The first night we arrived in Syria, I climbed into bed exhausted from travel and the emotions of the border crossing. No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I could hear the crashing of the bombs starting outside. Welcome to Syria.
Sometimes it felt so close that my room would shake. I debated for a second—do I get up? Or do I turn on music so I can go back to sleep? I left it at first and then decided with the latter—just something to drown out the explosions. This wasn’t my first rodeo. Many times in Congo, we’d often gone to bed to the sound of gunfire or with the knowledge that bandits had tried multiple times to enter our home just that night. It comes with the territory of working in war zones, I guess.
When I woke up in the morning, however, I assumed the bombs would have ended. I was wrong by a long shot. Our whole hotel shook with each crash as fighter jets now zoomed overhead dropping the bombs a little louder. A little closer.
“Don’t worry, Cassandra, don’t worry.” Our new friends told me with a little laugh over breakfast, “Don’t be afraid.” This was their normal. War raged just a few kilometers away and it has been this way for six years. “OK, I’m not afraid, but when should I become worried?” I thought it was a fair question.
“We don’t know. We don’t know when they will strike. When a bomb comes and you feel it hit the house, that’s when it’s a concern. But we don’t know when that will be. So we keep living. All we know is that God is good. Even still. He is our protector.”
With this in mind, we packed up our things and we did, indeed, head out to carry on with life. It was my first time in Syria and everything was new. I felt like I had a million questions to ask and things to learn about. Before coming, I had assumed that so much of the country had been destroyed and that life had slowed almost to a halt. But now, here we were with our new friends (who were hilarious and fun). Everywhere we looked, people continued to go out for dinner, enjoyed picnics and, in the midst of ongoing conflict, had stories of so much hope and resilience.
After leaving the hotel, we started making house visits. I wanted to see and hear it for myself. I wanted to hear the stories and meet the families that, until now, I’d only heard about secondhand.
We started with coffee and cookies (that, as it turns out, are Syrian staples), and met with family after family who had lived through the war.
One of the most impactful days was when we got to sit with a headmaster from Aleppo who drove down to meet with us. He’d heard that we build schools in war zones, and he wanted to discuss a potential partnership on a number of education-related projects. He was appointed as the headmaster of a school through his church years before the war began, but when the conflict escalated, his school was destroyed. He reached out and shared many stories as if we were his last lifeline. His students were traumatized, his best teachers had fled as refugees, money was hard to come by, and each day, they weren’t sure if it would be their last. But in the face of an uphill battle, he knew he couldn’t quit. So he rebuilt.
“It wasn’t easy,” he told us. “After the war everything was damaged in a critical way. All the furniture was stolen. We had nothing. But we knew the power of education. That is the greatest tool to end terrorism, building schools. So we restarted and opened up our classes. We are growing a generation that knows what the word ‘love’ means.”
It felt like he spoke the exact words on my heart. This man had given everything to stand for peace.
“A bomb crashed into my neighbor’s home one night,” he told us. “It was so close we couldn’t tell at first if we were also hit. My son ran and came into our room and I just held him. ‘Can we please leave? Can we please live like refugees somewhere else, anywhere else?’ he asked me. I told him we were called here to help those who have no other choice than to stay. Every night, he still comes into my room and I hold him until he falls asleep.”
Every house we visited we seemed to find individuals who were rising up in the midst of conflict, having a stare down with war and coming out with an attitude that said, “I’m not a victim to this situation, but an architect of it.” *
We stayed in Damascus, and there we met a group of women being a bright light in the midst of a dark storm. At a time when many fled the country, these women remained. Some of them had tried to get refugee status and were denied. Others just weren’t ready to leave. “We would rather die in our home country, than live somewhere else.”
And so in the face of difficult circumstances, these women banned together and would find some of the poorest, most desperate families and do whatever they could to support them.
“We all need each other. Every day, we take what we can and try and help someone who needs it more than we do. Whether that be food, clothes or assistance to get work. Many times we don’t have enough, but God provides. We have received aid from other NGO’s and people that care, they have helped us expand what we do.”
Every day, I was so humbled by the families we met. It’s like we were given a tour of heroes of our time, believing for the restoration of their country. Living the kind of love that lays its life down for others.
“I stay and teach because my country needs me,” said Sarah, a primary school teacher, who told us how she’d stayed this long. “Why leave now? I meet students every day who are traumatized. They are fine one day and the next there is bombing on their street and they need someone to help them through the difficulties.”
When we think of Syria, my hope is that we'll continue remember these stories, and not simply think of the war and violence that have become commonplace in this nation. May we remind ourselves of the incredible resilience and courage of the Syrian people who brave living each day as they daily choose hope, love, and peace.
-Cassandra Lee, co-founder
*Quote from Simon Sinek.