As war rages on, a message from inside Syria

A funeral for residents killed in shelling last week in Deraa, the southern Syrian city where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted 15 months ago. (Photo from REUTERS)

I was staying at a beachfront hotel in Zanzibar, Tanzania when I saw the first images of the unrest in Syria on TV.

I watched footage of Syrians in the southern city of Deraa brazenly burning the pictures of President Bashar al-Assad that once lined every street, store, restaurant, and home.

I was glued to the news, watching the turmoil unravel. There was something deeply disturbing about suddenly seeing everything I’d experienced on my visit to Syria just three months prior begin to crumble.

My tumultuous relationship with Syria had begun while I was still in the US preparing for my nine month trip around the world. A week before I was set to leave, I realized that my passport had not yet been returned to me with my Syrian visa stamped in it. I contacted the Syrian consulate in Los Angeles.

“Sorry Roxana. No, we have not seen your passport.”

A street scene in Damasucs, with a ubiquitous portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the background. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

With panic settling in, I resorted to my Middle Eastern negotiating skills, refusing to accept ‘no’ for an answer. Seemingly miraculously, my passport was located and mailed back to me just in time for my trip.

Months prior, my parents had staged an intervention with me in hopes of deterring my plans to travel to the Middle East, especially Syria. My father warned me of the unstable government and the various political parties and religious sects vying for power in the country. My mom got on the phone with a Syrian consoler official and asked him if he thought it was safe for her daughter to travel to Syria on her own.

His response, “Everything appears to be fine now Ma’am. But it’s Syria. You never know and there are no guarantees.”

Though I felt somewhat fearful and uneasy, ultimately my desire to experience the Middle East convinced me to ignore the warnings and proceed with my trip. After arriving in Beirut, I hopped on a Mercedes minivan with eight Syrian construction workers, endured a 2 hour nervous wait at the border crossing, and finally arrived in Damascus.

Damascus

Approaching the Syrian border from Lebanon. (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

My first few hours in Damascus were some of the most magical moments of my life. As I maneuvered my way through the narrow, old cobblestone streets to find my hostel, I saw small cafes on the sidewalks full of people, vendors on the street corners selling traditional Syrian delicacies. The smell of sweet cinnamon bread, apple tobacco and floral jasmine filled the air. I heard the sounds of the evening azan (the Muslim call to prayer) echoing from the surrounding mosques while Arabic-pop music blared from the opposite side.

All my life I had searched for somewhere that felt like home – a culture whose warmth and openness matched that of my own community. And in many ways, I found it in Syria: from being invited in for countless cups of tea to wandering through the winding souks hearing people call out “Ahlan wah Sahlan,” – “welcome to Syria.”

There was nothing that felt artificial, no hidden agendas — just people interested in other people.

But it didn’t take long for the dark truth behind the magic and charm of Syria to hit me. I went out with some other travelers who I had met in Beirut and their Syrian friends. We were sitting in an outdoor café sipping our tea when I naively inquired about the political climate in Syria.

A look of distress appeared on their faces. My friends swiftly changed the subject.

After I left the café with my Bulgarian friend who was living in Damascus, I asked her about the reaction. She warned me to never talk about politics in public again, or even in private for that matter. She slyly pointed out various people surrounding us who she said were likely part of the Assad regime’s secret service: the man sitting alone at an outdoor restaurant, the waiters and store clerks, even taxi cab drivers. Her advice: don’t trust anyone – the consequences are too serious.

Inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, before the uprising began. (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

As my days in Syria went on, the level of government control and scrutiny became more and more obvious. To obtain a SIM card for my cell phone, I had to give fingerprints and provide endless amounts of personal information. To travel from one city to another, I had to register with a government official who recorded my passport number and itinerary. To check in to a hotel room or hostel, I had to provide my visa details so a log could be submitted to the government. To check my email I had to use a proxy address to get around a government ban of western websites.

As an American, it was the first time in my life I had experienced that degree of censorship. I felt trapped, scared, and helpless.

Despite the warnings, I boldly decided to use the Couchsurfing network, an online global community that connects travelers with locals, to stay with a family in the northern city of Aleppo. Couchsurfing, both the site and the activity, is banned by the government because it interferes with officials’ ability to monitor the whereabouts of tourists in the country through hotel registries.

