Moutasem and Sarah watch their breath in the frigid February air. We are in the principal’s office of Muhammad al-Fatih, a secondary school for teenagers of Syrian refugees in Antakya, Turkey. The school has no heat, but it is better to freeze here than to be in Syria right now, my Syrian translator Hazim tells me. There, the army patrols villages and cities, killing suspected activists. Men, women, children. No one is safe. If the army could arrest the air, he says, it would.
Hazim is a Sunni Muslim, as are the students in the school and the rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The rebels have been battling the troops of President Bashar al-Assad since March 2011.
Syria’s Alawite minority and Sunni majority have been at odds for hundreds of years. The minority Alawites, like Assad, dominate Syria’s government, hold key military positions, and enjoy a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth.
Moutasem and Sarah, and other children I will meet in the coming days, have had their lives upended by a war made more complicated by centuries of ethnic rivalry.
Moutasem, fifteen, wears black shoes, pressed blue jeans, and a red wool sweater, and slouches, relaxed, in his chair. His eyes stare intently. When he sees me shiver in the cold, he offers me his coat.
The day he left Syria was the worst of Hazim’s life. He felt paralyzed. He had a girlfriend he wanted to marry. But as the only son in a family of seven daughters, his father refused to let him stay behind.
Wahob, his father, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and opposed the regime of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. The regime tried to kill Wahob in the 1980s, so he fled from Syria to Jordan with his family. When he was seven, Moutasem returned to Syria with his mother and two brothers to renew their passports. A Syrian border guard arrested them. When they entered the jail, they were stripped of their clothes, given gray prison garb, and put in the same cell. On a table, Moutasem saw electric cords, stakes, ropes, and hooks. At night, he heard screaming. Don’t say anything about Assad, his mother warned him after the screaming had stopped, or we won’t get out. They were released after twenty-eight days without explanation, and they returned to Jordan.
When Moutasem’s father heard about the revolt against Assad, he said the regime must fall. He moved his family to Antakya.
The Alawites hate the Sunni, Moutasem says. My father tells me the Alawites think Sunni are worse than Jews. They love to kill Sunni more than they do the Israelis. But my father says, we will kill them now.
You understand, he says to Hazim.
Of course, Hazim replies.
He watches Moutasem leave.
Fuck this war, Hazim whispers under his breath so Sarah doesn’t hear him.
I met Hazim by chance. I was walking in downtown Antakya a few days earlier, trying to find a store to replace my broken cell phone. I had just returned to Turkey from a reporting assignment in Syria. No one I spoke to understood even the slightest English, and I know no Turkish. Then I saw a young, thin man in a leather coat cleaning his glasses at a bus stop. On a whim, I asked if he spoke English. Of course, why wouldn’t I? he asked. He was Syrian, he explained, and had learned English in school. He spoke Arabic, but he was studying Turkish in the hope of finding a job. I told him I was about to begin reporting on the children of Syrian refugees. I needed a translator, and offered him a job.
Hazim fled to Antakya in December 2012. He was a 25-year-old medical student in Tayybet al-Imam, a village near Hama, Syria, when the revolution started. He did not participate in the demonstrations, as he never felt oppressed by Assad. To him, the government was like the mafia. If a Sunni man didn’t get a job, he said, oh, it must have gone to an Alawite, and that was that. No big deal. And everyone knew not to discuss politics. Since he was a child, Hazim’s family told him don’t talk politics.
He thought the rebels should not have resorted to arms. The regime was too strong. Assad had thousands of soldiers and tanks. No way would he fall. If they wanted change, the rebels should have stayed in school. Start with yourself, that’s what Gandhi said. The only thing guns will do is start a civil war.
Hazim blames the rebellion for his arrest last year. He was held by the security forces because his name was the same as that of an FSA fighter. An officer forced Hazim to stand in a field under the sun for six hours. Then he beat him. He asked no questions. When he stopped hitting him, the officer took Hazim by the shirt and looked at the names on his cell phone, recognizing none of them. He let go of his shirt. It seems to me you did not do anything, the officer told him. Go home.
When the FSA descended upon Hazim’s village, people pleaded with them to leave. It was not a strategic place, they said. But the FSA didn’t listen. It was not his wish to be there, an FSA commander said, but he had his orders. Soon, the government began shelling the village. People fled to their basements and were buried alive by collapsed buildings. There was no place to hide and no place to go but Turkey.
