What is it like to talk about Syria?


“Soft gates, hard paper” by Prof. Henk Van Houtum 

When I left Syria during the harsh winter of 2012, I packed all my memories in two big bags and left what I couldn’t carry due to flights’ restrictions on luggage weight. I used to think a lot about the leftovers; my fluffy cat, my tidy books, my grandmother, and my piano, but after things got worse, I didn’t have the luxury to think about all that. I was just concentrating on surviving, so I blocked all the memories coming from Syria. My mind and heart simply suffered from an overload and I had to clear out some space for new ones, or that is what I thought.

Since I moved to Ireland and started feeling safe and settled, I created new memories. I created a new life, a new me. I got myself busy with a lot of projects, I worked hard, I volunteered with different communities, and I enjoyed being free and respected. People often get shocked, surprised or sorry when I answer “I am from Syria” when they try to open a light conversation in a new meetup. I try to quickly change the topic and the mood of the talk before it gets deeper, and people tend to forget that especially after I throw the weather topic on the table.

Every day, when I scan the news in the morning, Syria will be in the headlines. Country X is fed up with the refugees. Country Y is closing its borders in the face of the homeless refugees. A boat drowned carrying refugees from Syria. A Syrian refugee did something bad. A Syrian refugee did something good. City Z in Syria is destroyed by (ISIS, Syrian Army, Russia, or any random military force if that matters).

Every day, I read the news, I read it all. I watch the dead bodies, the exploded remains, the miserable faces on borders, the skinny bodies from hunger, the weeping mothers and the scared kids. I close my web browser, wash my face, drink my coffee, and go to work.

One day, I got an invitation from the European Commission to talk about Syria, my Syria. How I lived it, survived it, left it and tried to move on. What kind of challenges I, and other Syrians, face today. What is the real need for us and how EU research could help us overcome these challenges, all in a neat presentation that should not last for more than 5 to 7 minutes infront of a big audience of researchers and domain expert.

And I said yes.

It was overwhelming to be in a room with everyone talking about Syria. The one topic I don’t want to talk about, but I agreed to be there. I wanted to do something, anything to help Syria, to heal Syria. The memories were pushing hard to the surface and I was trying my best to push them down. I fought the urge to cry whenever someone mentioned a statistic about displaced, dead, drowned or illegal refugees. I have to be strong. I have to represent the strong Syrian, the one willing to do the impossible to survive.

Then it was my turn to talk. It was tricky to do this without opening the box of memories. I kept it professional. I did not talk about how I was terrified by the explosions that happened few metres away from my home and my work. I did not mention how I used to sleep early wearing all my clothes on (socks included) because it was too cold and dark to be able do anything else. I skipped the part about my engagement and marriage during the war. I briefly mentioned my father-in-law martyrdom while trying to save people from starving but I definitely did not mention how we saw a photo of him covered in blood all over social media that haunts me till now. I never talked about how we don’t dare to dream of ever having a kid because we are too damaged to think of raising a child in this awful world. I skipped a lot of stories, a lot of pain and tears that had no place at this conference. As I said, I kept it professional.

The conference ended with a lot of applause and a bit of desperation for the lack of influence on the policy makers. I felt good for doing my part, and not falling apart. I took the plane back to where I now call home, Ireland. I closed my eyes over the clouds and let the pilot do his part. The microphone started broadcasting the flight attendant message to the passengers. It wasn’t about seat belts nor about our location or destination. It was about Syria. “Syrian kids are facing a lot of trouble and suffering cold and hunger. Please help us raise donations to support them.” I looked around in disbelief. People were actually getting out their wallets to put money for Syria in a bag with UNICEF logo on it. I was grateful for all the kind hearts on that plane but heartbroken to hear my country mentioned in a donation campaign.

At that moment, all the blocked memories rushed in. The miserable faces, the dead bodies, the explosions, my cat, my grandmother, and my whole life just burst into my overloaded memory.

And I cried.


More about the conference:


My talk:




6 responses »

  1. It was very sad reading this. As I currently still live in Syria I can relate to everything you are talking about. The best part is, in spite of every sad memory you have, and every bad news you hear every day. You can still get up, wash your face, and do your best to help your country by any means possible. I really appreciate that.
    I just want to share something about me, I am trying to do the same here, I feel like we are living with a big denial about what’s going on. I agree to ignore everything, every single bad thing, and focus on life. I try to help people as much as I can. And I try to live my life to the fullest, I party, I go to the movies, we’ve even seen Deadpool last week, it was amazing, It is a wonderful thing to see that even we are in the middle of an active war, cinemas are still able to purchase latest movies, and you can see lots of people attending and watching :D.
    I believe that we will get over this soon, and I am hoping for the best.
    All the love to you and your husband, and wish you all the best 😀


    • Walid, I can never relate to what you are going through still living back home. This war damaged us in many ways but it definitely made us stronger. I really do hope we meet some day, maybe do another road trip or a BBQ and stay up all night just laughing with the others. Maybe one day..


  2. Too much emotions and memories to handle indeed 😦 but you did it 👍 personally I try to handle my daughter’s constent questions about the time she was in Syria.. “homeland” a word carries alot of pain to all of us.


    • I am sure it is not an easy answer. I can’t even begin to imagine how kids think about the situation in Syria. Not to mention smart Naya will never settle for any answer! They are forced to grow up really fast and understand this.


  3. Pingback: Networks, Airbnb, and the United Nations | Letters from Galway

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