I was fortunate enough to be hosted by an Armenian family with two young college-aged girls. As I grew close with the girls over the course of two weeks staying with them, they began to open up to me. After the Armenian genocide, their family had dispersed throughout the Middle East and sought refuge in various Arab countries. Their parents had both escaped Beirut during the Lebanese civil war in order to provide their daughters a better life, and moved to an Armenian immigrant enclave community in the outskirts of Aleppo.

The author with her couchsurfing hosts in Aleppo. (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

The family had already been approached by government agents with a warning that hosting foreigners could result in arrest and imprisonment. The girls resisted, arguing that the activity was harmless and that they refused to be cut off from the rest of the world. When they told me the story I asked one of the girls why they would take such a huge risk.

“You have the opportunity to travel the world and see and experience things,” she told me. “I don’t have that same opportunity but I still have the desire. Through others’ travels at least I can see the world and hear stories even if I have to do it from my own couch.”

I thought about how brave and courageous she was to defy the rules.

When I shared this with her she explained, “We really have no other choice. We have to find small ways to expand our world given all the restrictions in our life. Otherwise, they win and we are left with nothing.”

Following her queue, I suppressed my hesitations about the government restriction and signed up for a trip to the ancient desert ruins of Palmyra organized through couchsurfing.

The night before our departure, I was pulled aside by a middle-aged Syrian man who owned much of the Aleppo market and was well connected to the interworkings of the country.

“Whatever you do, do not go on this trip,” he told me. “I got a tip that the trip is infiltrated by secret service and likely people will be arrested for the illegal activity. You don’t want to be caught in that mess.”

Free Syrian Army soldiers, part of the resistance against the Assad regime, in Damascus. (Photo from REUTERS)

The warning was frightening enough, but it was confused even more by my Iranian and Jewish ancestry. I wasn’t sure what political complications those identities held in Syria. Feeling vulnerable and unsure who to trust, I cancelled my trip the night before I was set to leave.

The magical aspects of the country had been clouded by my angst and paranoia. Was I being watched? My instincts told me to leave immediately. Within a day, I bought a plane ticket and after some serious questioning by officials in the Aleppo airport, I breathed a sigh of relief as I left Syrian soil safe and sound.

Three months later, sitting in my hotel room in Zanzibar, I saw all that was bubbling under the surface during my visit come to a head. I realized my intuitions were right. The efforts of Assad’s minority Alawite sect to squash any sign of opposition turned from surveillance and intimidation to detentions and massacres.

Each reported death at the hands of the Assad government (which currently estimates put at 14,100) felt personal to me. I tried to distance myself from the news of Syria but my connection to the country and its people would not allow me to ignore it. So I listened, waited, and hoped for Assad to give in.

One of the author’s hosts in Aleppo.

It’s now been 15 months since the protests and violent backlash began, but there is still no end in sight. Through the months I’ve wondered about the family I stayed with in Aleppo. Are they safe? Has the unrest changed their lives?

But I worried about reaching out to them, afraid that in my longing to make sure they were okay I might inadvertently jeopardize their safety.

Finally, while writing this piece, I decided to reach out to them seeking their permission to publish their story.

I received this chilling message in return:

“I feel like I am in a cage. Through couchsurfing, I worked so hard to break the chains and bring people into my home but now I can’t even safely sit on the rooftop of my own house to watch the city. I can’t look outside anymore. It hurts too much to watch Aleppo slowly disappear just as the other cities in Syria have. With each explosion I hear, I thank god that bloodshed has not touched my family yet the way it has for so many other people. I have already lost 3 friends and another one of my friends has disappeared. His parents are anticipating a call any day informing them that their son has been killed. I have lost my job as a teacher as people no longer send their children to school out of fear. Fear that at the end of the day, they will not come home. This is what our life is like now in Syria.”

Roxana Norouzi has worked with immigrant and refugee populations in the Seattle area for the past 10 years. Currently, she provides strategic guidance around education policy and implementation for OneAmerica, Washington State’s largest immigrant right’s organization. She's also president of The Seattle Globalist Board of Directors. In 2010, Roxana was awarded the University of Washington’s Bonderman Fellowship which allowed her to travel to the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, East Africa, West Africa and South America. Roxana's views are her own and don't necessarily represent OneAmerica or the Seattle Globalist.

