Remarks delivered by Maha Akkeh at Windows into Syria, May 14, 2016/
My first trip to Syria was in the winter of 1998 – my father had finally received his green card, allowing him to return home to Syria for the first time in over ten years. I wasn’t originally supposed to join him – he had previously asked my older sister Ream, who was 10 years old, and in the 4th grade, at the time. She declined the invitation, however, claiming she could not afford to miss valuable class time, and it’s a decision I will always be grateful for.
My father and I landed in Damascus International Airport on the evening of December 26th, and were welcomed by an enormous crowd waiting for us at the arrivals gate – if any of you have seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you can imagine the chaos that ensued. I felt incredibly homesick during the first few days – while my father was beyond ecstatic to be reunited with his brothers and sisters, I was on the phone with my mother, begging to catch the next flight back to Boston. I was incredibly overwhelmed by this new city and the multitude of unfamiliar aunts, uncles, and cousins, whose voices I had only ever heard over the phone. However, it didn’t take me too long to begin enjoying my time in Syria and forget that I was halfway across the world from my mom and two sisters. For two weeks, my cousins and I stayed up, sometimes until four in the morning, playing, singing, dancing, and eating. I visited my father’s Damascene style childhood home between Bab Sharqi and Bab Touma and trampled down the same steep stairs that broke his right wrist – three times. I explored the narrow and winding cobblestone streets in the old city of Damascus and sat in the back of my uncle’s white pickup truck, with the wind whipping through my hair, as we drove towards Mount Qasyoun to catch a view of the city. Although memories of my first trip are vague, I still remember the sense of joy I felt through them all. By the end of my time in Damascus, the city, language, people, and culture no longer felt unfamiliar, but like a second home.
Over the following twelve years, my family and I continued to visit Damascus about every other summer. When I think about the months I spent with my family, my mind floods with memories of distinctive scents, sounds, and flavors. There are moments when I imagine myself in different spaces across Syria, and in these recollections, I attempt to absorb every piece of information and aspect that I miss so dearly. In these moments, I’m strolling through the old city, passing by my uncle’s jewelry store, cafes, and textile shops, and I can feel the cobblestone streets beneath my feet as I take in the sweet blend of scents – a mixture of jasmine, almond wood, spices, Arabic coffee, and arguileh. Other times, my hair is swaying in the breeze of the salty and humid Mediterranean air in both Lattakia and Beirut. I can taste the soft, fresh bread made on the side of a dirt mountain road – and almost always, I am surrounded by my beautiful, loving family, all of whom still reside in Syria today.
Although my recollections from previous trips help me to maintain ties to Syria, it wasn’t until my sixth, and final, visit to Syria that I began to truly connect with my family’s homeland. During the summer of 2010, I travelled to Syria for about six weeks, primarily to improve my Arabic speaking skills through the Damascus Summer Encounter program. DSE also provided opportunities to volunteer and travel around the country, widening my lens beyond the scope of Damascus. The program was relatively short, but the four weeks I spent learning and exploring had an extraordinary impact on my identity as a Syrian-American as I discovered numerous cities and historical sites outside of Damascus. I explored the citadel of Bosra, watched the sun rise from the ancient ruins of Palmyra, climbed up what seemed like hundreds of stairs to reach the secluded Deir Mar Mousa, discussed Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria with UN officials, and toured Quneitra, a demilitarized zone between Syria and Israel. My journeys around Syria left quite the mark on me, and opened my eyes to its vast history, and rich, beautiful culture. It felt exhilarating to finally embrace the Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture I had spent years resisting.
The Damascus Summer Encounter program also enabled me to learn more about my father’s family as I spent most of my free time with my aunts and uncles. In past trips, my parents typically served as translators, but I was left to fend for myself during this visit. I definitely struggled to communicate at times, and statements were often lost in translation, but it was more entertaining than frustrating. These experiences brought us closer together, along with their daily calls and frequent surprise visits. My aunts Mary and Samira ultimately became my mothers away from home; they constantly cooked delicious meals for me, washed and hand dried my clothes, took me shopping with them in Souq Al-Hamidiyah, and comforted me when I forgot my wallet in a taxi. They are all extraordinary human beings and I am incredibly fortunate to have spent my summer with them.
After the summer of 2010, I developed a deep sense of pride for my country – I fell in love. There were many things I missed, and still do miss, about Syria after moving home – some concrete, and others that simply cannot be put into words. I miss the scent of jasmine floating in the air of the Damascene streets. The heat of the sun beating down on my skin and the layers of dust settling in my socks. I long for the singing of the muezzin during the call to prayer and the constant honking of car horns. I crave the taste of freshly squeezed orange juice from the old city and I ache to walk through the gates of old Damascus once again, to haggle with shopkeepers over a mere 50 cents. But, above all, I miss the love, comfort, and hospitality of my family.