The day he left Syria was the worst of Hazim’s life. He felt paralyzed. He had a girlfriend he wanted to marry. But as the only son in a family of seven daughters, his father refused to let him stay behind. Hazim had a responsibility to live, find a wife, and perpetuate the family name. His father would not leave him to die in the revolution.
The truck they shared with other refugees had no room for luggage or possessions of any kind. Hazim and his family brought only the clothes they wore and their cell phones. He thought the FSA would soon leave his village and he would be able to return. How could they match Assad’s forces? But the FSA stayed and the shelling continues.
The rebels say they are fighting for freedom, Hazim told me. Freedom? Really? Our house is destroyed and people are being killed. We are refugees and I have no job. Fuck this freedom.
After Moutasem leaves, Sarah pulls her chair closer to Hazim and me. She has on jeans, a cream-colored sweater, and a white headscarf. Her smile will break hearts one day.
Now thirteen, Sarah was born in the Syrian city of Homs. She enjoyed playing in public gardens with her friends as they drew lines in the dirt and jumped rope, skipping over the lines. They told each other secrets: about a boy who said he loved a girl and about another boy who stared all the time at a girl whom none of the other girls liked. A whisper in the ear meant it was a secret although it was just normal talk between girls.
Politics didn’t exist in her home. Her parents never spoke about it. They warned her not to get close to Alawite girls. Their parents may have a relative in the army or in the security forces. They might make trouble for us if you have a problem with her. Sarah had heard stories about Sunni people being arrested by the security forces. They cut off the ear of an old woman and they beat a man to death. Sarah stopped talking to Alawite girls.
Although her parents did not participate in the anti-Assad demonstrations, seven security officers barged into their house one morning at 6 a.m. to search it. They broke down the door and overturned furniture and swore at the family. After they left, Sarah’s parents righted the furniture and told her not to speak to her friends about what had happened.
When the demonstrations turned violent, Sarah heard shooting outside her house almost every day. She couldn’t eat because of the people she saw killed. One time, a government sniper shot an old man. Another time, a sniper shot at two boys walking down the street. He missed. The taller boy embraced the smaller boy and knelt on the ground and the sniper fired again. The boys died holding each other. The next day, Sarah saw a woman shot in the shoulder. The woman lived.
He wrote Assad’s name on paper and put it inside his shoe so he would step on him throughout the day. He took the paper out only when he entered a mosque so he would not insult God.
When they left Homs, Sarah’s family took a bus to Damascus to apply for passports and visas. A week later, they took another bus to Antakya. They stayed with friends who helped them find an apartment. The apartment did not have a refrigerator or washing machine. Thieves broke in one afternoon and stole coal, blankets, and clothes. Now, a year and a half later, the family has some furniture: a sofa, table, and chairs. They sleep on mattresses on the floor.
Sarah no longer thinks about her home in Homs. It was destroyed in the fighting. It’s gone. It no longer matters.
The Almaz Yilmaz Market, in an Alawite neighborhood, stands a few blocks from the school. Hazim and I stop there for lunch after we speak with Sarah. The shopkeeper asks Hazim where I am from. Hazim explains I am an American reporter writing a story about the students at the school. The shopkeeper then asks Hazim his nationality. Lebanese, Hazim lies. My parents emigrated to the United States where I now live.
The shopkeeper nods. I thought you were Syrian, he said, because you speak Arabic. Syrians make trouble in Turkey. They eat at restaurants and don’t pay. They say they are in the care of the government and the prime minister pays our bills. Hospitals give Syrians priority. If a Turk is sick, too bad. The hospitals have no room for them. Some Sunni say we are fighting the Alawites in Syria and when we defeat them, we will fight them in Turkey. Everyone knows this. They are a big problem.
I know how it is, Hazim says. It’s like the Mexicans. They are coming into the United States all the time.
When we finish our lunch, Hazim and I cross the town for al-Bashaer Elementary School. It serves Syrian refugee children ages six to twelve. The school resembles a series of square blocks piled one atop the other, painted bright colors that have long since faded. A muddy road leads to a broken front gate. We let ourselves in and follow a cracked stairway to the principal’s office. Hazim explains our purpose and she tells us of a boy, Abd-alrahman, who lost his father in the war. We ask to meet him.
