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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

At first, it was another normal day.

We were sitting in my grandparent’s house in Damascus after dinner. My uncles and my father were screaming their hearts out, their attention focused on a small TV screen. “What’s so interesting about soccer that you can cry, laugh and scream, as reactions to a player scoring a goal?” I wondered.

I left my family to the game and walked toward the window, lifting up the curtains just in time to see a bomb collide with the ground not too far away. The sky filled with dust and flying shards of debris. People ran, hands in the air, screaming and rushed to protect loved ones. It was like a scene from a historical painting and it startled me. I stepped back immediately without a sound and everyone stopped what they were doing. We stopped to take in the moment, listening to the shooting and bombing for a second more before returning to the tasks at hand.

Prior to settling in Canada in 2016, this sort of violence made up a typical day in the life of my family.

It wasn’t always so normal to live within a war zone in Syria. Explosions were once a sign of extreme terror and cause for alarm. And although I didn’t feel any nonchalance, I put on an act and pretended that I did, just to be like everyone else. “I’m not scared, not one bit,” I lied to myself.

I noticed my younger sister Shahd was no longer in Tete’s, my grandmother’s, lap, so I went looking for her.

“You’re here again?” I asked, raising an eyebrow after my search was over. She didn’t respond, instead keeping her hands on her ears while hiding under Uncle Ali’s bed. Before I could tell her to come out, an explosion rattled the ground and I, too, was overtaken by the urge to go under the bed.

The gunfire and shelling went on for hours. And since the soccer game had ended long ago, there were no more distractions from reality. Most of the kids slept on mats laid out on the floor, giving up on the idea they’d be returning home soon.

I looked over at my parents and saw their worried expressions. It was strange to catch that side of them as they always tried to laugh things out and act as if the war had no effect on them. But I knew all along that they didn’t want their children to feel hopeless and fearful. Regardless, we still felt that way, but I appreciated their efforts.

It was 1 a.m. when most of the family decided to head back home. The question was how, and most of all – why? We could’ve just slept there for the night.

“Let’s all stay here!” I said. “We have 10 blankets. We can lay them on the ground …” But I was cut off by the adults’ furious planning.

I tapped my fingers on my thighs, a nervous habit of mine, waiting for the next steps. We are not going to run through the flying bullets, are we?” I wondered.

Finally, I watched my relatives slip out, one after the other, prayers and wishes following them out the door. I couldn’t help but pay attention to their facial expressions – first worried, then relieved.

As our turn approached, I watched my parents’ serious faces. In a matter of minutes, we were the only ones left. Without any explanation, Baba, my father, carried me on his back and Mama carried Shahd.

“Son, you could always just stay here for the night. No need to rush things,” Grandpa said.

“It’s all right Baba; don’t worry. We’re Just a couple blocks away,” my father replied, his voice betraying the nervousness outpacing his bright spirits.

“3 … 2 … 1!”

Before I could take a big breath, we were dashing and dodging bullets. Those few seconds spent running felt like ages. It was the first time I hated the narrow pathways where me and my cousins usually played. There was no protection, no shelter from what comes from above. I felt Baba’s sweat drenching the collar of his shirt, which made me lose my firm grip. I tried grasping onto his shirt instead of his neck.

After the scariest seconds of my life were over, we stood at front of our door. Baba quickly searched his pockets for the key, taking everything out and throwing it on the ground, desperate to find it.

I started to panic, screaming in my head: “We made it, come on, things can’t go wrong now!”

“Ahmad, no.” Mama pleaded, “The key is with you; please look carefully!”

When Baba fished the key out, we all visibly relaxed. It slipped into the lock, but the door wouldn’t budge open.

And then, it did. After moments of panic, we tumbled inside.

Later, while we sat in a circle around the small stove making French fries, Baba said, “That was a close one out there, eh?” He was not necessarily sad or serious, but he was touching upon a sensitive topic. We had just escaped death and probably didn’t want to talk about it, especially in the darkness due to a power outage.

“I just had to jab the key into the lock and aggressively force it in. Not too bad!” He chuckled, more to himself though because I don’t think any of us found that funny. We were about to die out there.

“Okay. It’s time I tell you a story,” Baba began. I already knew what he’d say before he even started.

“Did I ever tell you about my math story?” Baba asked, genuinely curious. But I could see the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

Shahd and me started complaining: “Baba, yes. You told us about this a billion, hundred, million times!”

“All right, all right,” he conceded.

I was both relieved and interested to hear what story he’s got next.

“When I was in high school, I was obsessed with math …”

“Noooo!” we cried out and buried our faces in our hands.

Baba laughed and Mama joined in. I didn’t want to seem like I lost this so-called “battle,” but I couldn’t help but laugh along, too.

My dad had always said this: “At the end of the day, we can’t control our misery, so we should at least take advantage of what we can control – our happiness.”

Sedra Alshamaly lives in Milton, Ont.