It had been a hot August day. I managed to get my passport stamped by the Turkish authorities, and head to the bus loading area, where I would begin my journey back home, into Syria. I climbed into a small bus packed with women and children. A bearded man politely offered me his seat and helped me get my suitcases onto the bus. "Sit down, Hajeh," he said, "Hajeh" being a word of respect for women, especially ones that are veiled, I was at the time.
I saw two crying children and put them on my lap, trying to comfort and sooth them as their mother struggled to get her bags on the bus. It was an intensely emotional experience; you could almost smell the poverty and despair in the air, mixed with plenty of uncertainty. But at the same time you could also feel a sense of community amongst these people -- bonded by their experiences and the suffering they had endured in the last few years.
Hours later, when we were getting off the bus, I caught sight of an elderly one-legged man walking slowly alongside his wife, trying hard to drag their suitcases. A little boy with a big carriage offered to help me by putting my suitcases in his carriage, and I invited the elderly couple to join us, which they happily accepted. I felt a relief that I could help this one man, but at the same time, I kept thinking, how many of these elderly people, disabled and helpless do we have today in our country because of this war? I could not resist tearing up. I tried to look and act strong but the overwhelming emotion I felt made it difficult.
But the sense of loss and tragedy were not the only emotions of that day. As the bus arrived on the Syrian side of the border, I also felt a positive, energetic vibe. I could smell my country, my homeland. My mind went back to the first time I entered the liberated territories of Northern Syria in January 2013 with Houssam and Afra, my dearest friends, and my old students, Qutaiba, Najla, Imad and Mouhanad. I remembered the delight we all felt at seeing the green flags of the revolution everywhere we looked. I remembered how we all envisioned a new democratic and nonviolent future for Syria. How clearly I recalled the singing, the chanting, and the sense of community and hope that came with the early stages of our revolution.
This time it was different. I could feel the destruction, the sadness and the loss of hope that had come with all these years of bloodshed. I was hiding my cross, the symbol of my faith, and had put on a veil to look Muslim, to hide the simple fact that I am a Syrian Christian. I knew I had to make it into Syria, not only because I had some supplies to help these women stuck in the middle of a conflict zone, but also, to show my solidarity and deliver as much aid as possible to their children, even if this meant I had to hide my religion and wear a veil in order to protect myself. As we came across checkpoints manned by bearded teenagers, I was again struck with a feeling of despair. Were these the same boys who were dancing and chanting two years ago? Are they the same ones who were holding their books and eagerly waiting for the revolution to finish so they could go back to the school? Have they given up hope and chose instead the path of extremism and bloodshed?
As the bus rolled on, we crossed more checkpoints, but relatively quickly, as we had many women amongst us and women usually don't get checked as thoroughly. Through the windows, I saw only more destruction, many more destroyed homes, and more hopeless faces. As I looked to the sky, I searched for the green flag that had been the symbol of our revolution, the flag my Dad and relatives carried after our victorious rebellion against French occupation, but I didn't see it. I saw only black and white flags proclaiming the fundamentalists groups but no green flag representing our revolution of dignity of freedom. Sadly, in the liberated north, this flag no longer flies.
A week later when I was back in South Turkey, I went to a small village near Kassab on the Turkish border, where Syrian youth were helping Syrian children in a school run by two Syrian women, both of whom were previously detained by the regime for nine years. Here I found reasons for hope. These are the women, youth and children who are the hope and future of Syria. I can feel it, I can see the light at the end of the dark tunnel. I can feel the hope emanating through those women, youth and children in the middle of an ugly war.
I looked again at the sky while I heard the children and youth singing, and I imagined the return of the green flag.
To be continued.