A week in Turkey: Reporting on the war in Syria

Real faces from the war in Syria

Fullerton Observer, a local news publication, asked me to write about my thoughts on the war in Syria. Here’s the piece:

Malek lost his leg at 10 years old.

After helping children take cover from shelling that was nearing his town in Idlib, Syria, Malek was struck by the aerial attack. More than 3/4 of his left leg is gone.

At only 10 years old, this boy has faced the consequences of violence and inhumanity. His sole comfort is an Atari handheld console, but even that doesn’t help him avoid the sensation he feels where his left leg should be.

Before you read this, you didn’t even know Malek existed – but he does. And he’s living what some people would call a nightmare.

He lives without his mom and dad in a hospital in Reyhanli, a Turkish town bordering Syria.

The world can seem quite large. Pain and suffering happening in a country miles away is easily ignored – unless you’re somehow touched by it.

I’ve lived in America my whole life, and I can’t see myself living anywhere else. However, I’m a first-generation American whose parents came from Damascus, Syria for a better life.

With more than 30,000 Syrians killed, people ask me what I think about what’s happening in Syria. I tell them I’m not in a place to say because I’m not there. It’s a really complicated situation, and all I know for sure is that people are getting hurt. I hope that they all see justice soon.

Last month I got the opportunity to travel to Turkey. School was still in session, but there was a chance I could report from inside Syria. As a student journalist, there was no way I was going to miss out.

I spent a week there. My uncle was my guide, and he quickly introduced me to the key players of the trip.

There was Mohamad. He’s like an Arab Che Guevara. When he’s not going to Syria supplying the Free Syrian Army with weapons and aid, he’s in Turkey translating for Turkish news broadcasts.

Then there was Nour. She was the only female activist I met, but she thought like a man and acted like lady. Before moving to Turkey, Nour worked as a translator in Syria for international news agencies covering the civil war in Syria. Eventually, she began to receive threats from government supporters and had to leave her family in Syria because of it. In hijab, or headscarf worn by Muslim women, she traveled seven hours with me and my uncle to and from the Syrian border.

I wrote this hoping to introduce you to some of these real people who are working to bring democracy to their country.

You may not know them directly, but you know them through me.

At the very least, you know the 10-year-old boy who will grow up without a leg due to a violent civil war.

Originally published in Fullerton Observer.

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The end of my trip

It has been an amazing week in Turkey. Though I wasn’t able to get into Syria or see the refugee camps, I met Syrians who shared their stories with me. Through their stories, I felt their experiences — their suffering, their fears and their hope for a better Syria.

Thank you for reading my blogs and your continued support.

I’m heading to the airport.

Peace.

While Syrians struggle to overthrow regime, a Syrian NGO is planning the day after

How will Syria rebuild itself after the fall of the Assad regime? That is a question being addressed today in Istanbul by an organization called The Day After, an independent Syrian non-government organization.

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What Syrians want from America

Since the Iraq war, America has left a sour taste in a lot of Arab peoples’ mouths. With more than 30,000 people dead since the start of the Syrian revolution, many Syrians are beginning to feel a sense of hypocrisy in America’s foreign policies.

“All my life, when I studied in university, I looked to America as the place of democracy. I looked to go there. I told my family and friends about America, about western (life). They (westerners) know a lot about democracy and freedom, but now I know that they are liars,” said Abu Yousef, a Syrian who wouldn’t give his real name because he already lost a brother in the revolution.

I asked him to explain, but he said what more is there to explain. To a large number of Arabs, the idea that follows is an unspoken truth.

“Every day we are dying (in Syria). Every day we are being slaughtered … They (Americans) say that they are against dictators and for freedom just like how Saddam was a dictator and they came and killed Saddam. Why is it just Saddam (that they go after)? It’s because Israel is near us … They’re making us out to be stupid,” Abu Yousef said.

His statement is an indirect cry for help from a country that has been known to be a political driving force.

So what do Syrians want/need exactly from America?

How 10-year-old Malek lost his leg

Malek Seylu, 10, winces in pain as an unofficial medic wraps his wound. Seylu was hit by shells near his home in Idlib, Syria.

Malek Seylu, 10, winces in pain as an unofficial medic wraps his wound. Seylu was hit by shells near his home in Idlib, Syria.

