I convinced myself before leaving for Syria that I would not cry once I got there. No matter what horror I saw or heard, I would be strong and I would not cry. But it was one of the first things I did once I arrived.
My parents immigrated to Canada from Deir Atiah, Syria, a small city just northeast of Damascus, when I was only a year and a half. Nevertheless, until the Syrian War began in 2011, we made frequent summertime visits, which kept me deeply connected to the country.
Year after year since the war started, I put off a return trip in the hopes that the situation would get better. It never got better. If anything, it only got worse. But I was not willing to wait forever to see my family – many of whom refused to leave Syria and become refugees – so I gathered my courage and booked our tickets.
People are leaving Syria, my friends and colleagues said before I departed. Why was I going to visit?
With no direct international flights into Syria, last July my mother and I flew from Toronto to Beirut, and then drove across the border to see my relatives. In normal circumstances it would have taken us no longer than two hours to drive from the Lebanese border to Deir Atiah; however, this time we had to stop at more than 15 military checkpoints. The drive took more than five hours.
The man who picked us up from Beirut's airport was a dual Syrian-Lebanese citizen who shuttles Syrian expatriates across the border. This man's job did not exist before the war. Although his job is extremely risky and stressful, it pays well, and anything that pays well is sought after in Syria's now-chaotic economy, where the stark rise in the cost of living has left many in poverty.
Not long after we crossed the Lebanese border we passed Harasta, a city empty of inhabitants and entirely destroyed. Since the onset of Syria's war I have come across countless photos and videos of the destruction, but a part of me has always been in a state of denial. This cannot possibly be Syria, I'd tell myself. But I could not deny what was before my eyes: windows shattered, buildings in ruins, you could see exactly where a bomb had dropped and bullets had landed. I cried silently as we drove by because I did not want to appear weak. I knew this was just the beginning of what I would see and hear. I wanted to be strong. So, I put on my sunglasses in the hopes that neither my mother nor our cab driver would notice.
As soon as we were in Syria, my first instinct was to take a photo. "Put your phone down!" our cab driver screamed. I obliged without objection, and later learned why I needed to be careful. Any photo that accidentally captured a Syrian soldier or military checkpoint could get me in serious trouble with the government, and along the highway Syrian soldiers and military checkpoints were everywhere. With my phone back in my purse, I merely observed and captured mental images of a country that I did not recognize. The peaceful, stable and secure Syria of my childhood was a thing of the past.
That evening, we arrived safely at my maternal grandparents' home in Deir Atiah and gathered with all of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I had longed for this family reunion for years. Everyone laughed and happily welcomed us as if there was no war, but it was clear from looking into their eyes that the conflict had taken a physical, emotional and mental toll.
In November, 2013, Deir Atiah was a battleground between government and opposition forces; my family had been forced to live in basements and get by on an inadequate amounts of food, electricity and water. The sound of gunshots haunt them still.
"You see those black dots?" my cousin said, as he pointed at the walls of their living room. "Those are where the bullets went through."
Shivers went down my spine.
Despite peace being relatively restored in Deir Atiah, their pain and heartbreak cannot be easily mended or erased. One of my cousins doesn't know whether her husband is dead or alive. He's been missing for more than three years, and she now runs her husband's business while raising their three little boys. One of my uncles was kidnapped and returned home only after being tortured and paying the kidnappers a $20,000 ransom. Another cousin and her husband lost their life savings on a home in Harasta that's been destroyed. My aunt had to fight through Islamic State militants in Yarmouk Camp, Damascus, while trying to retrieve important documents from her law firm. My cousin escaped death when her faculty at the University of Damascus was bombed – luckily that day she went home early. Many of my male cousins have been forced into the army to fight in a war that has no clear end in sight. And recently, in December, 2016, Damascus's water infrastructure was deliberately attacked and polluted, making life even more difficult for my many family members who live in the capital city.
While in Syria I asked those around me: "If you wanted me to say anything to people in Canada, what would it be?" No one gave me their political opinion or bothered pointing fingers at the different parties. Syrians in Syria are tired. They are drained, physically, emotionally and mentally. Instead, I received one common answer: "Tell them we want peace, we want this war to stop and we want our normal, war-free lives back."
But Syrians are not waiting – nor relying – on the mercy and initiative of the international community to push for peace. I witnessed this phenomenon with my own eyes.
There is a wall along one street in Deir Atiah that is full of art dedicated to spreading peace and how Syrians need to put their differences aside to rebuild the country. Not just the country's infrastructure and economy, but also its fragile and divided social fabric. In another neighbourhood, one man has planted flowers in a bombed area as a way of symbolizing that we should be planting peace in Syria, not bombs.
In Damascus, street banners advocate for Syrians to have mercy and forgive one another: two crucial pillars required for reconciliation in this country.
Many civil-society groups across Syria are taking it upon themselves to organize charity and food drives, as well as organizing children's sports, arts and educational activities to help rehabilitate children who have been traumatized.
Syrians are moving forward with their lives. War or no war, life goes on. The souk markets are crowded, there are weddings (I attended one while there!), and people still go out and have fun: They just place their faith in God that they'll make it to the next day.
Official peace talks in Geneva or Kazakhstan can try to stop the bloodshed, but I would argue that what's really going to mend this country are everyday, ordinary Syrians who have come to realize how important it is to stand as one and start building a foundation for long-term, durable peace.