A journalist travels to a refugee camp to report on the Syrian Civil War
I twist the fake wedding ring on my finger nervously. It’s a cheap copper ring that I superglued a rhinestone to. Back and forth. Back and forth. It’s supposed to arouse sympathy if someone tries to kill me. It’ll convince them that I have someone back home I love and need to get back to, my colleagues had assured. Though it’s likely that I won’t be killed by an assassin. If I do get killed, it’s more likely to be by a bomb or a missile. I’m pretty sure my ring won’t convince anyone to refrain from blowing up everything in a five-mile radius.
Unless it’s a magical shield ring. You never know.
The countryside spreads outside the window. I peek outside, but the dizzying height quickly gets me sick, and I close the window blind. I don’t have time to get sick. Plus, the airline doesn’t seem to have any barf bags.
Syria. Syria. I have to get to Syria. To the war. To the story.
I grip my saddlebag so that my knuckles turn white. I go over the plan in my head. I will land in Lebanon. I will go to the Sweet Tooth Cafe where I will meet my unnamed accomplice. She will sneak me into Syria (I wasn’t able to procure a visa to Syria; Lebanon was the best I could do), where I will get a hotel room and spend the night. Then, I will begin to investigate and write.
It’s 2018. I’m a freelance war reporter, on my way to report on the Syrian Civil War. The conflict began a long way back, in 2011, when demonstrations escalated into a full-blown war against the government. I’m still not sure what to think of this entire messy situation.
I sigh as a voice over the speakers announces that we will be landing soon. I check my dull grey hijab one more time. I’m not quite sure if it’s necessary, but it’s better to be overdressed than the opposite. It’s horribly messy and has been tied without technique, but this will have to do. I organize the coarse cloth one more time, then turn my attention to the task ahead.
* * *
Two hours later, I finally arrive at the Sweet Tooth Cafe. I see a young woman in all black at the corner table. She has to be the one. I’m slightly shocked that she’s so young. The girl couldn’t be over the age of 22. I join her and show my identification. She gives me a slight nod.
We buy cupcakes. My mysterious accomplice gets vanilla, and I get chocolate. Both have strawberry-flavored frosting. Then she leads me to her car. The moments from then on are unmemorable and fleeting; I’m so caught up in my nervousness and adrenaline, I can barely remember anything. I fall asleep within 30 minutes (all that worrying is tiring!), and she wakes me after 30 more.
“انه نحن ,” she says. We’re here. I look around. I thought it would be harder to cross the border, seeing that it’s illegal and all. Either border control is very lax here, or my guide is an expert.
“اليزج اركش ,” I say. Thank you. She leads me out of the car, and I find myself in an alley behind a hotel. I grab my saddlebag and suitcase, and my guide drives off. I take a good look around. Dusty street. Tin trash cans. I make my way to the front of the hotel, the wheels of my suitcase making loud clunk! noises as they roll over pebbles that line the street.
The hotel is admittedly shabby. The war has taken its toll. The fluorescent lights flicker periodically. Dust has settled on the furniture. The rug is worn, and the man behind the counter looks like he has been to hell and back. Scraggly beard, glasses askew, clothes that may as well have been worn for years. The war has made it hard for ends to meet.
“كب الهأ ,” he mutters tiredly. Welcome. “ كتدعاسم يننكمي فيك ” How can I help you?
I ask for a hotel room. He complies. After five minutes of paperwork, I get my keys and make my way down the hall. I open the creaky door to a dusty room. The beige wallpaper is peeling, and the curtains and bedsheets are threadbare. I sigh. I change, wash up, strip the bed, then pull out a blanket I packed. Exhausted, I slump onto the bed, and five minutes later, I’m out cold.
* * *
The next day is overcast, with the scent of rain in the air. It’s cold, and I am reluctant to leave my warm cocoon of blankets. I sigh as I get up. Back on goes the hijab . . . and jacket . . .
My first stop is the refugee camp. Hundreds of people are huddled inside thin blue tents, stationed in the dusty, barren valley because they have nowhere to go. The stench of the poor living conditions pervades the still air and bodies that surround me. Wailing babies, infected wounds, dehydration, hunger, and fear fill the scene. The list goes on and on.
