I’m not sure how she found me. Maybe it was from one of my articles, maybe another friend in the region shared one of my posts, but however it happened, I got a friend request from a girl in Aleppo.
I was suspicious at first. How many friend requests had I gotten from people pretending to be soldiers, or people pretending to be long-lost friends. The Internet is full of scammers and weirdos, you can never be too careful, but I looked at her profile – almost completely in Arabic – and I painstakingly translated each one of her phrases, each one of her quotes. They were inspirational messages, words of love to her sister, words of hope and caring to her people.
I accepted. Almost immediately, she messaged me.
“Hi,” she said. “How are you?”
“I’m lovely,” I replied. “Is there something I can help you with?”
It was a strange conversation at first, I thought maybe she was local and looking for a job. I thought maybe she was looking for somebody else, mistook me for someone she knew. No, it was much simpler than that. She was reaching out to someone in the West to find out if what she heard about us was true.
More than that, she was reaching out to someone in the West to let us know what we heard might not be true.
Within the first paragraph of our conversation, the word “terrorism” came up. I let her know that I did not believe Muslims were terrorists, that it was not religion that made a terrorist. Rather, extreme ideologies and radical thoughts made absurd and distended through fear and anger create terrorism. That is why you can have words like “Buddhist terrorist” that make sense, even though they really make absolutely no sense.
She said that she heard that Westerners believed that Muslims kept their women subjugated, enslaved. I said that, in some places, that is true, but not mostly because of Islam. Rather, they are cultural phenomena that are vaguely justified by the Q’uran. I said the Christian sects are just as bad sometimes.
We talked more about how humans crave compassion, and then she told me that it was midnight and the electricity would be going out soon. She apologized for bothering me, and I told her it was no bother, it was lovely speaking with her. I invited her to talk to me whenever she was available.
We spoke again, the wonders of online communication, and this time her questions were different. “I heard the kids move out of their homes when you’re 18,” she said. “I heard they had to live on their own, and they didn’t live with their parents anymore, they had to move out and get jobs and be by themselves.”
“That does happen,” I said, “and that is the cultural norm. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have close knit families. We still eat together regularly, we visit, but I think we also enjoy the luxury of choosing how close we are to our parents and our siblings. If our family members are terrible people, we are not culturally obligated to keep them in our lives. Sometimes, it’s just because our lifestyles are not compatible.”
She appreciated this perspective, but still strongly preferred her own family home, and who could blame her? She is a medical student at University, as is her sister. Her father is a doctor, her mother teaches Arabic. Her father works with the hospitals trying to salvage something of the bodies of this country, like Doctors without Borders but more dangerous. I think this girl does not believe her father will ever leave Syria.
She and her sister tried to get into a Turkish University, but they were turned away because they are Syrian. We talked about her brother who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and how it took him two years to get a visa, and none of his friends have been able to after that. We talked about how she herself had tried and failed, then rejected.
I did what of course you know I had to do. I started asking around. Do they take Syrian refugees on Cyprus Island? Might there be room at a friend’s uncle’s hotel in Italy? Is there anyway for me to sponsor them to come to America?
The girl in Aleppo is so completely human. She asked me, an older experienced woman, if I felt that there was one man meant for each woman. She was really asking if there was any chance for her to find love amidst the horrors of war. She asked me about my kids, about my belief, and I never mentioned names, but I respected her word for God, and that is enough.
This simple act, this random intermission of connection, rips my heart to shreds. This is my daughter, this is my sister. I said it before, and I will scream it in the face of every fear-monger until they hear it: You are killing us, the people you love. We have different faces and different names, and your attempt to kill us makes us dangerous. We didn’t start it, and no one can end it – at least, not with violence.
They are not like us. They are us.