Fathers of Revolution


Wendy Pearlman in Guernica (Image by Tammam Azzam):

Statistics tell us that violence in Syria has left at least 150,000 dead, 9 million forced from their homes, and 9.3 million in need of humanitarian aid. But by the time numbers are published they are already out of date. In the West, the Syrian conflict connotes sectarian war, humanitarian crisis, Islamic extremism, and chemical weapons. It is easy to forget that, for many, this nightmare began with a dream.

I have interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees, and they describe the start of protests in the spring of 2011 as their break through a barrier of fear. They raised their voices against a system that denied them voice. Though initial demands were only for reform, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responded ferociously.

On my first trip to Jordan in 2012, I met displaced Syrians who had endured bombardment and buried loved ones, yet still retained a glimmer of optimism. A grandmother in the Zaatari refugee camp, then just rows of tents in the desert, expected to return to Syria any day. Insisting that I visit her there, she explained how to catch the bus from the Damascus airport to her village and carefully dictated her Syrian landline number.

When I returned in 2013, her village no longer existed. The Zaatari camp had quadrupled to become the fourth-largest city in Jordan, though one surrounded by a barbed-wire fence through which refugees were forbidden to exit. In Jordan, and then Turkey, I found that refugees’ descriptions of Syria frequently ended with the single verb “rah,” meaning to be gone and finished. A father from Homs traced a mental map of his old neighborhood, from the alley shortcuts he took in elementary school to the hospital where his daughter was born. “Rah,” he said, shaking his head. Nothing remained but rubble.

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