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From Indianapolis to the Syrian Border

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Syria. Here I am, staring out at red earth dotted with green trees, an azure sky, the sun shining on a tiny border town. How did I get here?, I ask myself, gazing out at this vast expanse, mere miles from a gruesome conflict zone that has captured world headlines for more than two years.

As a human rights journalist, I wanted to visit the Syrian border to gain a firsthand perspective of the revolution, the conflict, and the refugees living along the country's borders. While I didn't originally have a single contact along the border, a bizarre twist of circumstances led me to follow a link from Twitter to an article on NUVO, which led me to a Facebook page for the Syrian American Council of Indianapolis.

My up-close, firsthand experience came to life thanks to the efforts of Kenan Rahmani, a law student at Notre Dame and board member at Syrian American Council, who helped me plan an adventure I will never forget.

A disclaimer before I relate my experiences:

Syria is controversial.

I'm telling my story here with the full knowledge that most Americans do not support intervention in Syria. I wasn't sure what I thought about intervention before I went. I wanted to go there with an open mind. I wanted to learn about the people, share in their struggle, understand in whatever ways I could.

What I saw smashed my heart into a million pieces.

I do not know what you will think, or feel, based on my account. But I hope you will see it as a starting place, a beginning of dialogue. And I hope, if possible, you can find a way to put yourself in the situation of the courageous people I met along the way.

What I saw on the border

I'm walking out of Hatay Airport near Turkey's southern border with Syria. I can feel the sun blazing through my white headscarf, and I'm fumbling with my iPhone, trying to find the number for the contact Rahmani gave me.

In a moment, Esmat Rastan arrives to pick me up. Rastan is a volunteer with Watan Syria, the border-based NGO I'm here to visit. I throw my backpack in his car and jump in beside him. Then we're off in a cloud of dust tearing down the road toward Reyhanli, the Turkish border town where Watan Syria is located.

"So that's Syria," he says, pointing to the right.

I'm staring out at red earth, beautiful mountains dotted with greenery, soaring blue skies. It all seems so tranquil.

But that tranquility is an illusion. Since Syria's peaceful revolution began in March of 2011, more than 90,000 people have been killed as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad massacres, brutalizes, exterminates his own people.


A refugee family living on a rooftop in Reyhanli. - KRISTIN WRIGHT
  • Kristin Wright
  • A refugee family living on a rooftop in Reyhanli.

Refugees in Reyhanli

An hour later, I'm sitting across from Mulham Al-Jundi, who operates the Watan Syria office in Reyhanli. He's telling me about the border town he now calls home.


Reyhanli used to be a town of about 50,000 people, he explains. But today, with Syrian refugees arriving nearly every day, the town's population has doubled — now past 100,000. There are no jobs, little infrastructure, and just the other day, explosions could be heard only a few miles away. It's a flawed refuge, Reyhanli, with its crumbling buildings, dusty streets, and impoverished economy.

Reyhanli, Turkey - KRISTIN WRIGHT
  • Kristin Wright
  • Reyhanli, Turkey

Early one morning I accompany Rastan and a few others to deliver Watan Syria's aid boxes throughout Reyhanli. We load up a van with heavy boxes containing macaroni, rice, cheese, salt, corn, tuna, sugar, and oil —staples that thousands of refugee families can't afford to purchase for themselves. We carry the boxes into makeshift "homes" all over the city. Crumbling brick structures, tarps held down with rocks, tents pitched on rooftops.

That morning I begin to get to know some of the Syrian refugees of Reyhanli, the beautiful children I see running through muddy streets, the women making homes out of shacks and tents.

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I visit a family of five living in a small windowless shack. The father accepts their aid box with gratitude. He is still wearing a suit. They fled Syria only 15 days ago — with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Everyone I visit talks about freedom, a future in Syria beyond this horror. I see so much suffering, but in the suffering there is a unity that catches me by surprise. People who come as refugees, with nothing, are doing everything they can to help other refugees.

Hospital visit

The next afternoon, I join Yisser Bittar of the Syrian American Council and another Watan Syria staffer for a visit to a hospital in Reyhanli. A wall surrounds the dilapidated structure that is the hospital, and guards stand at the entrance gate.

Inside, it doesn't look like a hospital. Bare wires hang from the ceiling, and paint is peeling off the walls. The halls are eerie and silent. We wind around a corner and enter the first room, where I'm surprised to see a set of bunk beds. On the lower bunk, a small girl lies underneath a white blanket. She smiles, a little.

I can't use her name or take her picture, but this is her story.

She is just turning 15 years old and comes from a suburb of Idlib in northwestern Syria. One sunny day she took a walk to her sister's house. She couldn't have known it would be for the last time.

One bullet from a sniper went through her spine and her life changed forever.