15 COMMENTS

  1. This piece gave me chills. Thank you for making a tragedy that is so far removed from our everyday lives so palpable and real. A reminder to keep the people of Syria in our thoughts, minds and prayers.

  2. me encanto, esta chica tenia razón es maravilloso al menos poder viajar a través de sus historias ya que países como el de ella y el mio son tan limitados a conocer el mundo

  3. im speechless… i hope soon i can share this proudly to show ppl, that some people out there were aware of what was going on…. adding, in a totally free country, nobody speaks about freedom!
    Thank you Roxana, im proud to know such amazing person like u.
    lots of love xx

  4. It is so beautifully written as usual. With your writing I feel myself experiencing all you did. Thanks for sharing and please keep writing.

  5. Really amazing piece. I am so close but yet so far away from the happenings in Syria. Every week their are protests in Tel Aviv by Israelies against the Syrian regiem and calling our government and the rest of the world to wake up.
    Thanks Roxana for sharing this.

  6. I just couldn’t stop reading. I actually watched every step of yours through Syria and shaked all the hands you shaked. It is beyond jouralism. Thanks

  7. As the Arab Spring uprisings first started to unfold, I knew right away that this subject would be perfect for my international relations paper. Over a year later, I find myself clicking on this article through the Seattle Times to refresh myself on the current situation. It’s disheartening to see people in Syria are still dying and fighting for the same freedom we have here, yet all students talk about on campus are the NBA finals or what DJ to see at the Electric Dance Carnival.

    Yes, I am a full blown hypocrite, but this article has put some shame in me. My problems are so minute compared to the threat of bombings and kidnappings of friends and family. Your paragraph starting with, “my first few hours in Damascus were some of the most magical moments of my life” really brought back memories of my teenage ambitions to travel throughout the Middle East. I really do hope the situation ends quickly and peacefully so that maybe some day I can fulfill those ambitions. Thank you for the great article and I hope you have further success in the future!

  8. Thank you for this article. There’s nothing that brings out in me so many emotions after reading what it’s like in other parts of the world, as your writing. What an amazing tale of events.

  9. What an incredible article. It seems like everyday on the news, there is a story about Syria, but it took this story to remind me of the daily tragedy that is being experienced. I truly cannot even imagine. Thank you for including the paragraph from your host family. They are very brave.

  10. These days Syria is on the news constantly and there are a lot of articles and commentary about it, but none of them has the personal story and personal touch like this article. I feel that I am traveling with you the way you write and analyze the situation. Let’s hope after all these killing and suffering may it would bring peace, freedom and democracy for people of Syria.

  11. Hello,
    Thank you so much for this piece. I started to have tears in my eyes remembering the cafes in the small street of Saroujah…
    I’m a Syrian filmmaker and journalist from Damascus, I left Syria more than two years ago… I experienced all kinds of feelings you mentioned. When the revolution started, I really felt the hope, that finally we will have our freedom and dignity back, but I couldn’t imagine that the regime would sacrifice everything for the chair.
    I’m a couchsurfer as well, and I remember my male friends having to explain their activities of couchsurfing for the secret service (more difficult than stasi).
    I’m still worried about my family, of course, specially, after the detention of my sister for 2 months and the death of several friends, not mentioning the detained ones…
    I’m not trying to make you feel pity for me. I don’t accept it, but I really want to share the feeling with you, and maybe ask you for help and recognition for this beautiful, brave and young revolution…
    Don’t hesitate to contact me for information about the Syrian revolution.. I have the right ones since I’m an activist as well

    Cheers

    Anmar

  12. Yesterday I was listening to the radio on my way to work and heard a guest, who is a real leader and advocate in Central Seattle talking about the gun violence that has escalated recently here, yet also talking about how he, as well as so many of us, rather quickly become numb to it all, and distance ourselves from it, no doubt in part from the pain it gives when we think how awful it is. I know though, that we have to all keep facing it and not accept it as status quo, so we can mobilize to do something about these tragedies.

    Syria’s violence is at such a massive scale, in relation to Seattle, but the people and families who tell you about what is happening to them now, and your ability to tell us so clearly about their experiences in this piece, keeps us all wide awake to these terrible, inhumane acts….a feel a deep sense of gratitude to you, for helping us see we must keep trying to stop all this madness in whatever ways we can..

  13. Dear Roxana, I just reread your article and I am truly impressed both by your story and the experience you made and by your wonderful writing.

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