After a few minutes, Abd-alrahman walks into the principal’s office and sits in a chair. His feet barely touch the floor and his jeans puddle around his ankles. Abd-alrahman tells Hazim he is twelve years old, but when the principal gives him a look, he stares at the floor and admits he is ten. But he feels as old as twelve, he hastily adds. He lives in Antakya with his mother, older brother, and three sisters. His father was an FSA soldier who died a martyr.
Abd-alrahman grew up in Idlib, Syria. He played soccer with friends and liked to hang around shops in the bazaar. On holidays, he studied the Koran. His father was an imam, a prayer leader. He had a wonderful voice.
In school, Abd-alrahman knew boys with no fathers. He asked them, Where is your father? He was in the Muslim Brotherhood and killed by Assad, they told him. What is this Brotherhood? Who is Assad? From these conversations, he learned to hate Assad. He wrote Assad’s name on paper and put it inside his shoe so he would step on him throughout the day. He took the paper out only when he entered a mosque so he would not insult God.
One afternoon, Abd-alrahman jumped on the back of a pickup driven by security forces. He wanted to show he was not afraid of Assad. He wanted to be a martyr. The pickup moved very fast. In the name of God! he yelled and jumped off. He brushed the dust from his clothes. Only a few scratches on his hands. He survived. He would lead his family into paradise another day. His mother nearly fainted when he told her what he had done.
Abd-alrahman learned about the revolution on the same day his father had promised to give him a bicycle. He pestered his father for it throughout the day until his father snapped, Go away!
But you promised!
Don’t bother me! A man was killed today by the security forces for demonstrating.
As the revolution grew increasingly violent, Abd-alrahman saw lots of men carrying guns and shooting them. He collected shell casings to sell for scrap. He would give the money to the FSA. At one demonstration, he opened his arms and screamed, Kill me! God is great! He heard bullets whistle past him. He did not run, and he did not die.
A concrete wall encloses a courtyard used by the elementary school as a playground for the children. Trash fills cracks in the ruined walls and open sewers. Water gathers in pools beneath limp vines clinging to the building.
Samer Mohammad apologizes for the condition of the playground. He moves in rushed little jerks and jolts like someone in a maze unsure where to turn next. His face drains into his narrow chin and his eyes are bloodshot from too little sleep.
We have nothing but a dirt road to the school and garbage for the children to play in, he says.
Mohammad was a merchant in Damascus when the revolution started. He saw government planes bombing villages outside the city. Tanks rumbled through downtown and he felt the ground quake. The tanks fired and buildings fell. He heard gunfire but never knew what direction it was coming from.
Every day, he hurried his wife and children out of their apartment when it felt too dangerous to stay inside, but he had no idea where to take them next. No place in Damascus seemed safe. When his six-year-old daughter began to vomit daily he carried her to a hospital. She was not sick, the doctor told him, just terrified. Fear controlled him, and he fled with his family to Antakya.
Sometimes when he walks among the students, Mohammad weeps. They have been through so much. They play war games. Two boys take on the role of the government-backed militias. The other boys try to capture them. Stop killing, stop killing, they shout.
The students often talk about Assad, repeating the words of their parents. He kills people, they say. The Alawites hate us. They tell each other, my house was destroyed, and I saw a man killed by a bullet. Another will respond, my brother was killed in the shelling. We couldn’t save him.
Now the children see their parents distracted by the struggle to find work and food. They learn their parents can no longer help them.
Adults understand it’s a war. Children, however, understand only that they feel sad. Their souls remain attached to their country and their home.
Their bodies are in Turkey but without their souls, Mohammad says.
In the afternoon, a bus carries Sarah and the other girls home from school. Her family lives in an Alawite neighborhood. They are the only Sunni family in the area. They appreciate the generosity of their Alawite neighbors for permitting them to rent an apartment. But they seldom go out.
When they do, passersby ask, How are you, Sunni Syrians? Good morning, Sunni Syrians. Have a nice day, Sunni Syrians. The greetings make Sarah feel weird, especially because the people acknowledging them are Alawite. Are they making fun of us? she wonders. Mocking us? Making jokes about us?