I approach a young woman caring for a screaming baby. She hushes and sings to him, but to no avail. The woman’s chocolate-brown hair sticks to her face in the perspiration and humidity. In sadness, I look at the baby’s ribs poking out. I begin to ask her if she’d be comfortable with being interviewed, but then I see her face. She is already taxed with caring for her family, and she is afraid of me. Her brown eyes widen, and she quickly looks away. She is not the one. I thank her and walk away.
Next, I walk up to a teenager looking at the camp blankly, as if in disbelief that he is actually there. The cold air slices us, but he barely notices it or my voice. I speak several times before he acknowledges my presence.
“Would you be willing to be interviewed?” I ask him timidly. He looks at me warily, seeing me as a prying foreigner. I ask again, pressing for an answer. “Please. Your voice needs to be heard.”
He gives in, and I am delighted. Whipping out my pen and trusty notebook, I skim the list of pre-written questions.
“How has the war affected you and your family?”
“Can’t you see?” he says impatiently. “Can you not see the suffering of those around me?” I move on.
“What are your plans for the future?”
“Depends on how long this war lasts.”
“Do you have any hopes for the future?”
“I did.” He gives no further explanation.
“What was your life like before the war?”
“We were the average middle-class family. My father managed a small grocery store.”
“How are your family and friends?”
The teen looks away sharply. It is clear I am prying too deeply. I thank him. He hasn’t given much information, and the answers he gave are very general, but he is clearly uncomfortable saying more. I leave.
Next, I approach an elderly woman chatting with friends. Unlike the faces that surround me, hers is smiling. She wears a sky blue robe and hijab, fading from years of use, simple yet beautiful. Wisps of salt-and-pepper hair escape, surrounding her tan face. Wrinkles spread from her eyes like rays of the sun. Her eyes are misty, but the pupils are bright and clear, like a young girl’s.
She gives me a warm smile and gestures towards a wooden crate on the left.
“Come! Come!” She laughs. I slowly sit down.
“Would you be willing to answer some questions?”
“Why not? Are you from those newspapers? Ask away.”
“Where are you from?”
“Me? I’m from the beautiful city of Aleppo, right along the Silk Road.” She sighes. “It was supposed to be a safe haven. No fighting.”
“Both parties are accused of war crimes. How do you feel about that?”
“I cannot make assumptions. But I’m greatly disappointed. What happened to dignity?”
I scribble down words. My pen can barely keep up.
“What are your hopes for your future?”
“My future? Well, I would like to see rocking chairs and tea in my future. But I can only hope that the war will end well before my grandchildren grow up.” She smiles.
I ask more questions, each digging up old memories. As the minutes tick by, my elation increases. This is exactly what I need.
“What are you doing now?”
The woman looks delighted to show her work to me.
“Ah! I am weaving a rug. It is a most wonderful thing, is it not? It will be sold, and the income will help us. A wonderful organization suggested it!”
“How beautiful.” I glance over my notes. This should be enough. I yearn to stay and learn more, but I have a deadline. “Thank you so much for the interview!” I say, genuinely meaning it.
I leave for the dreary hotel, caught up in my thoughts.
Back in my room, I skim through the notes, lying on my bed. The woman had the most exquisite memories in such vivid detail. She also had a lot to offer, opinion-wise.
“Nothing justifies war,” she had said. Those words kept circling my head. “Whatever the rebel groups wanted, this was not the way. However the government wanted to retaliate, this was not the way. Thousands of people are driven out of their homes, out of the places that were supposed to be safe. All for what? At the end of the day, what did anyone gain? Nothing, dear. There is always another way.” Her speech went through my head in an endless loop.
* * *
A few weeks later, I am safe at my apartment in New York, the reassuring cacophony of cars outside the windows. My article has been written and published. There was the customary praise and critics, and the article had been forgotten.
I didn’t forget.
The sky blue hijab the woman had been wearing will not let go of me. My dreams are constantly centered around it. I didn’t forget what she said, either. Nothing justifies war.
I’ll be waiting for the day we can announce the war is over, that the destruction and causing of suffering will end. I’ll be waiting, and I’ll be ready. But until then, I won’t be standing around. People need to know, and people need to step up to stop it.
I take my pen and move to my desk. People need to know, and I will be the one telling them.