My sister is trapped in a Syria I no longer recognize. I want to bring her home.
Written and photographed by Karim Shamsi-Basha
Rainbows in Syria are currently monochromatic. And when the wind shakes the trees, it just knocks the leaves down. Poetry is amiss among the branches, and wind chimes just clang.
My sister lives in Damascus.
I grew up in a relatively stable Middle East. During my teen years in the mid-70s, you could walk the streets of Damascus and chat with your friends, go to school, hang out at the park, chase girls, go out at night with friends, visit relatives, watch sports, play sports, visit the mountains, go to the beach, and a plethora of other activities—none of which required a bullet-proof vest. Life was normal. You could go to bed at night expecting to wake up with your street still intact, your car still in one piece, and your building still standing.
My sister was denied an American visa.
In the Boy Scouts, we would camp and backpack for days in the beautiful mountains of Kassel in Northwest Syria. We would visit places like ancient Palmyra and the Euphrates in the Northeast; Aleppo, where the ancient Citadel still stands; and Roman ruins in the South near Dora and the Jordanian border. Archeologists have found skeletons in Syria that date back to 800,000 BC, and have concluded that the area is one of the most ancient on earth.
The situation is different now, complicated and fluid, and is best described as an amalgamation of conflicting wills. President Bashar Assad has been in power for decades and has ruled with an iron fist, albeit a less brutal fist than his father, who was in power for 36 years. When I was in high school in the early 80s, the dad leveled the town of Hamah after a rebellion threatened his power. I know of young men who disappeared for saying the wrong thing. Freedom of expression was not an option. The freedom we had was the one they doled out in bits and pieces and regarding matters only benefitting them. While living a safe and dictated existence, I still had to march the streets of Damascus on Independence Day and shout, “Death to the Jews,” “We will win over Israel,” and “Long live Hafez Assad.”
My sister has to risk her life to go the grocery store.
The Arab Spring sprouted four years ago in Tunisia and spread to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and other Arabic countries struggling with authoritarian and autocratic rulers. Dictatorship and tyranny were the only offering, and young people decided they had had enough. Revolutions ensued and dictators were toppled. What the rebels did not know is that if you blow the lid off of a coke bottle you’ve been shaking for decades, it will explode. Things also get messy in a hurry when you add religious ideals into the political mix. Many smaller factions vowed for power and warred with each other. Groups like ISIS emerged and gained power, designating themselves as the solution.
Now we have the Assad government supported by Russia and Iran, the rebels who used to be supported by us, and ISIS, supported by an ideology of instituting a twisted version of Islam far from the one I grew up amongst. And Mimi wakes up to bombing sounds occasionally.
I have wondered about the Arab Spring turning into an Arab winter or a fifth darker season all together. I have tried to decipher the reason for the revolutions failing and madness ensuing, and I have puzzled over the fact that once the dictators were toppled, all hell broke loose. Why can Arabs not acquiesce the paradigm of democracy and freedom?
Here is a novel idea: Let the people choose. It is called “elections.” People might differ in philosophy and dogma and even esoteric convictions, but will not bomb and shoot each other. A country comes to mind where this is successful, a country where the government is for the people by the people, a country where if you can dream it, you can attain it, and where compensation is fair and relative to the effort. A country where things like honor and justice are practiced, a country where respect of human value and dignity is expected, and a country where a man or woman can rise from poverty to riches—and where a child can look at the planets and stars surrounding this tiny ball we are on hurdling through space with billions of other balls around it and grow up to touch one.
I am speaking of a country where I can have a meeting with my senator so he can write a letter and hopefully get my sister over here. Senator Richard Shelby’s office has offered to help, and so did congressman Spencer Bachus when he was in office. Wait, my government representatives are there to help me? That is still a foreign concept even after living here for 30 years. In many other countries, including Syria, government officials are there to further their own agendas.
Freedom is not on my sister’s radar, though. Survival is. Can we even fathom the freedom and democracy we revel in and take for granted?
Do we have issues in this country? You bet we do. But ultimately, you have to look at life here compared to life in other places. Rise to 30,000 feet and you quickly realize that something big took place when this country was established. The freedom they died for when they fought the British is still shining like a jewel, and democracy is still protected. We have issues. But when you go to that high altitude you see gorgeous things like freedom of speech and freedom of religion and freedom of expression. You see my 15-year-old daughter, Demi, going to school with pink hair to get straight As and follow her dreams of becoming whatever she aspires to be. You see my 19-year-old boy, Dury, deciding to pursue his passion and follow his musical ambitions. You see my 23-year-old son, Zade, in law school honing his outlook and preparing to change this world. In Syria, pink hair is not permitted, musical ambitions give way to predictable careers, and changing the world is not much of an option.
In America, we are utterly and absurdly free. We may have problems with a person running for the top office of this land. We may differ in opinion with a city councilman or a state representative. But newsflash: We are free.
My sister is trying to stay alive in Damascus.
Here is an example of freedom I will take to the grave. It was the year 2000, and a magazine assigned me to cover a [Ku Klux Klan] protest in downtown Birmingham. I will never forget asking the editor, “The KKK? Are you sure?” I drove downtown and had to park a few blocks away. I turned the corner facing the Jefferson County Courthouse, and a scene was imprinted in my mind and soul for the rest of time. I saw them in their KKK robes and hoods on the steps of the courthouse shouting racial insults and being their ugly and dark selves. Surrounding the courthouse, I saw angry people shouting back at the KKK and holding signs preaching equality and racial harmony.
Seeing the two groups wasn’t what gave me chill bumps and made me cry. They were not what took center stage in my mind and in my heart on that balmy day. What did was a scene that shook the foundation of my being and made me realize that same “something big” that happened when this country was formed was taking place in front of my very eyes. I saw black and white police officers facing the crowds to protect the KKK. You read right—they were protecting the KKK. When the angry crowd pushed in, the police officers, black and white, held hands and created a human fence. They didn’t do this because they agreed with the hateful sentiments, but because as ugly and racist and despicable as the KKK was, they had the right to express themselves. They obtained a permit, and they were protected by freedom of speech in our constitution.
The beauty of the freedom they reveled in combined with the ugliness of their message created a cacophony of ideals I was not able to ascertain that day. Years later, I came to the conclusion that there are no parts to freedom. You can only have it or not. It is much better to have the beautiful freedom, even if it leads to some ugly results.
Meanwhile, Mimi prays daily for safety.
It may be a while before Mimi comes here, if she can at all. It may be a while before the dust and bullets settle in my homeland. And it may be a while before Arabs figure out the meaning of democracy and freedom. But one thing is for sure.
I will remain thankful that I live in a country where we hold liberty, justice, equality, dreams, and aspirations high. Where freedom of souls and minds remain at the top of the list. Where virtues such as equality, integrity, honesty, and honor are the goal. And where government does not dictate your religion, expression, or thought, but remains objective.
I will relish vivid rainbows with a million colors. And when the wind moves the trees, the branches will sway and write soulful poetry. The wind chimes will sing songs of love, peace, and harmony.