Her father found a job as a driver for a doctor who lives in Reyhandli, a Turkish town almost on the border with Syria. One afternoon, driving home, he got into an accident and broke his right leg and some ribs. The police and an ambulance soon arrived. He was lifted out of the truck and laid on the ground and left there. He called some Sunni friends on his cell phone to take him to the hospital.
At home, Moutasem’s family teases him for eating too fast. He smiles and shovels food into his mouth. In jail, he and his mother and two brothers were given one plate of rice and bread for the day. The guard would open the door and throw the plate in. The food scattered on the floor but Moutasem ate it anyway. He was very hungry.
Hazim, his parents, and seven sisters share an apartment with another Syrian family not far from where Sarah lives. Eighteen adults and many children squeeze together. The two families sleep in one large room. Hazim has a small room to himself because he is not married. Some nights, he walks outside and screams, I don’t want to be here!
His father hopes to return to Syria soon. A science teacher, he does not look for work in Antakya. Instead, he just waits for the war to end. In the morning, he buys bread for the family but does little else the rest of the day. A woman in their building told him it was the destiny of Syrian refugees to be like Palestinians and live without a country of their own.
Abandoned, the neighborhood reminded Barakat of a flea market after the merchants had gone for the day and only empty vendor stalls and swirling scraps of trash remained.
Hazim does want to be like the Palestinians. When he feels desperate, he calls his girlfriend. He cannot describe her beauty. Everything around her—the trees, the river, the singing of birds, even the sunlight—enhances her good looks. Syrians appreciate love. If two guys saw them sitting together, they would leave them alone without a word. Hazim and his girlfriend held hands when they could, but not often. Some of her friends were conservative. People might talk, assuming they were having sex. It would be bad news for her and her family if a rumor like that started. Instead, they would touch each other’s hands, then withdraw their fingers quickly. If no one was around, Hazim’s girlfriend would remove her headscarf and reveal her long black hair. Don’t cut your hair, Hazim always tells her.
Hazim tries to speak with his girlfriend on the phone, but the coverage is poor and they are often cut off. So they wait. They agree they can’t wait forever. They have to make a decision about their lives, whether they have a future together.
I miss you, she tells him.
I wish I could see you, Hazim says. But I can’t.
Abd-alrahman’s mother, Taj al-deen Barhoom, feels as trapped as Hazim.
At night, she struggles against the cold. She can’t afford fuel to heat the apartment. When her children complain of the chill, they gather in one room and huddle to warm themselves. If her husband were here, he’d move them to another building where the heat was not so expensive. If he were here, she would say to Abd-alrahman when he misbehaved, I’ll tell your father. Now, when she says, Don’t go to the park, you’re a Syrian in a foreign country surrounded by Alawites, he doesn’t listen.
Barhoom and her husband, Walad Said Eissa, had raised their family in Idlib before the war. They hated the Assad regime long before the revolution. Her uncle and a brother were executed by Hafez al-Assad in 1982. Her husband tore photographs of Assad from his children’s textbooks and spit on them.
Eissa used to teach the Koran. The security forces wanted to know how many students he had, what kind of work they did, and what they spoke about. Eissa told them, I won’t be a spy for you. I just want to teach the Koran.
He was arrested and held for three to four hours. His hatred for Assad grew deeper and deeper. His children knew this, but he told them, Don’t tell any of your friends we hate him.
When the revolution started, Barhoom and Eissa joined in the demonstrations. She was so enthusiastic. She marched while pregnant with their youngest daughter. If anything happens to us, she told her husband, it is God’s wish. Her faith did not prevent her from worrying, however. Eissa told her death would be more merciful than arrest. She kept an eye on her children, especially the boys. When Abd-alrahman jumped onto the pickup, she thought he had lost his mind. She told him to stay away from the demonstrations, but he was stubborn. He would stand on the balcony of their house and shout, I’ll jump if you don’t let me out. I hate Assad!
When they heard the Syrian army was converging on Idlib, the family decided to leave town. They knew they would be arrested as activists. They stayed in Aleppo with Barhoom’s sister-in-law. Then news came that the army had entered Idlib and destroyed their home. They fled to Turkey and stayed in a refugee camp where she gave birth to her daughter. They remained in the camp for sixteen weeks before they moved to Antakya and moved in with members of her family who had left Syria months earlier.
Stay with your family so I can go back and fight with the FSA, Eissa told her. I hope our triumph is fast so I can come back with a big car, and we can all return to Syria.
