You grew up in the city of Daraa, where everyone knows everyone. You and your wife moved in a few blocks away from your parents after the first baby was born. During the day, your mom helped with your son and the tiny scrap of a daughter who came next.
As a Sunni Muslim in a country where all the good jobs go to the Alawites, you didn’t expect to work in your field after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. You started working as a manager at your father’s large plumbing company; you weren’t willing to pay a bribe for an engineering job. Still, it’s not bad.
Most evenings, you and your wife went over to your parents’ house after work for dinner. Your little sister hung strings of twinkly lights over the long table in your parents’ courtyard. The whole family gathered outside to eat, the lights blending in with the stars.
You would hold your baby daughter and watch everyone talking and laughing. There was nothing else you could ever want.
It’s spring 2011 and you’re leaving the Omari Mosque on a Friday night with your dad and your brothers like you have since you were a boy; it felt good to pray with them. When you get outside, you see the streets full of people. You wonder what is going on, but don’t join in.
Over the next few days, everything falls apart.
The men outside the mosque are protesting the government forces who came and arrested a group of little kids. You aren’t sure you believe the rumors—they were little boys, after all. Maybe it’s a mistake.
The protests get worse. You stay away because you have babies, but your friends go.
And then the rumors spike—government forces are shooting people in the suburbs.
Your best friend calls. He’s talking too fast and you can tell he’s nervous: We’re headed to the mosque to pray, want to come?
No, you say. Be safe.
It’s the last time you talk to him.
He was in the Omari Mosque when government forces came in with gas canisters and live ammunition and killed 40 of their men, gathered peacefully in a place of prayer. Two years later, they would destroy the whole mosque.
That day, your best friend—the one you used to climb trees with in the empty lot by your houses—was one of the first ones to die.
The following months are so painful, so jarring, they’re disconnected images in your mind:
Standing with your fathers and brothers in the courtyard of the police headquarters with the men of Daraa. Everyone’s hands behind their backs. Soldiers screaming. Your sister’s cousin is there: A soldier asks him a question and you can’t hear the answer, but you see the soldier push a gun to the side of his head, shove him to the ground, and shoot him.
A little boy named Hamza who is arrested at one of the protests. One of the plumbers at your father’s company is Hamza’s uncle; he calls you to tell you he won’t be coming to work because they got Hamza’s body back. Later, you see the pictures: Hamza’s apple cheeks covered in bruises, his fresh-combed hair matted with his own blood from the torture by Syrian secret police.
Soldiers bursting into your parents’ house while everyone is gathered at dinner. They don’t even speak. They rip through mattresses and dig in drawers until they find all of the gold and valuables they can.
Your younger brother—the one with the wicked humor who always has a girlfriend on the side—arrested outside his school. In the weeks he is gone, your mother shrinks into herself. He comes home eventually, but he doesn’t want to talk about it.
Your mother can’t stop jumping at every noise.
You and your wife begin talking to your dad about leaving.
The government starts using missiles on their own citizens; they put the missile launcher on the soccer field to reach more places in the city.
Your dad had a competitor for his plumbing business, an Alawite man whose business was shoddy. He hated your dad for years.
Somehow he landed a missile tracker.
The trackers were tiny, the size of your thumb.
You were out on a job when you got the call—your wife was hysterical, you couldn’t understand her, the connection was bad.
By the time you showed up at your parents’ house, it was a massive crater. Your brother was surrounded by your neighbors holding towels to his arms. Your father was being strapped into a stretcher, unconscious.
They are taking them to Jordan, your wife says. I’m sorry about your sister.
You can’t make sense of her words.
She’s gone, your wife says over and over, clutching both babies in her arms. Gone.
Your baby sister with the twinkly lights, not much older than your own son, so well-loved she was always a little spoiled.
Shattered out of the world in her pink ruffled bed because your father’s business competitor got hold of a missile tracker.
You run back to your house to pack a bag, but you grab all the wrong things—your son’s favorite truck but no underwear for anyone. You cross through all of the checkpoints—hours’ worth—and find your father and younger brother at the hospital in Jordan.
At some point, you realize your other sister, the next youngest down from you, is still in Syria with her new husband and young son.
The days turn into weeks and then months and then years. The Syrian government moves methodically through cities: Daraa, Madaya, Aleppo.
Al-Assad uses chemical warfare on your people in addition to ammunition and missiles. No one comes. No one cares.
There are millions and millions of refugees now. There are no jobs; you had an apartment in Jordan for awhile and your whole extended family—used to your parents’ spacious home, their own houses—lived in three tiny rooms. But the money runs out.
Eventually, you have no option but the camp outside of town.
The separation feels inevitable. Your brother hears things are better in Greece. No one has heard from your sister in Syria, much less your aunts and uncles and cousins and friends still left in the shell of a city that used to be your hometown.
UNHCR approaches your parents and asks them if they want to resettle in the US. Your father’s injuries make him a good candidate. They interview your parents and your next-to-youngest sister—now the baby of the family—again and again for months. UNHCR tells them: If you come, you can bring your children and grandchildren over. It’s called Family Reunification. It’ll take some time, but you can be together again.
Your mother, who has been trying to make the tent floor feel like the long table where she used to preside, clings to that idea. Your father tells you without looking at you that there is no spot for you right now–you are an engineer-turned-plumber who lived by the book and took care of his family, but you cannot prove that you are not a terrorist. The ridiculousness of it wakes you up at night.
Resettlement is the only option any of you can think of; they will go and you will come next.
Your mother cannot keep her hands off her grand babies; she cups your daughter’s toddler cheeks as she chatters.
When the time comes for your parents to go the US, people five tents away can hear your mother wailing. You and your father are not ashamed to cry too.
Go, you tell them. Find us a home. Bring us over.
You hug your sister so tightly when she goes that you are both out of breath.
We’ll see them soon, you tell your wife when you go back to the tent. It won’t be long. You kiss your daughter’s forehead.
The words are sand in your mouth.
This fictionalization is based on interviews I conducted with Syrian refugees and others for the book I’m writing about refugees in the throes of resettlement; details have been changed, but the major events in the city of Daraa actually occurred. To support Syrian refugees in Austin, go to saraorg.org and click ‘donate.’ All of the proceeds from SARA go directly to paying for rent, bills, cars, furniture, and other immediate needs.