WFU journalism professor sees firsthand the human cost of the Syrian civil war. This summer, I traveled to the Middle East to report on the Syrian refugee crisis and its impact on neighboring countries. During a conversation with WFDD's Kathryn Mobley, I described some of my encounters with these men, women and children who are living under very harsh conditions. I also share my experiences in the four-part series, “Fleeing Syria: Stories of Exile” that is published in the Winston-Salem Journal.
The civil war in Syria, now in its fourth year, has claimed 160,000 lives and forced nearly three million people into exile, one of the largest forced migrations since World War II. And the conditions are only getting worse. The civil war began as an uprising against the government in 2011 but has now been dragged into the conflict in neighboring Iraq with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a group of religious extremists whose agenda is forcing even more people to flee.
In Jordan, I visited the Zaatari camp. There I met three teenage boys, all 14, not quite old enough to join the uprising but old enough to understand. In many ways they reminded me of boys that age in the Piedmont Triad. They played at the water tank outside, slapping each other with wet towels and wrapping wet tee shirts around their heads against the 100-degree heat. Most of these children have missed years of school because of the war. So relief agencies offer educational programs using art and games to give the children a sense of normalcy. Then I heard their stories. The boys were from southern Syria, where the uprising began and where many of the villages have been controlled by insurgents. One boy, Bashar, told me he spent days at a time in shelters, with little or no food or water. Some people perished there. One day, government soldiers came to his home, pointed guns and told his family they could leave or be killed. That's when they fled to Jordan.
I heard stories of bravery, too. In Istanbul, I met a woman named Noura Mansour and her husband, Diab Serriah, who had been part of the uprisings in Damascus. She was 33 and pregnant. Before the civil war, she worked as a graphic designer in an advertising agency. She quit her job to help with the rebellion by smuggling medical supplies and blood around Damascus for fighters with the Free Syrian Army. Sitting with her at an outdoors café, Noura described her work as if it were normal to risk your life for a cause in which you believe. She and her husband left Syria because they feared arrest. Now living in Istanbul, they publish an online newspaper written by Syrian freelancers.
In northern Israel, I visited a hospital that's been treating wounded Syrians brought there from the border by Army medics. Since 1967, Israel and Syria have been enemies and the border between them is closed. The idea of soldiers, doctors and other medical professionals taking risks to help people from an enemy country amazed me. But the army and civilian doctors I met told me they were simply doing their duty. At the hospital, I met a Syrian father and his 3-year-old son, Muhammad. The mother died in the sniper attack that left the boy's foot maimed. His father brought him to Israel, crossing the closed border, because he heard he could get state-of-the-art medical care for his son. Israeli hospitals hire clowns as part of the medical team to help with recovery. Johnny Khbeis, the medical clown at Ziv Medical Center, served as my translator; he also introduced me to a group of Syrian fighters who were borrowing his iPhone to talk with relatives at home. Johnny stays in touch with many of his patients long after they return to Syria. The work, he says, has changed his life.
So what does all this have to do with life here in the Triad? I was a local journalist long enough to understand that is always the pressing question. Before I left, I started asking around about Syrian refugees living in North Carolina. The U.S. State Department hasn't admitted many Syrian refugees yet. But the Triad is home to a diverse refugee community from Iraq, parts of Africa, Afghanistan, Burma and Cuba. They have jobs, like the warm temperatures and the cost of living is low. According to the United Nations, it will resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years, so there is a good chance some of them could resettle here. Fortunately, there are people already here who speak Arabic to help with them adjustment.
These stories will stay with me forever and I now appreciate the courageous spirit and hope of these Syrian refugees as they work hard to rebuild their lives.