They called one another every day. A week after he left, Eissa told Barhoom that he was about to go into a big battle and asked for her prayers. The next day, the army surrounded his FSA platoon, but with God’s help they survived. That night Eissa suggested to the other FSA fighters that they not sleep together as a group to avoid being wiped out if the regime started firing rockets. Each fighter picked a different olive tree to lie under. Eissa propped up on a bedroll and read the Koran by moonlight. At some point in the night, the regime began shelling. Eissa was struck in the stomach. He died immediately, a rebel commander told Barhoom.
This afternoon, Hazim and I sit in on a political science class taught by 22-year-old Nuboog Barakat at the secondary school.
Barakat: What are the reasons behind the revolution?
Students (shouting): To seek freedom and justice.
To spread Islam everywhere.
To stop torture, imprisonment.
Barakat looks little older than her students. But she can be stern, as when she tells them to speak one at a time, no exceptions. Like an auctioneer, she points at their upraised hands. She started teaching at nineteen in Aleppo, living then in a classy neighborhood of public parks and gardens and tall apartment buildings with courtyards and fountains. When the fighting started, many families fled. Abandoned, the neighborhood reminded Barakat of a flea market after the merchants had gone for the day and only empty vendor stalls and swirling scraps of trash remained.
Farah’s mother screamed at her husband, Let them arrest you. They are just beating you up, and blood has covered your face in front of your daughter! What is the point? They are killing you in front of the children! You cannot defend yourself!
At the secondary school, she teaches seventh through tenth grade: history, science, math, and English. Sometimes, one or two of her students will act depressed and won’t participate in class. She becomes more mother and psychiatrist than teacher. The students tell her about their flight from Syria and how they miss every piece of their home. They miss their own beds, their pillows.
Barakat: What is going to happen in Syria?
Students (shouting): The revolution is going ahead to victory.
Moutasem sits among the students. Barakat will never forget his story. His first memory of Syria was going to jail. What is Syria to him? That is not Syria. That is the regime. Once, she asked her students to make drawings of how they felt. They chose dark colors, red and black. One boy told her, I lost my father to the regime. What could she say? Your father is in paradise now, be happy? Be pleased he’s no longer being tortured?
Barakat: What will happen when the revolution is victorious?
Students (shouting): The hands of Alawites and those with the regime will be red with blood.
We will find and punish supporters of Assad.
Everyone with the Syrian army must appear in an Islamic court.
No, we just want them to leave.
Our religion teaches us killers should be killed.
Sometimes Barakat and her students sing simple songs about Syria to ease their pain. But the memories remain. Perhaps what her students are experiencing is all part of the sacrifice for freedom. Barakat can accept this if, in the end, something worthy develops from the struggle. What is the price that should be paid for freedom? How much of it should be borne by children? What is the will of God?
During breaks between classes, Sarah and her friends run through the halls. Down with the regime! they shout, God bless the FSA! Out of breath, they stop and tell one another stories about how they snuck into Turkey illegally and how the security forces broke into their homes and destroyed everything and arrested everyone they saw. They sit in a group. Girl after girl speaks. Then it’s 16-year old Farah’s turn.
Farah grew up in Latakia, Syria. A gorgeous city, she tells the girls. So lovely she cannot describe it. She remembers the balcony in her grandmother’s apartment. From it, she saw a vast area of neighborhoods, parks, and skyscrapers. She felt as if she were looking upon the entire world.
Her father became an activist when the revolution started. He often had to leave the house and hide from the security forces in a friend’s home. The family stayed in touch through Skype. One time, when they thought he was still hiding, he came to the house. I miss you, he said. I’ll stay with you tonight.
The next morning, March 23, 2012, two busloads of security forces followed by three cars and three pickups descended on the neighborhood. The soldiers spread out on the street and on rooftops. They aimed their guns at Farah’s house. Her father ran from room to room looking for a place to hide. He dashed upstairs to the second floor as the security forces kicked in the front door. There are only women here. What do you want? her mother shouted at them.
Farah stayed upstairs with her father. Her heart beat so hard she had difficulty breathing. She helped hide him in a bedroom closet behind a rack of clothes. Her uncle argued with the soldiers outside the room in the hall. It is just myself and women, he told them. You are only here to steal from us. They ignored him and knocked on the bedroom door. Let us in!
