First Person

Syria: a room for eight is hardly a home

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Yasmin washes dishes in the derelict restaurant room in which she and her extended family now live in Lebanon. Photo by Sam Tarling/Oxfam
Yasmin washes dishes in the derelict restaurant room in which she and her extended family now live in Lebanon. Photo by Sam Tarling/Oxfam

In honor of World Refugee Day on June 20, this week we will be sharing a series of blog posts highlighting the stories of refugees from Syria, where an escalating crisis has forced millions to flee their homes.

“Have you been to Syria?” asks a woman who gives her name only as Yasmin. It’s not her real name. She is too afraid to share that one—afraid of what will happen when she and her family return from their exile in Lebanon to Syria, a Syria she may no longer recognize.

Yasmin’s longing for that place—and all that’s been lost—makes me catch my breath as I read her words.

“We lived in a lovely old town,” she continues. “It had a big vegetable market where you could always get lots of fresh vegetables. It had many historical buildings. They were so beautiful. Now they have all gone and you won’t have a chance to see them. It was bombed one year and two months ago.”

I picture the terrible waste, the history that’s now a heap of rubble. I imagine being the mother of young children—as Yasmin is—and the terror they lived with as the bombs fell. When their house was hit, they fled to Damascus. When the bombing started there, too, they left for Lebanon and the dark, damp room that now houses eight of them. There is no running water. Their room serves as kitchen, bedroom, living room, toilet.

“We never lived like this in Syria,” says Yasmin. “We had water. We had electricity. We had fridges. We had toilets and bathrooms. The children slept in clean dry beds. We never thought we would have to live like this.”

But it seems to me that almost worse than the present is the prospect of the future—of coming face to face with the destruction of a home and community you loved and the rage that tore it all apart. Can families who have survived such madness ever feel truly secure again?

I was reading a monograph over the weekend that included the notes and images of photographer W. Eugene Smith who covered World War II. And as I think about Syria, I can’t shake what Smith said after he returned from the Pacific, badly wounded, having witnessed too many horrors: “I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war—the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men; and that my photographs might be a powerful, emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again.”

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