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Part I - Schoolyard Graffiti

Part I - The Beginning of War

“I wake up every day praying this is a temporary situation and that life will get better soon, but it’s been six years now.”

I often sit with refugees from Syria and ask how they think the war started. Now that it’s been six years, we all tend to forget. These refugees do not. When I met with Abu Mohammed, I asked him that same question, and he replied exactly as the other Syrian refugees did. Abu Mohammed described how he would never forget that day six years ago when the unrest began and eventually would force him to leave his home. He told me it all began with graffiti.

Abu Mohammed was a small business owner in Daraa, a city in Southern Syria, where the first protests began. He said the war started when children from his village spray-painted anti-government sentiment on a wall in their school.

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They committed a dumb, rebellious act, but they were not revolutionaries; they were misguided teenagers. Under most circumstances, this type of juvenile behavior would result in punishment by the school administration or possible charges from police requiring a certain number of community service hours to clean up the graffiti, but not in Daraa. With the recent Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia on their minds, local authorities took swift, severe action. The day after the graffiti appeared in 2011, police rounded up schoolchildren in Daraa. Students were interrogated and tortured, and parents were told they never would see their kids again. This caused an outcry from parents that ignited protests in the small town. Many from within the country have different opinions on what actually happened, but we do know that a revolution was born.

For Abu Mohammed, the origin of the Syrian war was also the beginning of a revolution that would change his family forever.

While angry tempers flared in the city, Abu Mohammed continued to run his small business as usual and prayed the turmoil would end. Until one night without warning he and his brothers were accused of being terrorists and arrested. Abu Mohammed was beaten and tortured for nearly a month, leaving him partially disabled. His father paid a bribe to officials in order to change his charge from “terrorist” to “thief,” and he was eventually released.

After being set free, Abu Mohammed received a call from the hospital to pick up one of his brothers (who had been arrested with him that dreadful night weeks ago). Upon arrival he simply was handed a bag, which contained pieces of his brother’s body. Later that same day, Abu Mohammed was called to pick up his other brother, who also had been killed. He found his brother stripped naked and shot dead.

Fearful for his own life, Abu Mohammed made the decision that day to flee to Lebanon with his eight family members. His youngest son was just 2 years old at the time, so he wrapped the young boy around his chest and led his family through fields, crawling on arms and elbows, as sniper fire tore through the area. He was shot in the ankle but made it to safety with his family.

Many refugees like Abu Mohammed and his family experience such unbelievable hardship. The truth is: refugees would not risk their lives to flee the dangers of war if they could have survived at home, but just like for Abu Mohammed, the miseries of war continue far after they escape their homeland. Many settle in makeshift tents that line Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley where it is expensive and illegal to work.

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Abu Mohammed says, “I wake up every day praying this is a temporary situation and that life will get better soon, but it’s been six years now. I’m starting to lose hope. My baby only remembers a life of war and he’s eight years old now.”

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This family knows first-hand the fear of death, the stigma of living as outcasts with a label, they know what it means to be hungry and cold, and to experience utter hopelessness. My mind drifts from the on-going conversation to how we can help. The next words I hear from Abu Mohammed cause me to straighten in my seat and lean in to listen…“My deepest sadness began after we escaped death.”


Stay tuned for the next blog in this two-part series, Escaping Death: The Beginning of Sorrows.