Farah shouted, Wait! I am putting on my headscarf. She waited until the clothes around her father stopped moving then opened the door. Her uncle followed a soldier inside. The soldier searched the room with a gun. Farah tried to slow her breathing. But her heart beat so hard she thought she would choke. The soldier opened the closet door, closed it. Nothing here, sir!
Farah let out a long breath as quietly as she could. The soldier smiled at her and left but another soldier came in. He paused and stared at the closet. Farah’s mouth went dry. The soldier reached inside the closet and threw clothes on the floor until he saw Farah’s father and pulled him out by the hair.
Let my father go! Farah screamed. Leave him, leave him!
The soldier hit her in the face, and she fell. Her uncle reached for her and the soldier struck him with the butt of his rifle. Her father resisted and the other soldiers crowded into the room and handcuffed him and began to beat him. Farah’s mother screamed at her husband, Let them arrest you. They are just beating you up, and blood has covered your face in front of your daughter! What is the point? They are killing you in front of the children! You cannot defend yourself!
Without shoes, he was dragged downstairs and outside. Farah and her mother continued screaming, Leave him, leave him! He has done nothing! Neighbors gathered around and shouted, Thank you for this martyr. God is great. The soldiers swore at the neighbors and pointed their guns at them. We will shoot you if you don’t stop! their commander said.
Farah’s father struggled to his feet. His shirt had risen up, and his back and neck were red. He looked around, and Farah thought his eyes seemed to be saying goodbye to everything he saw. He didn’t speak. Then a soldier pushed down on his head and shoved him into the back seat of a car. Farah’s 10-year old sister collapsed on the ground. Father, father, father, she said. The entire family wept.
Farah has not seen her father since he was taken away. The family fled to Turkey to avoid further arrests. Today, when Farah hears someone in the neighborhood call for their father, she cries because she cannot call her own. She has a three-year-old brother. He tells friends that the security forces tortured his father and took him to jail. But then his father escaped to fight with the FSA.
The boy, Farah tells the girls, has convinced himself of this. Farah is happy for him. He’s too young to understand. Let him have his story.
Teacher Amina Osman Kosa stands in the hall, listening to the girls tell their stories. God willing, her students will forget the horrible things they’ve seen. God willing, the regime won’t continue and Syria will rebuild itself. Maybe that’s how the children will forget.
She and her husband anticipated the revolution after watching the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt on TV. When the protests started in Latakia, where they lived, her 49-nine-year-old husband and 18-year-old son joined them. Kosa stayed home and cried and prayed to God to keep them safe.
Moutasem looks forward to living in Syria. What does it look like? The ground, the buildings? He saw only the inside of a police truck and a jail before. He wants to see this place where he was born, the country of his origin.
Her husband and son joined the FSA in August 2012. She moved to Antakya to avoid arrest. She tried to convince her son to leave the FSA and come with her, but he refused. If the revolution is triumphant and I’m in Turkey, he said, I will be seen as a coward. She felt a burning in her heart when she left Syria without her husband and son.
When Kosa arrived in Antakya, some landlords told her they didn’t rent to Syrians. Then she found a Syrian woman married to a Turk and he agreed to rent an apartment to her. At first, she didn’t go outside. Losing track of time, she didn’t know what day of the week it was. She looked out the window and prayed, May God help me.
Her husband and son visit her separately every few weeks. They travel through mountain passes and sneak across the Turkish border. Their filthy clothes smell of the mules that carry them, and their beards reach down to their chests. They change into civilian clothes to avoid detection by Kosa’s Alawite neighbors.
During his visits, her husband tells her about the difficulties of living in the field. The FSA gets very close to the enemy when it fights. The fighters from both sides hear one another shouting and swearing. After one battle, her husband buried his cousin. He dug the grave with his hands.
Another time, a Syrian soldier called out to the FSA that he wanted to defect. He began to cross over but stepped on a mine. His body was shorn in half. Come help me, he called. I’ve been hurt. He did not realize he was already dead. When her husband and other FSA soldiers reached him, they saw his legs had been blasted back to the government side. They buried that part of him that remained on the FSA side.
