The incredibly brave PBS journalist followed a rebel fighter on the front lines, knowing that within minutes they could both be dead. What struck me was that this 23-year-old Syrian rebel had been a member of Assad's regime, but after witnessing the brutality of Assad against his own people, he defected and joined the Free Syria Army. The powerful and horrific scenes were similar to what I saw in pictures from the Vietnam war -- bloody and barely-alive bodies being pulled from the rubble of collapsed houses, a wailing mother holding her dead child in her arms. Families, frantic to leave the village, grabbed everything they could and ran for cover as bombs dropped from all directions. Everyone screamed. No one seemed to know where to go or what to do in the chaos.
As I watched this riveting program, I asked myself where was I when this was going on? Riding my bike with my girlfriends? Talking and laughing on the phone? Thinking about what to cook for dinner? These questions pop into my mind often when I hear or read about real life events that are far removed from my life. What was I doing when the earthquake hit Japan last year or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean several years back? When I watch documentaries like Frontline or hear first-hand reports on the evening news, I sometimes feel like I'm watching a movie or a re-enactment. My mind wanders. What would happen if the Bay Area was struck by an 8 point earthquake, and my husband and I were injured with no one to help? I certainly thought this when I watched the recent movie entitled The Impossible, a true story about an English-speaking family vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami wiped out the resort where they were staying. Thankfully, I don't dwell on scary thoughts like this very often, but I do live near the volatile San Andreas fault, and a major quake in my lifetime is a real possibility. We think tragedy happens only to people we don't know who are living in other places. That's what the families in Newtown, Connecticut thought too. Some of us are naive, but let's face it, most of us do not think about preparing ourselves emotionally for something so tragic.
After watching the program about the continued violence in Syria, I thanked God we got the Azan family out of the dangerous Damascus suburbs eight months ago. I think about them often and wonder what it must be like starting over. Yes, the Arab culture and language are similar, but it's not the country they were born in. More questions: How would I cope, and what would I do if I were in their shoes? Unfortunately, I have no answers.
For my family and friends who contributed generously to the Syrian family project last fall, I want to give you an update. I also want to inform the hundreds of people, who learned of this family's ordeal through my blog post Putting a Human Face on the Tragedy in Syria (click on link to go to the story).
This is what I know:
No surprise. Life has been a struggle for the twelve members of the Syrian family who, by their sheer tenacity and with financial help from concerned Americans, escaped from their crumbling homeland of Syria to Egypt last fall. I wish I could tell you that their life is good, but they continue to face many obstacles.
To help support the family, one of the sons works outside of Cairo for a Syrian opposition television station. The sister and husband, with their two small kids, traveled to Turkey and hope to find work there, since jobs in Egypt are scarce. The adolescent boys living with the family in Cairo are unable to go to school because of their immigration status. The father is in very poor health because his pre-existing heart condition was exacerbated from the stress. Since he didn't have enough money to buy the equipment he needed, his plan to open a kebab shop in Cairo didn't work out. Their two friends, who were living in the Damascus home after the family left, died when the home was bombed. And adding to their problems, their son, Amy's friend who lives in Rome, is also in a bind. His Syrian passport expired a while ago, but because there is no longer a Syrian Embassy in Rome, he is unable to renew it, and applying for refugee status threatens his current work visa. A Catch 22. When his Italian work visa expires, he effectively becomes a stateless person. What a nightmare he faces, along with thousands of other Syrian emigrants who face similar issues.
Since the beginning of the war two years ago, 70,000 people, mostly unarmed civilians, have died in the civil war. "This massive loss of life could have been avoided if the Syrian government had chosen to take a different path than one of ruthless suppression of what were initially peaceful and legitimate protests by unarmed civilians," said Ms. Navi Pillay, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, who condemned Bashar Al-Assad for the scale of human carnage and criticized the United Nations for their failure to act.
Neighboring countries struggle to house, feed and clothe the million-plus Syrians who fled to safe havens like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Videos taken in the camps show thousands of families cooped up in dilapidated quarters, places you could not imagine living in yourself. They have very little food to sustain them, and no place for personal hygiene or privacy. Unthinkable! How do they maintain a sense of dignity, essential to the human condition?
We don't get to choose our mother or father, nor do we get to choose the country we are born in, but as a child of immigrant parents, who also fled the ravages of war, I am forever grateful to live in a free country. I complain about our impossible Congress who can't reach a compromise to legislate gun control or can't agree on how to bring down our national debt. I worry that our Supreme Court will vote against same sex marriage. I write letters to my city council about the out-of-control development in my neighborhood. Yes, these are important issues, but when I think about the destitute Syrians who live in camps and our struggling family in Cairo, these problems seem less compelling. I wonder how they will continue to make ends meet, but I thank God they are out of harm's way. The rocky politics and intermittent violence in Egypt are unsettling, but the government is not slaughtering its own people, and our Syrian family's lives are not in danger. For the moment, they are safe.