well-known to the guards.
Though I did not find the camps joyful, when I entered the IDP camp, I was received with overwhelming excitement by the children who ran toward me to welcome and hug me. It had been a while since anyone had come to visit them because of the checkpoints and the barrel bombs thrown by the regime on the roads leading to the camp. So my visit meant even more to them. It was so painful to see these children of Syria isolated by war. Children are suffering through the folly of men.
I met the women that I came to visit in a mosque. They were all gathered in the mosque. I was determined to join these women, stand by their side, and offer them my support despite being surrounded by war, the sadistic Assad, and the rabid ISIS.
The women expressed a longing to return to their homes in the villages. They wanted to go back, plant trees again, and smell their homemade bread. Throughout the five hours I spent with them, they talked about this dream, their hopes and their very real fears. Every one of them was worried about their children and the future they would face. All the women had lost their husbands in battle and expressed their overriding fear that their children would soon be killed, kidnapped, or even recruited by foreign extremist groups. They were against the war and refused to support it. All they asked for was a normal life for their children.
These women are realistic. They recognize that the presence of ISIS in Syria is a grave danger. At the same time, they also know that the barrel bombs dropped by Assad regime present another daily deadly threat. These women are united in hope for a ceasefire, to stop the killings caused by ISIS, the Assad regime, and other factions who support the bloodshed for one reason or another.
One of the women told me that, even though I wore the most conservative veil, it was easy for them to figure out that I am not Muslim (they were right; I am a Christian since birth). Despite that, every single woman expressed appreciation that I came all the way to support her. They did not care about my religion, all what mattered to them was my vision for Syria, which we all shared: a united Syria, free of sectarianism where our only focus would be a brighter future for our children. Despite the media's portrayal of the sectarian fighting in Syria, sitting in that mosque, I was able to feel a religious unity in the middle of an ugly war
On my way back to Turkey, I received a message from an Alawite school friend, someone whom I have known for a longtime. She wrote: "How many more children are we going to watch die in order for the Assad family to stay in power? Can you help me get my children out of Syria? I see our youth carrying arms to defend us while Assad's children and the rest of the privileged Alawites are being smuggled abroad." I cried silently, and looked around one last time at the destruction, while passing yet another armed teenager.
It is clear that it is the poor -- and only the poor on both sides -- who are suffering and paying the price of our Syrian catastrophe.
A few days ago, I was on Skype with a dear friend who accompanied me to Syria on one of my trips. She said: "The western air strikes hit the area where we visited last month. Are you close to the Americans there? Can you ask them if they have a plan? Why are they striking areas where there are no ISIS fighters? They are destroying the grain mills of the Syrian people, the Syrian regime is hitting us during the day and the western strikes [are hitting us] at night -- it almost feels like they are coordinating together." The nature of death is unknown yet the Syrians, trapped in the vortex of Assad barrel bombs, ISIS brutality and the indiscriminate airstrikes of the West, know that one of these will kill them.
Then I remembered what the Syrian women told me during my hot August visit to Syria, as I held their hands in the mosque: "We pray that once again we will smell our homemade bread. To live with dignity in the villages with our children -- in a world without arms."