Many refugees were part of thriving middle-class communities in some of the oldest cities in the world prior to the war; a war that doesn't discriminate. I meet doctors and lawyers and even millionaires who share their journey of becoming refugees, almost overnight. In this blog I won’t disclose names or details that may put this family in danger, but I will try to convey their story. Some of you may have heard me share it, but I think it’s worth retelling in this broader blog environment. This is not an isolated story…and living through any kind of bombing is horrific.
I climb what seems like 1000 steps, stopping along the way to catch my breath. At the top I find a young woman sitting on a mat in her dingy little “home,” no bigger than a closet. Here my brave young friend begins to share her story…
My family was prominent in our community; a city of more than a million people. I had six brothers and three sisters, all of whom worked as engineers, lawyers, or teachers. We often discussed the serious political situation in our country, but the fighting was hundreds of miles away and we knew we would have time to escape should it encroach on our city. We were wrong. I was 28 years old when our lives changed forever.
I sat at the dinner table enjoying a traditional family meal prepared by my mother; arguably one of the best cooks in our city. Lighthearted banter filled the room as we discussed our day. Suddenly, without warning, explosions erupted near our home. The aftershock unleashed chaos and panic as we ran for the bomb shelter along with friends in our neighborhood. The quake of nearby blasts rattled my teeth as the driving heartbeat of fear pounded in my head.
The shelter was overcrowded when we reached the entrance, so women and children sheltered inside while fathers and brothers huddled outside. We were terrified. We could hear explosions all around us. Then we heard the distinct sound of an approaching rocket and everyone began to panic – that’s when the entire shelter exploded. And, just like that, my world went black.
I was holding my sister’s hand when I awoke, but she was still unconscious. I started yelling for help. I was in shock. Bones protruded from my leg leaving my foot dangling, barely attached. When my sister finally opened her eyes, she couldn't feel her legs and she thought she was dying. We coughed from inhaling the thick dust as we began to crawl towards the entry.
We found my mother in the rubble. She was badly injured. We called for help, but no one came. Bombs continued dropping as mom begged us to get to safety. Our injuries were so severe we couldn't carry her. I could barely see through my tears as I honored my mother’s plea and began to pull myself out of the wreckage.
Emerging from the bombed-out shelter, I found a few scraps of material and wrapped my leg and foot to stop the bleeding. My sister had made it out with me, but was barely conscious. Covered in dust and blood we were hardly recognizable, but our father found us. We told him to help our mother. He put us in the back of a pick-up, along with many others who were injured or dead, and we sped away to a nearby mosque that had become a triage area. The last time I saw my father he was running back into the bombing and chaos to find his family.
After we arrived at the mosque I was separated from my sister for medical treatment. My sister was hit with shrapnel that had severed the nerves in her legs. Her injures were so severe, her blood pressure so low, they counted her among the dead and covered her body with blankets. She was in the mosque when rebels invaded to kill those left alive.
Since my injuries were life threatening, they took me immediately by ambulance to the national hospital. The road was lined with fighting and on the way my ambulance was attacked. I lay on the floor with the nurse while bullets flew through all sides of the vehicle. As we neared the hospital entrance I could hear attackers screaming “kill the injured.” I’ve never been so scared in all my life. The doctors and nurses tried to keep us safe and because U.N. teams were still present, rebels did not attack the hospital; basic rules of engagement that later changed as the violence escalated.
The hospital was chaotic and loud and I recognized some of the injured who were distant relatives. I strained to hear what was going on in the corridor near my hospital bed. That’s when I recognized the sound of my mother’s crying voice. I knew it was her and begged the nurses until they brought her to me. She was in critical condition; close to death. When she saw me, she smiled through her pain and said, “take care of yourself, my dear one – get to safety.” I remember her incredible beauty in that moment as they wheeled her away for urgent care. Shortly after, I was taken to surgery to reattach my foot. I never saw my mom again. She died while I was on the operating table.
I was alone. There were no protocols in place for locating family members and I had no way of finding out what had happened to my brothers and sisters. I didn't even know if they were alive. About a week later it was reported that all my family members had been killed.
UN medical staff began to leave the hospital. They told us to flee immediately because we were under imminent attack. I was placed in a truck and transported to my cousin’s home outside the city. There I was reunited with my little sister, who I thought was dead. I learned she had been rescued from the mosque after insurgents left and medics had discovered her faint heartbeat. We were so happy to be together. We hugged and cried. We were in severe pain from our injuries, but it was nothing compared to the stabbing pain of grief that engulfed us as we mourned the loss of our entire family.
My sister and I worked hard to keep our wounds clean and free from infection until we could get to another hospital. Eventually I underwent five surgeries to repair my foot and my sister had two surgeries on her legs. My post-operation pain without medication was so painful I often wished I were dead. Those were hard days, but my mother’s words kept replaying in my mind, “get to safety.” Once we were well enough to travel we fled to Jordan.
We never thought our lives would turn out like this, but we continue to hope. We hear rumors that one of our brothers may still be alive in prison; we have no way to know for sure. We don’t have many dreams left, but the one that stands out most would be reuniting with friends and family and rebuilding our lives; even if it’s just the two of us.
As she ends her story, I’m left wondering – what can the rest of us do for these young girls now that they’ve dragged themselves out of the bombed out shelter and survived for this long? Today, Walk With Me means trudging 1000 steps up the side of a mountain to listen to a story – her story. It means helping with food and rent. As I say goodbye I hug my brave young friend, just like her mother would have, and tell her how proud I am of her courage.