Washington D.C., Apr 30, 2020 / 06:00 am (CNA).- The Syrian civil war has led to one of the largest refugee crises of modern times, and presented unique problems for Syria’s ancient Christian communities. Marginalized for centuries, persecuted by ISIS, afraid to attract any attention from the West, Syrian Christians remain, by most accounts, the war’s most invisible victims.
In partnership with the Philos Project, CNA sat down with Mary Sayegh, a Syrian who lives now in the United States:
Tell me a bit about yourself.
My name is Mary Sayegh. I am 22 years old and live in the United States. I was born and raised in my beloved hometown of Aleppo, Syria. I moved to New Jersey about six years ago, running away from war to build a better future for myself. It was hard to leave my parents, family and friends behind and start all over. To be honest, it wasn’t easy to fit in a new country, even though I’m an extrovert. In America, I had to try and rebuild my social life in a strange land. As for Syria, I was involved in the scouts in church, Sunday school, computer program classes, art, and basketball.
When I came here, I started high school as a junior. I was held back for a year because I had to do ESL and take two courses in US history. During that time, I started planning for college and eventually got accepted to Montclair State University as a biology major and a public health minor. During my studies I also worked several part-time jobs in retail, as an executive office assistant and a front desk receptionist for a doctor. I tried to find balance by going to the gym, hanging out with friends and volunteering at the hospital.
When and how did you flee to the US?
Before my dad was married, he lived in the US, and therefore had American citizenship. Naturally, he passed it on to the rest of the family when he got married and settled in Aleppo again. The American citizenship made it possible for me to have a safe flight to the US when I left Aleppo. I flew from Lebanon to Spain to spend 6 weeks with my uncle and his family. Then my aunt (from New Jersey) came and took me to the States because I was too afraid to fly alone. On September 27, 2014 I landed in America. My mom and brother came three months later, and I didn’t see my dad until a couple of years later.
When did you start recognizing that there was a war going on in Syria?
I have lost track of the years. I have no idea what happened when. In general, everything started changing when they hit my hometown and we became more in danger. We couldn’t stay out late anymore or go to certain areas. It got to the point where I would walk in the streets and couldn’t find a familiar face. I didn’t recognize anyone on the streets mainly because many Christians in my neighborhood had fled Aleppo. Bombs, shootings and noises became a daily experience for us. On the contrary, it felt weird when nothing was happening.
Tell me about Aleppo.
Aleppo was one of the most beautiful cities. It is famous for its architecture, the churches, mosques, schools, tombs and baths. As an important center for culture and as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Aleppo was loved by all Syrians.
The Citadel of Aleppo was one of the things that made the city special. The Citadel is considered to be one of the oldest and largest ones in the world. It is the best place to watch the sunset and learn about our ancestors’ history. During the siege, the Citadel of Aleppo was partly destroyed, unlike its surrounding buildings that were left in ruins. Today, the area is filled with locals and even tourists that enjoy nice meals in the newly built restaurants around it.
Did you ever feel like you were less valued because you were a Christian in Aleppo/Syria?
I never felt that way. Maybe back in the day. But in my days, we never felt a difference. We felt we were all equal and we treated each other as human beings, brothers and sisters, regardless of our religious differences.
What are your best and worst memories from Syria?
My best memories were every second I spent in Syria growing up until I moved to the States. I would say my worst memory was having to attend friends’ funerals at a time when I thought I would be attending their graduations and weddings.
Tell me about Aleppo when it was under siege.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones. There were obviously people who lived under better conditions during this horrible time because they were rich, and my dad owned his own business, so we were considered upper middle class. However, days passed when we would not have water or electricity. Still, we were fortunate to at least have had a roof over our heads. Close to my home, al-Assad School opened up for the people whose homes had been destroyed in the clashes. So, one really gets a perspective.
A lot of young girls and boys helped their parents to buy or bring gallons of water or fuel to their homes. I would help my dad fill up huge bottles with water so we would always have some when needed. We also filled up our bathtub as soon as water was available. We had three buckets: one for clean water, one with the soap for when we would wash our hands, and one for when we rinse our hands. The latter one was later reused as water to flush in the toilet.
We never really knew which groups were fighting, or where, unless we saw it on the news. We just heard the bombs and the shootings. There would also be snipers on buildings that would shoot as soon as someone would pass by. Once, a sniper shot at our car, but it wasn’t critical, so we just continued driving.
I was also lucky because I didn’t lose any loved ones in the war. I had a fellow peer in the church scouts who was killed by a bomb. That was really emotional because it was the first time my scout played at a funeral and not a wedding of a person belonging to the scouts. Another scout lost his mother.
If there were to be peace in Syria tomorrow would you move back?
As much as it hurts me to say this, I wouldn’t go back. I will go to visit but not live there anymore. It’s just impossible for our young generation to go and build everything all over. And to be honest, what’s left for us to even go back to? Even if I want to what would I do with my degree?
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