“I just want a leg. I want a leg,” Malek Seylu cried in Arabic after I asked him what he wanted. It was an obvious answer to such an obvious question.

Less than a month ago, Malek, 10, lost his left leg. All that’s left is a small portion of his upper thigh. The wound is still fresh and he is still in pain.

Sitting down, wincing from the pain, he told us his story.

As Malek was walking home one day, shelling could be seen from afar. Children were playing in the streets and he told them to hide until the shelling stopped.

“I put them in a room and closed the door to make sure they wouldn’t leave,” he said. “I stayed outside to watch it because I thought it was far away from me. One hit me before I knew it.”

He told us his story in an apartment that houses injured Syrians. It is located in Reyhanli, Turkey — a town located on the Turkish-Syrian border. Many have escaped Syria and found a haven here. Here, they are provided food, a place to sleep and even medication.

Malek was also housed in this apartment at one point, but now he stays at a hospital where he can be better taken care of.

“When I saw him I thought he was dead. I said ‘God have mercy on him,’” said a young man who witnessed what happened to Malek. “When he (Malek) woke up he asked me why I said he was dead. He heard all of it.”

Malek started to itch the leg that wasn’t there — a phenomenon called phantom limb syndrome. Watching him desperately itch what wasn’t there was heartbreaking. He can’t sleep because of it, he said.

My uncle, who brought medication for the people housed here, asked Malek what he thought about getting a new leg from America.

Malek’s eyes lit up for the first time that night.

A better life in Turkey, but it’s not home

Two months before Mahmoud would have to serve in the Syrian government’s army, he fled to Turkey. Things were getting worse in Syria, and he didn’t want to be part of it.

Mahmoud, 16, was nomadic for three months until he settled in Kilis, Turkey this past month.

Mahmoud, 16, left and his friend, also named Mahmoud, 15, sell sahlab on the streets in Kilis, Turkey.

Mahmoud, 16, left and his friend, also named Mahmoud, 15, sell sahlab on the streets in Kilis, Turkey.

Today, he stationed himself on a sidewalk in Kilis along with his friend, also named Mahmoud, 15, selling sahlab. The two sold cups of the milk pudding for half a Turkish lira.

“They (the Syrian government) didn’t help us. There is no work in Syria,” said 16-year-old Mahmoud. “Here (in Turkey) there is work. I came for a better life.”

He came to Turkey on his own, leaving his family in Telrafat — a town located on the outskirts of Aleppo. On the other hand, 15-year-old Mahmoud came with his family. His mom makes the sahlab they sell.

While they are out of harm’s way and making a living for themselves, they don’t feel like they are home.

“May God return us to our country,” 16-year-old Mahmoud said.

First night in Istanbul spent in airport custody

That’s right folks. I now know what it’s like to be kept in custody — at least at the airport. OK, so it wasn’t really custody. We weren’t treated like criminals, and they even fed us.

Pretty attractive for a mug shot, don’t you think?

Pretty attractive for a mug shot, don’t you think?

11:50 p.m. My uncle and I made it to Istanbul. We collected our luggage and my uncle asked me to walk out three out of the seven suitcases packed with medical equipment and other things that might prove useful to the people of Syria. To make things easier, an airport worker escorted me by pushing the cart. As we got closer to the exit, he began asking me something in Turkish. I told him I didn’t understand, so he went up to someone at the luggage X-ray machine and began talking to him in Turkish. I thought the escort was asking him to translate, but the next thing I knew they start putting the luggage on the ramp.

Before I continue, let me first say that none of the luggage was mine. I know that’s a typical it’s-not-mine-officer line, but really, the only thing I brought with me on this trip was my laptop bag and carry-on luggage. I was just trying to help out my uncle. He packed cameras I mentioned in my last post, some iPhones, three laptops, lots of medical supplies and other equipment.

Midnight. Moving forward — as the luggage went through the machine — the man working at the X-ray machine saw something questionable on the monitor. My uncle didn’t warn me that the cameras might cause a problem, but I know from my own traveling experience that electronic equipment can put up red flags. The X-ray worker’s tough, Turkish face made me nervous because I had no idea what was about to happen. The man asked me to come over to watch him as he opened the bags one by one. He saw the cameras and his eyes bulged. He began to say over and over again that this was a problem. He then called over a man in a suit, while he had a softer face, his demeanor with me was a lot more harsh. He looked at the cameras and then dug through the suitcases some more. Underneath a large black rain jacket were dozens of target-accuracy lasers and six riflescopes bundled up individually in packing material. He picked one up and examined it, and then looked at me like I was in big trouble. My heart sank.

