Syria is my father’s country, where I spent an important part of my young adulthood, where my son was born. Living there was inspiration for my first novel (though it’s set mainly in London). In fact, I fell in love with the country – with its enormous cultural and historical heritage, its climatic extremes, and its warm and endlessly diverse people. Of course there were moments – for example, visiting a broken man who’d been released after 22 years imprisonment for a ‘political offense’ – when I felt like getting the next plane out. And before too long I did move on, because a stagnant dictatorship was no place to build a future.
Then in 2011 the revolution erupted. This instant of hope was followed by a counter-revolutionary repression of unprecedented ferocity. How to respond? For a long time I wrote and spoke to anyone who would listen on one theme: the necessity of funding and arming the Free Army – civilian volunteers and defectors from Bashaar al-Assad’s military. Nobody did arm them, not seriously, and as a result the Free Army lost influence and Islamist factions filled the gap. Assad’s calculated manipulation of sectarian fears and hatreds produced a Sunni backlash. Al-Qa’ida franchises set up emirates near the Turkish border, and the West increasingly understood the Syrian drama not as a battle for freedom, but as a security issue. In illustration of this fact, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport as I started my most recent trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, in December, and questioned under the UK’s Terrorism Act. “Which side do you support?” they asked me. I explained there are many sides now, but the question seemed to be either/or: either the regime or the jihad – and support for the (genocidal) regime was the answer which ticked the ‘no further threat’ box.
Syrian-American architect Lina Sergie Attar is the founder of the Karam Foundation and its Zeitouna project which brings hope to Syrian displaced and refugee children, many of whom are traumatised, all of whom have lost great chunks of their schooling. Pulse co-editor Robin Yassin-Kassab participated in June’s Camp Zeitouna in the Atmeh camp on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. In this moving piece, originally published at the New York Times, Lina describes the workshop she led with the children in their hot and dusty tented school – mapping a floor plan of their abandoned homes – and what it meant to them. Please donate to the project and Karam’s other work inside Syria here.
by Lina Sergie Attar
“We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection.”
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Standing in a stuffy tent while facing over forty children crowded onto small benches, their dusty faces propped up by weathered, lean arms, I feel a bit nervous. They study me curiously. I tell them that I’m Syrian, from Aleppo, and that I’m an architect. I turn towards the cracked whiteboard and begin to draw with the streaky, half dried-up marker. “I haven’t been to my family’s home for over two years. When I miss it, I remember it like this.” Without turning around, I say, “Let me tell you a story about my home.”
After enduring two and a half years of the grueling brutality that defines Syria, the fall of Assad’s regime is no longer the most pressing concern of most Syrians. Rather, “When will we return home?” is the question that haunts the over seven million displaced Syrians. Of course, the fact that the first concern is the reason the second one exists adds to the country’s mass despair.
Last winter in Atmeh, the largest of Syria’s border camps for the internally displaced, the longing to return home was repeated to me over and over — sometimes in anger, other times in sorrow. I could not answer their inquiry, “Will we ever return home?” except with the traditional, “God willing.” A response that should have been comforting if my wavering voice hadn’t betrayed my uncertainty.
When I returned to Atmeh last June, the camp had doubled in size from 12,000 to over 24,000 people who had fled their villages and towns to seek refuge in rows of tents between the olive trees — literally in no man’s land. They were as I had left them, still surviving without running water, electricity, and adequate sanitary services. The biting cold of December had been exchanged with the suffocating summer heat. The snow-white tents were now permanently coated with brown dirt streaks. The camp which had been still in formation a few months before, now felt unsettlingly settled.
I did not return alone. I returned with a team of Syrian expatriates to hold an educational mentorship program for displaced children called Zeitouna. The idea behind Zeitouna was to inspire and engross Syrian children with creative and athletic workshops that would engage their young minds. We returned to show them that they mattered. And that they had not been forgotten.