From Stanford to Syria

Sad Asian boy behind barbed wire. Focus on barbed wire. Like a refugee camp.
Sad Asian boy behind barbed wire. Focus on barbed wire. Like a refugee camp.

I'm at 401 Quarry Road, Stanford, CA. I'm at my desk in the Psychiatry Department at Stanford University School of Medicine, staring at my computer when I receive a desktop news notification: "Airstrikes destroy what's left of Aleppo."

My fingers stop typing, and my mind instantly leaves Stanford and takes me back to conversations I had a month ago with Syrian refugees across Jordan.

Nisreen: "We knew that the airstrikes were inevitable, but I used to wish they would come only at night. That's when I gave my kids tranquilizers so they can sleep through everything. And I used to wish they would be hit and killed in their sleep so they didn't experience so much fear anymore." Tranquilizers - a rough Arabic translation of benzodiazepines - given to children as young as two years old to sleep through the war.

Marwa: "I want to be a doctor but I can't bring myself to go to school. My last day of school in Syria, ISIS came and gang raped all the girls in my class. Three men for every girl. We all sat around watching the other girls knowing it was going to be our turn soon. And the boys - they were burned alive in front of us. So, yes, I want to be a doctor but I don't think I'm strong enough to go back to school." Marwa was in sixth grade when this happened.

I want to be a doctor but I can't bring myself to go to school. My last day of school in Syria, ISIS came and gang raped all the girls in my class.

Ahmad: "I keep writing letters to my dad, and I think he's getting them. I haven't seen him since we left Syria. He went to get me chips from the grocery store for my birthday, and he never came back. It's my birthday soon, though, so maybe he'll come back." Ahmad, seven years old, has been viscerally awaiting his father's return for two years.

My thoughts are interrupted by my vibrating phone. It's a Syrian woman from Jordan calling to let me know she hasn't been able to reach her son in Aleppo for days and is terrified. Amidst harrowing, free flowing tears of desperation, I tell her that I am here for her. That we will do what we can to find her son. That, in the face of the worst possible adversity, she is not alone.

I am overwhelmed by a sense of social and cultural disorientation that induces nausea. I am physically at Stanford University amidst incredible, almost palpable, security and opportunity. My mind, however, is with families like Nisreen's and Marwa's and Ahmad's, whose lives have been devoid of such things for the past six years since the start of the war. My heart is with the millions of families who continue to witness unspeakable horror during the ongoing war and consequent displacement.

I keep writing letters to my dad, and I think he's getting them. I haven't seen him since we left Syria.

I question how I got here. I question why I, a native Syrian just like them, do not have to wonder whether my family members and friends have just been killed. Every day, I question why or how I am afforded safety and security while thousands of miles away from home.

The truth is that I don't yet know how to answer these questions. I don't yet know how to assuage the overwhelming sense of disorientation I experience as I continue to be granted opportunities at a time when my people at home continue to have everything taken away from them. I don't yet know how to navigate the two worlds I occupy. What I do know, however, is that I will do everything I can to ensure my people's stories of anguish are heard publicly and loudly - to ensure their indelible wounds from war are seen widely and visibly. In a world that chooses to silence refugees' voices on the basis of their ethnic or religious identities - to highlight their physical separateness and cultural differences - I will emphasize our shared yearning for security and opportunity. I will ensure Nisreen's and Marwa's and Ahmad's voices are heard thousands of miles away.