The following year was extremely difficult for me, especially with the onset of the Syrian civil war. I had been so proud of myself for finally embracing my Syrian identity and couldn’t comprehend the violence that had been unleashed throughout the country. I was concerned for my family and constantly felt guilty, as well as helpless, as I sat out of harm’s way. I remember, during my senior year of high school, obsessively checking the civilian death toll and watching it increase rapidly with each passing day. Over the past five years, I’ve read numerous reports on the impacts of the war and have listened to my parents tell the stories of our own family’s struggles – water and electricity are constantly cut off for hours, sometimes days, at a time and the price of food has skyrocketed. Extreme violence plagues Syria’s citizens, including my own cousin’s daughter, who was injured when a bomb hit her school in 2014, the Wednesday before Easter weekend. There are more then 4,800,000 registered Syrian refugees, approximately 6.6 million Syrians have become internally displaced, and over 470,000 people have been killed. As events unfolded throughout the Middle East and within Syria, friends and strangers have continued to ask me the same questions, “Did you see this coming? Did you ever imagine this could happen in Syria?”, and I’ve always given the same reply “No, of course not.” How could someone ever imagine destruction to this extent? But, looking back on my experiences in Syria, my answer should have been “Yes, of course. It was inevitable” The signs were everywhere; I just chose not to read into them.
My travels to Syria were nothing short of amazing, but there were certain aspects that I removed from my memory, because at the time, they didn’t seem that important to me. I spoke about walking through the old city of Damascus, but I didn’t mention the framed pictures of Bashar al-Assad, and his father, Hafez al-Assad, which filled every public space, giving the sense that we were all being watched. Each and every time, I cried as I walked through airport security after hugging my aunts, uncles, and cousins goodbye. But I also breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I would soon be in international airspace, where I’d be free to voice my opinion. My mother forbade us from speaking about the Syrian government and warned us before every trip because she was afraid of the mukhabarat, Syria’s secret police.
A few days ago, my mother recalled our taxi ride from Beirut to Damascus in 2004. I vaguely remember riding along and crossing the border, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She revealed that sometimes, taxi drivers were actually secret police, sent to discover what people were saying about Bashar al-Assad, to catch those speaking out against him. She said that the taxi driver began questioning her political views to try and get her to insult the president. In that moment, she pressed us tightly against her body, praying we wouldn’t utter a word, until finally he gave up. These are the reasons why my mother and father left Syria in 1988 – they didn’t want their future children, my two sisters and I, to grow up under the same oppressive regime they had been forced to live under. They wanted us to speak our minds without the constant threat of being arrested or killed for our opinions. Many factors have contributed to the current unrest in Syria, but the actions of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime played a major role in bringing the Syrian people out to the streets, to peacefully demonstrate for their freedom.
Although I can’t speak to Syria’s future, I can share with you one last experience that continues to give me hope. During the Boston Palestine Film Festival in October, my family and I attended a screening of “On the Bride’s Side,” a documentary that portrays the incredible journey of five Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Italy to Sweden, as they seek refuge from the violence in Syria. Afterwards, there was a discussion with Gabriele del Grande, one of three directors of the documentary. One statement he expressed resonated with me on that day, and it is something I haven’t been able to forget since. What del Grande discovered through this journey is that “the story of Syria is one of love.” The Syrian people share a deep, passionate, and overwhelming love for their country, one that extends beyond the realms of politics and religion. This reverence is something I have witnessed with my parents, family, friends, and strangers, as well as within myself. In addition to this love, we also have in common many hopes and aspirations – the hope that the violence will cease; the hope that our people can live without fear, and in peace and safety; and finally, the hope that one day, we will be able to return and rebuild our beloved and beautiful homeland of Syria.
Maha Akkeh is a first generation Syrian-American and a graduate of the University of Vermont, where she studied Global Studies with a concentration on the Middle East. During her junior year, Maha spent four months in Jordan studying Arabic and interning at the Visions Center for Strategic and Development Studies, where she had the opportunity to research the impacts of the Syrian refugee crisis. Her passion for working with refugees led her to pursue a yearlong internship with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program upon returning to the United States. Maha is a member of the Watertown Citizens Refugee Support Group and will soon begin a new position with an international NGO dedicated to helping Palestinian refugees living in the Middle East.