Today she spends her days in this bed, her body paralyzed but her spirit somehow unbroken. She is convinced there is a surgery that will help her, if she can only find the right doctor. Her family has no money and no resources. So for now, they are waiting.

As long as they are waiting they still have hope. They don't know, and in the unknown lies their last fragment of comfort.

"I think you're very brave," I say to her, leaning in to kiss her cheek, feeling with every second the stark inadequacy of my words. "I'm so sorry."

Bittar and I walk down the hallway. A heavy silence hangs in the air.

In the next room, a woman, 25 years old, lies in a bed. Her father is there with her, and as she relates her story, he interjects, explaining more about the one horrific day that changed their lives forever.

They were living as IDPs, internally displaced people, in a small village.

One day she was inside the house where they were staying when she heard the sound of a helicopter overhead. The next moment, shrapnel was flying in all directions as a TNT barrel packed with metal scraps fell from the sky, exploding in the village. She felt a sharp pain as a piece of metal sliced through her leg.

There were screams, flames. Smoke billowed into the clear sky overhead.

Then silence.

When she woke up, she stumbled, blood flowing from both of her legs. Around her, pieces of the bodies of her mother, her sister, and her five nephews lay on the ground.

Twenty-four people were killed that day, mostly children.

The next day, her father explains, Assad's regime announced that they had defeated the terrorists in that village, that the 24 people they had killed were terrorists.

But they were all women and children, almost his entire family.

He tried to bury the bodies. There wasn't time. Helicopters kept returning, swooping low and dropping more barrels. He knew his daughter would die if she didn't receive help. They fled.

So here they are. They arrived five days ago.

Her father is describing those last hours they spent in the village. "The regime does not differentiate between civilians and the Free Syria Army," he's saying.

After a few minutes he quiets, tears coming to his eyes.

"I want the world to come and see what's going on. I want everyone to know."

I'm sitting near his daughter's bedside, and she pulls up the blanket to show me what happened to her that day. One leg is gone, the other one has a series of gashes, huge chunks of her leg are missing, carved out by the flying shrapnel of the TNT barrel.

She reaches for a piece of cardboard beside her. It's covered in school photos, held together with children's stickers. "My nephews," she says, pointing to each one.

"This one was cut in half. This one was beheaded ... ."

I feel hot tears streaming down my face. I'm feeling something different now, something beyond the sadness, something that clutches the pit of my stomach with a wrenching, sickening grip.

Rage.

Rage at this inhuman monster that is Assad and his regime.

But it does not take very long, sitting here in this hospital, staring into the eyes of this woman who has lost so much, to begin to grapple with something else, something beyond the rage: responsibility.

Despite the heartbreaking stories I heard while visting Syrian refugees, I've never never seen so much laughter among so many tears. - YISSER BITTAR
  • Yisser Bittar
  • Despite the heartbreaking stories I heard while visting Syrian refugees, I've never never seen so much laughter among so many tears.

The time to act is now

These atrocities have gone on for more than two years amid a hesitant U.S. response, largely consisting of a lot of discussion and little action. And today, while children run for their lives as TNT barrels explode in their neighborhoods, sending shrapnel through tiny bodies — wrecking, breaking, destroying, shattering lives — we're still debating.

Everything I have seen on the Syrian border culminates in a realization at that moment: There is not going to be another time to act. The time to act is now.

We have to stop Assad from murdering his own people. We have to intervene.

I'm grateful for the administration's recent decision to aid Syrian rebel forces, and I'm thankful that the U.S. has authorized another $100 million in humanitarian aid. It's so important, with millions displaced and thousands horrifically injured.

But at this point, two years into a brutal regime ravaging Syria's civilian population, it's not enough. Assad must be stopped from waging his campaign of terror against the people of Syria. Instead of attempting to put a Band-Aid on the problem, we need to stop him in his tracks.

A no-fly zone — now gaining increasing bipartisan support — would prevent Assad's regime from dropping his weapons of terror from the skies, limiting his ability to ruthlessly slaughter Syrian civilians. No more families terrorized by the sound of a helicopter nearing their home. No more TNT barrels falling into neighborhoods where children are playing.

That single, practical action will save lives by taking one murderous tactic out of Assad's hands.

We can stop Assad from murdering his own people. We can and we must.

I left Hatay Airport on another sunny day much like the one on which I arrived. I felt the warmth of the sun through my headscarf, scanned through my iPhone to upload another image of the border, prepared for my return trip to Indianapolis.

But in my mind all I could see were images of the people I met, the long-suffering people of Syria who dream of a chance not just at life, but at freedom.

I hope we can find a way to help them make that beautiful dream a reality.

Kristin Wright is the director of development at Exodus Refugee Immigration, and a writer covering human rights issues. She can be reached at kristin@kristinwright.net.

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