Salam alaikum: a common Arabic greeting meaning peace come to you. Instead of commonly greeting each other with something like hi or hello, salam alaikum starts a conversation by wishing the other peace.
Aismi hu Waseem: my name is Waseem. This post offers a glimpse into Waseem’s life as a young Syrian man. Of course this isn’t even close to a complete account of Waseem’s life, but many stories make up a life. Like all true stories, Waseem’s is a mix of happiness, struggle, and everything in between.
Our lives are determined by our birthplace. For myself and many of you reading, we are tied to America. Our past present and future is inextricably tangled with the past present and future of America. A life varies greatly depending on the country we’re born and raised in. Waseem could have been any 20-something student going to any university in the world. He seemed like someone I could have met in school, a relatively typical college student, and in many ways, he is. It’s that connection between self and country that separates Waseem from the kind of person I could have met at Stout: Waseem grew up in Damascus, Syria.
Damascus holds many fond memories for Waseem. He remembers the everyday scenarios that make up a life, a life he considered good. Growing up on a busy street, his parents preferred he stay inside, so he soon became enchanted by video games and watching TV. Waseem has been interested in information technology (IT) for some time. Though he pursued an economics degree in Syria (due to entrance requirements), Waseem now hopes to study IT in Germany.
Hindsight tells us where this story is heading for civil war, which broke out in 2011. Syria’s 27.2 million residents in 2010, dropped to 18.5 million in 2016. Of those 18.5 million, the UNHCR approximates 12.5 million are displaced inside and outside Syria’s borders. Almost 68% of Syrians have felt so unsafe in their homes and cities there has been no choice for them but to flee.
Waseem remembers the exact moment where he first felt danger in Syria: May 10, 2012. He was a bit late getting to class when a friend called. Thinking his friend was checking if Waseem was coming to class, Waseem started the conversation by saying that he was on his way. “Don’t come,” his friend said instead. Waseem’s university had been bombed.
Danger was not unfamiliar to Waseem before this. Some of his friends and family suffered for standing up to Assad’s regime, or more commonly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of Waseem’s uncles was taken by the regime following a protest in 2011. For 15 days, he was kept in an army base. After the family had paid the regime for the uncle’s release, Waseem’s uncle told him this:
“Every half hour, every hour, they took people to torture them and the other people in the room could hear them. So one of the people got to torture, like they called his name and then they got him out. So when he came back, my uncle told me that they took his shirt off and then on his back from the top to the end of his back they found like piece of iron in his back, so they tried to remove it.” –Waseem
Two of Waseem’s friends suffered at the hands of the regime for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One friend was arrested at an Internet café.
“Out of the blue there’s a bus like from the army base by my house and they took everyone in the Internet café including the owner. No one knowed why. So my friend, when he saw that, he got into the bathroom, called his father and he was like ‘hey dad the army is here and he’s taking everyone here in the Internet café”. His aunt’s man was a guard in the army so he would know where he was, like he would try to know. Then after three or four hours he told them he was in the basement near my place. This area is under the army base all under the ground. They put the army base in like civilian areas so no one can hit them. That’s our regime’s thing you know. All the army bases are in the civilian’s area so no one can hit… It was so crowded that no one could sit, you have to like stay on your feet for all day long, even if you want to sleep you can sleep like standing up. The whole day they would eat a piece of bread and a boiled potato. Just to keep you alive so they can torture you. The 24 hours he was in, 3 people died. Just from standing there and from the diseases that got to them since there is no sun no anything. And also like the same each half an hour or each hour they put something on your face and take you to the torture… Each day they would investigate with some of the guys that they took, acted like a torture also. So they take like your Facebook account they take your Instagram account they take everything, also your phone to like search in them. And they keep spying on your calls and messages for almost a year after the let you out. And they like each 24 hours they would let one of the guys out until they got the guy. And until now, no one knows where he is. If he’s alive or not. There’s a lot of stories like that.” –Waseem
The reason for the arrest of an entire Internet cafe? One person opened a Facebook page opposing the regime. Under Assad, anything goes.
Now, Waseem is in Germany with his mom and two sisters. There are many people he knows in Syria, including his dad who chose to stay with their house. Even more numerous are the memories tied to Syria. Even with just the snapshot you have of Waseem’s life by reading this, it’s clear there is scarring memories of Syria, along with happy ones. Waseem chooses life, part of which is choosing to focus on life now and the positive past of Syria.
“Like we still think like it’s a horrible thing and it’s like you can’t get used to it, but it’s like you can’t do anything or else you’re gonna die too,” Waseem said.
Living under Assad’s regime is confining and horrific, but of the 30-35 Syrians I met, every single one said they had had good lives in Syria. It wasn’t always a place where high school boys can die by misdirected sniper fire through their bedroom window, or car bombs destroyed lives and livelihoods. There’s a process to create a mass exodus from a country, but it’s shocking how quickly that can happen. This could happen anywhere. When France’s Charlie Hebdo was attacked, we all became Charlie: je suis Charlie. Even though that may not have led to support in action, it at least showed we cared. I like to believe that most of us do care about Syrians, yet there is not even a social media trend showcasing this support.
We are all humans; nothing is so fundamentally different about Syrians as humans that should stop us from feeling and showing compassion for their suffering. Let us show Syrians, within Syria and refugees around the world, humanity has not abandoned them. Aismi hu Syria.