Days later, her husband caught two Syrian soldiers. They were Sunni. Why didn’t you defect? he asked them. It was too difficult, they told him. Stop lying, he said. You are not that far from us. You could have walked and reached us. He hit them again and again until they could no longer stand.
Did you not want to kill them with a knife like sheep? Kosa asked.
No, I could not, her husband said.
Her son left the FSA after two of his friends were killed near him during a battle. Their blood covered his shirt. He kept the shirt. He didn’t sleep for three days. He began volunteering at a hospital. At first he didn’t like it. He was angry and complained that the work was too slow. Then the hospital began sending him to battlefields to pick up the wounded. The exposure to danger and the noise of gunfire and shelling calmed him. He thanked God for this new opportunity.
In the elementary school, Abd-alrahman stares out a classroom window at an olive tree. His geography teacher asks him, What are you doing? I’m just looking at that tree. It reminds me of my father. He shows her photos of his father on his cell phone. In one, his father wears a Yankees baseball cap. In another, he carries a gun. In still another, he lies dead on the ground, eyes closed, a thick gray beard around his face.
Okay, the teacher says. Try to pay attention.
Abd-alrahman does not like her. She is too nervous. She shouts all the time. When he asks to leave class to pray, she refuses. He does not fear her, but he does not want to make her so angry that he gets kicked out of school. That would sadden his mother too much. He likes his other teachers, especially the ones who teach biology, Islamic studies, and math. He loves math. He just learned how to multiply. Ten times ten equals 100. He knows that now. He enjoys biology and learning what organs are inside his body, like the liver. He read about it the other day. He never knew it existed. Now he does.
Everything changed when his father died. The world spun in circles and had no shape. Nothing seemed as it was. There were no people around. No buildings. No ground. Only his family and they no longer behaved like his family.
His mother still cries all the time and gets angry. It’s not true that he doesn’t listen to her. He listens to her all the time because she is so angry. She hits him before he has time to do what she wants. He grabs her hand and kisses her fingers. I forgive you, he says.
God bless you, she says, and begins crying again.
On my last day in Antakya, Hazim tells me he met a young woman on a bus who asked him to teach her English. He enjoyed her company and promised to call. He also applied to be a translator with an international aid organization.
His father, on the other hand, has decided to return to Syria. He refuses to wait any longer for the war to end. He wants to teach again, resume his life. If he finds he can travel safely, he will come back to Antakya for his wife and daughters. Hazim may decide for himself whether to stay or leave.
Hazim worries his father will be arrested. His father had a cousin involved with the FSA. This cousin’s father was killed by the security forces, and the cousin said he would not stop resisting the government until Assad brought his father back. Assad can’t bring you this, Hazim’s father told him, only God. Then I’ll continue with the resistance until I die, this cousin said. And he did. He died fighting with the FSA.
Moutasem looks forward to living in Syria. What does it look like? The ground, the buildings? He saw only the inside of a police truck and a jail before. He wants to see this place where he was born, the country of his origin. You will, his father tells him. You will see the Sunni raise the Islamic flag.
When it is raised, then we’ll have justice. It will be a sweet feeling.
Sarah never thinks of leaving Antakya. She sees Syria in her dreams but she does not see herself there.
Her friend Farah, however, dreams herself into Syria almost every night. She stands on her grandmother’s balcony and looks out at the entire country. There are no people, except one man, her father. He faces her from a distant hill. He appears no bigger than a wavering dot against the skyline. I’m free, he shouts. I’m free. I’m coming home.
In his dreams, Abd-alrahman runs from the security forces. They chase him as his father watches, but he can do nothing because in the dreams he is only a street sweeper.
Stick with your broom, or we will kill you and your son, old man, the security forces tell him.
I will come back for you, father! Abd-alrahman says.
He runs into a tall building and closes the door. The security forces surround it and break down the door. Abd-alrahman bounds up a flight of stairs. He jumps out a window.
God protect me! he shouts.
He lands on the street beside his father.
Father, he says, run with me and escape!
I can’t, his father says. They will kill us.
Just go! Abd-alrahman says.
They run together. They reach their home. They shut the door behind them. They survive.
J. Malcolm Garcia is the author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul (2009), and Riding through Katrina with the Red Baron’s Ghost (2012). His articles have been featured in Best American Travel Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading. His 2011 article “Smoke Screen,” which originally appeared in Guernica, was part of a series that won the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes.