Returning Home

“I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, “Mother, what was war?”

– Eve Merriam

It all happened gradually. Frankly, I do not remember the day it all began. I didn’t realize that day was so important that I’d have to remember it. I didn’t know that from that day on, my world would slowly start to break into pieces, pieces that would end up scattered all around the world, leaving me incomplete.

Ever since I was a child, my whole future seemed figured out. It was simple. I was supposed to live in Aleppo and go to school at ICARDA International School of Aleppo. I was supposed to grow up with all the classmates who over the years had made my days at school bearable, sharing crayons and lice, gossiping and hugging away the tears, and learning by heart the sounds of each other’s laughter, almost as if they were lyrics to a song. I would go study in America and then bring my knowledge back home. It never occurred to me for even a second that I’d ever have to leave my home on someone else’s terms.

With time, once the war started, we learned to adapt. We went out less often because it was too risky, and we went to sleep earlier, in the hope that we’d be profoundly asleep when the bombings began. We left home every morning to go to school as usual and in a way it became our salvation: it was our second home, the teachers and students our second family. Walking through the school gates felt like entering a separate world, a world where harm did not exist and kind words were all that escaped a person’s mouth, where differences were set aside, where no one was left behind. That is why, when the number of people showing up every morning started to decrease, we started to feel lost.

There is nothing good about goodbyes.

Nowadays, I am as familiar with the word goodbye as I am with my own name. It started off in January 2012. This I cannot forget. We had just returned from winter break and already two people in my class were missing. As February came, it grew to four people, then six. March came along and then eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, and sixteen. Goodbyes had become a component of our daily lives. They felt routine. With every coming day, one person left. Once a flourishing and luxuriant entity, our school began to lose all its beauty and instead looked empty, abandoned.

Bombs and gunshots were things I had only witnessed in movies, things I didn’t think truly existed, things I sincerely hoped didn’t exist. Nevertheless, no matter how much I yearned for their absence, I couldn’t deny their existence. They went from being a figment of my imagination to being a feature of my daily life. At first, every bomb we would hear would make us jolt. We’d hold on to each other, praying there were no more. Many nights were spent sleepless, and our hearts raced faster and faster after every bomb we heard. But eventually these felt routine, too. Instead of running inside and cuddling under the bed covers, we sat outside trying to keep count. It was as if we were sitting beside the microwave as it popped our popcorn, except that with every pop, a human life was taken or hurt, a building destroyed. I never thought I’d feel like I was in danger in my own home. I never thought I’d hear my first gunshot or my first bomb, let alone get so accustomed to it that when I heard one, I wouldn’t even twitch. However, with time, we realized that all we could really do was patiently wait for it all to come to an end.

School came to an early end that year, and summer break began on April 5th. Students were ecstatic. Five months of summer sounded like a dream come true. Excitement danced in the air as we all exchanged hugs and signed yearbooks. As the buses made their way out the gates one last time, the teachers all stood in a unified line, waving cheerfully, their proud smiles furtively accompanied by tears that they desperately tried to hold back. In that brief moment, we all shared a rare bond. We held on with all our might to hope, because although we were not all willing to admit it, our excitement masked the fact that we were all feeling heavy, carrying around the painful knowledge that we may never see each other again.

We were right. The shocking news made its way to us by the beginning of July like a slithering snake. IISA was not going to open. Panic had taken over; everyone was hysterical. We were devastated. Confusion, anger and tears tainted our faces as we all tried to comprehend this horrifying news. When you are young, there are many trivial things that you get mad at: your mom who won’t let you go out because you have to study, or your teacher who gives you too much homework. Someone is always to blame. Yet this time we didn’t know who to accuse. That day was the day that our invisible bonds came out strong. Teachers, students and parents worried selflessly about each other rather than themselves. We asked together, “What are we going to do?”

What do you do when everything you have worked for, everything you have carefully planned, suddenly seems like it has evaporated? What do you do when the future you had always imagined and strived to make come true vanishes? Our thoughts were too crowded that we couldn’t form any more words. Our vision had been shattered into a million pieces and no matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t put it back together.

People spend their whole lives searching for something to make them feel complete, whole. I was born whole; I was born fortunate. The day I found out that I was not going back home was the day my whole fell apart. From that day on, I thought that I would never feel complete again, and it made no sense to me. What had I ever done to deserve this? How was I going to cope? I woke up to a damp pillow, and I fell asleep holding on to my teddy bear, as if letting my grip slip meant I would lose all I had left, just as quickly as I had lost everything else. I spent days baffled and lost, trapped between walls of frustration and devastation. As the dreadful days crept by, however,  the fogginess of the situation began to clear up; I began to understand. No matter how hard I pinched myself, I would not wake up from this nightmare. Thoughts flooded my brain and at times, I found myself drowning, desperately gasping for air. When was I going to return? When was I going to see my friends and family? When was I going to set foot in my own home again? And yet the thought that haunted me the most was the fact that I was fortunate compared to others. What about the people who did not have a plan B?

