Waking up in that hopeless black hole, in the black of night, I immediately land, unwanted, in the world of refugees. I feel their endless march through barren lands into barren unwelcome. Turned away, shunned, hungry, exhausted, cold. A child's face pressed against her mother's breast never wanting to look out. A father's desperate search for his son among the rubble of his home. The unknown next minute. The terror. The hopelessness.
Alright, I say to myself in the middle of the night, I will finally write about these people. These people I know, lived with and loved. In a country without pretense. These people with kindness and open hearts. These beautiful, innocent people trying to make a life. Trying to live where there is no place left for them to live.
Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Bosra, Palmyra. I was blessed to move in these ancient places unharmed, guided by strangers, welcomed by all but the government. My boyfriend at the time and I were instructed to tell everyone we were from Canada and not America. America was hated by the older Assad. Teenagers with machine guns stood at every corner. Even driving past the president's mansion, we were told to speak only in whispers.
But the people. In Aleppo, riding a crowded bus, a woman stands to give me her seat. Another woman hands me her baby to kiss. A man invites us to come with him to his home in town for a meal. We gladly follow. His wife welcomes us in without hesitation or question. For the next five days we live with this family. The five little children patiently and gleefully try to teach us Arabic. The woman cooks us delicious meals, refusing any help. There are two rooms, besides the kitchen and tiny bathroom. They insist we sleep on the couch in the living room while the seven crowd into the next room, sleeping on a single mattress on the floor. I call the youngest Michael Jack-Sun because her hair is all bushed up like Michael's. They all love Michael Jackson. The five-year old girl goes out every morning at six to the baker to bring back hot bread. We all eat with our fingers, sharing one big plate. We are family.
Damascus. A university student drives us around in his beat-up Renault, telling us the history of his country, stories of his life. Takes us to the old souk where everyone offers us a glass of sweet Ã§ay, a smile, some small gift of spice, kohl, fruit, a piece of fabric. The student takes us to his home where we eat with his four generations, talking in sign language, broken English and us in our infantile Arabic. Laughing. Hugging. A young woman takes me into her bedroom and dances for me. Shows me her prayer rug. Shows me how she prays. Confides in me about her new mother-in-law.
We are all alike.
Homs. A man's car has broken down on a steep hill. My boyfriend and I help to push the car to a friend's house who will fix it. Afterwards, the man insists we come with him to his home. We follow, again welcomed without question by the wife. They too have many children, all bustling about and eager to show us their toys; makeshift pieces of wood for a train, an old doll with one arm -- precious things. I help the woman cook in the tiny kitchen. We drink Raki. We laugh and tell stories. No one speaks the others' language.
Bosra. We sleep in a castle that surrounds an ancient Roman theatre. Live on falafels and the kind, gentleness of the people. Who love Americans.
And the hardest for me to write about, these many years later. The place that takes me down that black hole even deeper, bringing more tears, more aching heart.
Because we hitchhike everywhere, and because it is winter, and because it is 1984, there are no tourists. We hitch a ride on the back of a beat-up delivery truck. After many hours bouncing through a windswept desert, we come upon a vision that is indelibly locked in my brain. In the distance, rising up, are the majestic columns of a sandstone colonnade, the same color as the desert, against a clear, cerulean blue sky. The Great Colonnade.
How many miles does one have to walk to find safety and rest? Away from home, we always found home in Syria. For the millions of Syrians, they can only keep walking.
When will we realize we are all the same? We all need love, a home, family, friends, security, hope, dreams. A future.
I would gladly hold these wanderers in my arms, just as I hold them and their country in my heart. Forever.