My Syrian father’s heart is most fragile and sensitive. He could never bear to see a child cry. With each day’s news of barrel bombs and more pained children in Syria he died a little. I know that if he was next to little bloodied Omran, inside the bright orange ambulance after they pulled the 5 year old from the wreckage of a Russian air strike,my father would have gently hugged him and held him and rocked him and softly wiped the blood and dust off the boy’s collapsed and catatonic face. He then would have told him corny jokes to make him laugh and snap him out of his shock. And when Omran finally cried, my father would have held the little boy’s head in his bosom and caressed him to comfort the fear away. That same bosom would have been aching over the cartoon clad bandaids Obama and his counterparts have offered the Syrian people to support them while they asked for their God-given right to live free.
My father and I had a big shouting match about two years ago when I told him I was leaving my career to focus solely on Syria advocacy. He had been mad at me even when I became vocal in support of the Syrian revolution 3 years before that. He asked that I not post on social media and that I not attend revolution events. I didn’t listen and told him that I’m going to have to go against his wishes this time. He was worried about me, I knew that, and he was more worried that I would be risking the lives of our family still in Syria. For good reason, he knew that any vocalization against the Syrian regime would come with heavy risks, possibly including death. But what my father did not know was that my passion for bringing the story of the Syrian people to the public was for him, and his dignity, and for many others like him who could not live normal and free lives in their own country.
We are very different, he and I. He always saw the glass as completely empty while I saw it as full to the brim. He mistrusted most people and always taught his children to be overcautious of everybody. I resented his negativity and wondered why he and I were so different, but as the Syrian revolution unfolded and I heard more detailed stories of oppression and humiliation from my father’s homeland, I understood exactly why he was the way he was. I understood his heartache and his insecurity. I understood why he watched the news day and night and cursed at the sight of any Syrian statesmen. I listened to him tell many painful stories of how regime forces would drag him and his teenage schoolmates to pro-regime rallies, and how he obliged even though he despised doing so because the consequence of refusing would be catastrophic.
It’s been over 23 years since my father visited his home and relatives in Damascus. My mother and brothers and I used to push him to go, but he ignored our pleas, leaving us quite confused. How could someone not want to see their beautiful home and its good people? Where did this feeling of detachment come from? It was especially odd to me since my experience was the opposite.
I was not born in Syria nor did I ever live there. My love for Syria came from summer and winter vacation visits. I love her because of grandma’s summer reunions of 13 people in a tiny apartment. And the sweet building keeper who lived in a basement apartment with his wife and 5 children. I love her because of jasmine scented walks from my uncle’s house to my aunt’s house with pit stops at the sweet honey cactus carriages in between. I love her because of her beautiful views of lights from high above in the mountains. I love her sunset calls to prayers ringing from different corners of the city. I fell in love with her because of her smells, sounds, and flavors. I love her because she is what my father is made of.
How could he not want to go back and visit all of those memories? But soon, the revolution would tell me tales that would clarify why for my father, and many others, staying away meant keeping the bad memories of a cruel regime away too.
And so for my father I do what I do today. For him, I advocate for a free and democratic Syria. He will never get to see his country free, for he passed away earlier this week. But still, if he keeps tabs from up above, he will be happy to know that others will get to enjoy that freedom. How appropriate considering his legacy is exactly that: ensuring everyone else was taken care of, first and foremost.
Rest in peace Baba, and take care of all the young Syrian birds that may come across your path up above. One day we will prevail, and we will restore Syria to what it was meant to be for you and for all its martyrs. We won’t just use bandaids, but we will heal the wounds at their source.
I love you Baba.