Time crept by and summer came to an end. Along with it came more goodbyes, ripping me further apart from friends and family. Parting is always the most difficult part. It feels like being torn into pieces. My family and I got into a plane; unaware of where we might end up, where our final destination might be. We brought with us all the memories we could hold on to, some that would trigger the nostalgia, and others that we wish we could forget. Home had become a foreign word, a distant dream that we longed for and a question mark: When were we going to return?

Aleppo is a city in Syria, a city many people had never heard of before it all began. On account of the media, an abundance of people finally knew where Aleppo was. Yet what people grasped was what the media portrayed. They made our beautiful city look like ruins. They buried a heritage that took more than 5,000 years to build, under rubble. They silenced the crowded streets that used to come to life every day, tinted by hundreds of people. They replaced the sounds of friendly chatter and contagious laughter by those of bombs and gunfire. They tried to put themselves in our shoes and they tried to tell our story, but what they realized was that they couldn’t tell it as well as we can. Unless they are experienced firsthand, the horrifying recollections that reside in my mind could never be envisioned by someone else. We try to put what we feel and what we have felt into words, but our thoughts are a painfully muddled mess. How do you explain something that you can’t even seem to understand yourself?

They made our people look like savages, when in truth the people in Aleppo are some of the kindest people you would have ever had the fortune to meet. We were the kind of people who, when asked for directions, gladly dropped everything, got into our cars, and directed guests safely to their destination. We were the kind of people who, even with just one loaf of bread left, would still decide to share it with stray cats, who smiled at you when you walked by every morning, a ray of sunshine on a rainy day. Aleppo was absolutely exquisite. The lovely people in it were the main reason behind its mysterious beauty. We strived for all of our lives to make our city even more picturesque, spending years building and investing, oblivious to the fact that the years of building could all be destroyed in a matter of seconds.

To this day, the aching in my heart remains. My friends and family are now dispersed around the globe, as miles lay between us and barriers divided us up. But we have never felt closer. We had been intertwined and woven together, our bonds stronger than ever, creating a dazzling quilt of support. Together, we untangled the situation, attempting to make sense of it. We alternated roles, either offering a shoulder to cry on or using the shoulder to cry. In the end, we discovered that it was like everything else, eventually it started to feel normal. We figured out the right words to say to other people, and we adapted.

Sometimes, the best way to think about the worst situations is to perceive them as fate. Maybe bad things happen because it’s the only way we can keep remembering what “good” is supposed to look like. Time has a funny way of showing us what truly matters. Once we each settled in our own corner of the world, we realized that for every little thing that was taken from us, we had gained something else. One of the most difficult realizations we made was that we should never take anything for granted. In the blink of an eye, one’s whole world can be altered, changed into something unrecognizable. I now take a moment every morning to just look around and feel grateful for the simplest things in my life – being surrounded by a loving family, having a group of outstanding friends, and living under a sturdy roof. I now carry around the knowledge that “home” is people, not a place. If I go back there when all of our people are gone, then all I would see is what is not there anymore.
I have learned that memories, although often painful, circulate in the body’s blood. They are reminders of vitality. Although life is sometimes a struggle, we should eternally hold on to remnants of hope. Whenever we began missing someone again, we started to feel privileged because we had the fortune to have such special people in our lives, people worth missing. Finally, we learned that we all have blemishes and we all carry around scars. We are tarnished, tainted and sullied; but under all that dust and dirt, we all have sparkling stars. That the day all of this began was a day worth remembering, a day I should not have taken for granted. It was a day made special by what was going to come after it.

There are 6 comments

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  1. Yovanity

    I, like yourself, previously attended IISA and am now hoping to pursue a career in literature. This truly caught my attention, it’s simply a work of art. Great job, Elza. 👏🏼

  2. Anonymous

    Eliza’s piece is very, very moving and so beautifully written. I know Syrians myself in the UAE and I can vouch for their exceptional qualities, not only, but especially of hospitality, generosity and care for other people. Power is indeed a corrupting force it would seem, and usually in the hands of a few, but leaving 1000s more left devastated; innocent, normal, hood and kind people caught up in the power brokers mindless ‘games’ where the rule of ‘ME first’ reigns supreme, no matter how it is dressed up. In this heart felt young person’s account, we experience the shock and horror, true horror and tremendous sadness coursing this young person’s veins. We also know that in the UAE, she is one of the fortunate ones and that so many more Syrians are now being forced to roam the earth in order simply for their children to wake up every day feeling safe.

  3. Emily Asad

    What a beautifully-written article. I especially love the line about how home is not a place – it’s people. That’s a hard-earned lesson, no matter how it’s learned. Thank you for this exquisite glimpse into a subject that usually gets hidden behind closed mouths and minds that want to forget.

  4. John Colley

    A wonderful description of the tearing emotion when your world is ripped apart. Elsa, this is one of life’s lessons one should never have to experience – most especially in one so young. It is people like you who will make a difference tomorrow.

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