I have a friend in Syria.
As an American, I guess it was only a matter of time before one of my international friend was in the crosshairs of a gun bought with my tax dollars. There are no words to describe the churning feelings surrounding these events.
Maryam and I met as freshmen in college. We shared a major and were in many of the same classes. It was an exciting time for us both and we quickly became friends. Traveling back and forth over an ocean was a real logistical challenge so Maryam stayed with me and my family Christmas break 1987. I was raised by open-minded, progressive parents but at 19 had I had just barely set foot in “the real world.”
Maryam’s friendship was my training ground for cross-cultural understanding. I learned a lot about the variable cultural expressions of universal human values. Both of us came from a family of educators. Both of us were serious students who loved books. Both of us had our coming-of-age struggles. Sometimes we were confused by one another’s cultural reactions to situations but we were patient with one another and developed a compassionate understanding of one another.
My first adult travel experience was with Maryam. We went on an environmental field study trip together. We shared a tent, bathed in a river (Maryam wearing a body-sock.) And when Maryam sprained her ankle on a hike, I held her hand and steadied her on the off-kilter, make-shift stretcher all the way down the mountain in the dark.
We lost track of one another when I transferred to another college until the advent of social media. We found one another again through a mutual friend when I lived in Columbus and my friend in Syria. We have corresponded ever since.
We are both older and wiser now but our spirits are the same. Still friends, both of us have been through marriages, divorces, daughters, career challenges. The maturing process has been a deeply enriching experience for us both. Viewing your shared life through the eyes of a girlfriend just makes getting older better.
Today, my country is preparing to bomb hers while I watch on CNN. This is not political for me. It is personal, raw, and painful. I can’t use “Maryam’s” real name or share our pictures because she and her daughter have received threats from rebel supporters due to her support of the Assad regime. In an ironic twist of fate, Maryam was born in the USA and holds dual citizenship. The United States of America preparing to attack Syria is like her father preparing to beat her mother.
In Syria, Assad rules a secular government. Until the civil war, Maryam had freedom to live, work and enjoy life unmolested and unrepressed. She has a full time professional career alongside men. Christians, Muslims, from multiple ethnic backgrounds, working with her. In contrast, she now sees terrorist groups gaining influence among the rebels and she fears crossing paths with them in Damascus. Maryam is a divorced single working mother. She is internationally educated with a PhD and is a dual citizen of both Syria and the USA.
She does not fear Assad. She says she fears the rebels who eat the organs of their victims and make necklaces out of the nipples of women like her. Women who “deserve” to have their nipples taken as “prizes” after being raped for living independent lives and supporting Assad. Maryam describes this and other horrifying things the rebels do to civilians that do not join or support them. Maryam and her neighbors have been calling upon the Assad regime to put down the rebellion and restore peace and safety.
From her point of view and the point of view of other Assad supporters, desperate measures are required to stop the rebels from continuing these atrocities. From the point of view of my government, desperate measures are required to punish Assad for taking desperate measures.
Gandhi said “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And I feel like I am back on that mountain with Maryam. I am blind, in the dark, just holding the hand of my friend in Syria to steady her as we find our way down from this precipice.
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