“Are you here alone?”

The question made me feel like I was being attacked, so I answered it honestly, but vaguely.

“I came with my uncle, but I’m alone right now.”

“And your uncle is the only one here with you? There is no one waiting for you outside?”

“Not that I know of.”

That was a lie. My uncle’s friend had left before me, but I didn’t want to include him in any problems that may arise. About seven airport workers came to assist. The man in the suit would ask me a question, and I tried to explain that this was for a medical mission for the people in Syria, but before I could finish the man in the suit would shake his head and say, “This is not medical” while holding up one of the riflescopes. He was right, but I couldn’t answer to those. My heart sank even more and I felt my face burn bright red.

“This is big problem,” said the man in the suit. “What are the cameras for?”

“They’re for documenting what’s happening in Syria,” I told him.

“Who bought them? Are you going to sell them?”

“No. They’re donations. We want to give them to doctors to videotape what they see.” I gave him a note describing our mission from Syrian American Medical Society, the organization I am going to work with.

But none of that explained the lasers or the riflescopes.

It was at this time my uncle was spotted by the man who escorted me.

They searched his bags, more cameras, more lasers, a solar panel but, luckily, no riflescopes.

“This is a big problem,” said the man in the suit. He started talking in Turkish to the employees and they all left except the man working the X-ray machine.

Because he spoke little English, the hard-faced Turkish man gestured us to follow him with his hand.

12:45 p.m. He took us to what looked like their break room. There was a pool table and couches. Then came in two men in uniform and a man who we later found out was the boss. They put the bags on the pool table and looked through them again. Slowly, they collected the cameras, the lasers and the riflescopes. They even found iPhones, laptops, a solar panel — collecting them too.

1:30 p.m. Things were starting to get serious, and my uncle began to realize that these people might just confiscate everything. So he started to talk, hoping he could convince them to let us keep the cameras at the very least.

“Brother, habiby, let me tell you what these are for. Do you know what’s happening in Syria right now? People are dying. Children are dying. We are going to Syria, and we are going to give these to the people of Syria. We are not going to sell them. They’re not going to stay in Turkey.”

We talked, even laughed at times, while trying to persuade them.

Eventually, the boss man — tall, dark skinned, skinny with curly hair — put out his hand to gesture “enough” as the other men wrote down every single serial number of the electronic equipment they collected.

Another man in uniform came in with cups of tea. My uncle and I were also served tea.

2:20 a.m. Then they took us into another room. Here there were two men: boss man and the hard-faced man who worked the X-ray. This is where the real fun began. We were questioned individually. All a part of procedure they said. “No problem” in the boss man’s words. He left to go get a translator and came back with sandwiches and apples. The apples were a little green, but I ate it anyway because I was hungry.

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a student.”

“How often do you come to Turkey?”

“This is my second time.”

“Is this your first time bringing this much electrical equipment?”

“Yes.”

As we answered questions, a feeling of dread was coming upon me. How long would we be here? After they finished questioning me, they questioned my uncle. A man in uniform came to serve us tea again.

My uncle called for our own translator, a friend of his who would be working with us during the trip. As the men spoke amongst themselves, our translator overheard them say they needed to take us to the police station.

“They’re going to take your picture,” he told us in Arabic.

“For real,” my uncle asked him.

“You will get a number and everything,” he told me.

4:20 a.m. The hard-faced man then took us the police station. There, we were met with even more hard-faced men who took our fingerprints and mug shots.

5 a.m. We came back to the office and they went through our stuff again.  They brought in the man in the suit who questioned the propofol we brought. It’s an anesthesia, but they wouldn’t let us take it. They opened our bags and hastily took everything out. My uncle, the translator and I had to put everything back in.

5:45 a.m. With the propofol problem came a redo of all the paperwork. It didn’t take as long because we already answered their questions.

They confiscated everything — the cameras, the riflescopes, the lasers, the laptops, and the iPhones.

6 a.m. We were finally done. My uncle, the translator and I packed up everything and were happy to leave.

Moral of the story, take customs seriously.

(And all I could think about was getting any documentation I could get my hands on.)