Story-Setting the Stage

Isra’ is twenty-eight years old, though the lines branching from her honeyed eyes indicate something else. She has the wrinkles of a new mother, forged by sleepless nights, and the furrowed face of a soldier unsure why home feels so sad.

Her favorite food is okra, but only the way her mother used to make it, full of garlic sliced so thin that it disintegrates into the sea of tomatoes. She often daydreams of it, of how she could barely see the garlic, translucent as its taste overwhelmed the entire pot. She never quite perfected it the way her mother did, though she always tried. The tiny scars on her fingers bear evidence of her countless attempts.

Her cooking scars are outnumbered by scars less visible, scars borne by her heart, scars the result of years of failed attempts to close wounds that insist on bleeding out.

Born in Damascus, Isra’ was only twenty when the conflict began. She spent more than twenty years on earth before she lost anyone she loved. And in eight short years since then, she has endured more loss than most endure in a lifetime.

Eight years. 


Eight years she has lived in movement, harsh and constant, like a swimmer pounded by waves, coming up for air only to find another wave cresting. Eight years, and each year has brought challenges that she was never told to expect, and was not automatically equipped to handle. Her mother and father  prepared her for most things—things still yet to come—but not for this. Not for leaving everything behind.

Before 2011, neither she nor anyone in her family had any reason to expect displacement, to expect the crossing of seas once beautiful, or to expect the usage of secret codes over the phone for fear of punishment. The unimagined problems she now faces are built on the still-burning ashes of problems past, and on screams not yet silent. 


It—all of it—happened so fast, so completely, and so devastatingly. The pain is long-felt, but somehow time seems to pass unnoticed now.

There was a time when Isra’ used to cry much more than she does now. At the beginning of the conflict, tears felt like part of the solution. Tears were the way she expressed anguish, pain, and longing. 

How she wishes she could cry now like she did then. In crying, she feels something, at least. 

Feeling anything is far better than the numbness of late. She has been here before, in this numb place, though she thought she had overcome it. The last time she felt this way she was thousands of miles away. And that time, she simply had to wait until it passed. That time she waited, a lonely and dark wait surrounded by family, but feeling no warmth. Something about this wait seems different. 

How she wishes she could cry now. In crying, Isra’ recognizes a part of herself. In crying, she remembers who she was back then, before it all began.

In Syria, her family was neither affiliated with the government nor affiliated with any other movement. They were the countless many—apolitical, but fiercely in love with their country, with its dark soil, endless groves, and breezy mountains.

At age twenty, when the war was just starting, Isra’ was primarily focused on university and finding the appropriate career opportunities either in Damascus or Aleppo. She was studying engineering, but was also drawn to art and music. Whether machines or music—Isra’ just wanted to make things. From the time she was little, she was always creative and creating. And eight years later she is still trying to make something of herself, trying to make something  out of the unexpected future handed to her.

In the earliest days of the clashes in 2011, Isra’ attended university for a year, hoping and assuming that the skirmishes would end.

 She was not ignorant of what was happening. From the morning the first bullet flew, she had a sinking feeling that things were changing permanently. That she was changing along with her country, that a thick curtain—one that blocks out love and light—was closing slowly and heavily upon her. 

In those days, after class, she and her friends would sit together, finding anything to talk about to distract themselves from the deep anxiety about what might happen. The pain of what might happen was far worse than the pain of what was actually happening.

By mid-2012, though, nothing was certain. Her deep fears, once purely worst-case scenarios, began to align with reality. To this day, Isra’ can vividly recall the days when her worries intensified, moving from her mind to her body, from her thoughts to her lungs, heart, and stomach.


Now, today, in 2019, she can still sit for hours remembering the beginning of it all, the beginning of a change that has not yet stopped. With eyes closed, she can conjure up sights and smells of places reduced to rubble, places her sons will never see, yet will inherit richly through stories and tastes.


The relentless thoughts that ran through her mind in those days are not all that different from the thoughts that run through her mind  now. Then, she would think:


What if the conflict escalates?

What if it comes to our village?

What if we have to leave?

What if I cannot finish school?

What if I lose my friends?


In 2012, those thoughts sat like bricks in her mind. At the time, she knew such questions were presumptuous, bordering on irrational and unnecessarily dark. Most of them came to pass, though. So, hindsight has taught Isra’ to never again second-guess the grains of truth her fear finds.


And while the content of her thoughts has changed dramatically since the days of war, the worry and uncertainty has persisted unbridled. Such thoughts, recited silently in her mind, used to wear her down. They were constant. They were violent. They clawed at her like a cat thrown in cold water—frantic and desperate, needing to get out.


And, of course, these thoughts were her own. She never shared them with anyone. She still doesn’t.


She did not want to burden anyone else around her. She just tossed them back and forth in her mind, knowing that expressing them would not help anyone she loved. Everyone else is thinking the same thing, she assumed, so why bother sharing?


Why add to their hurt? Whenever doubt and fear overtake her now, she still has the same thought. Of all the things that have changed, her unwillingness to burden those around her has remained the same.


In the days of the war, Isra’ was frightened but strong, as she was expected to be, especially in front of her younger sister, Hoda. Cracks in the walls she built were evident, but considering all that had happened, she was still a fortress.


By the middle of 2012, two of her best friends had fled to Lebanon. The noose of loneliness was tightening around her, and she could do nothing but watch. The circle of friends she spoke with after class was shrinking fast, faster than she imagined even in her darkest thoughts. One by one, people left. She stayed. Her best friend, Marwa, stayed. At least she had Marwa. At least Marwa was not changing.


Groceries grew more expensive.


Roadblocks peppered the streets in new patterns every day.


Her brother Ahmad’s friends were either leaving or being recruited.


Her mother sang more from the kitchen—a giveaway that she was worried.


She felt a heaviness on her chest, some weight invisible that would not leave her alone.


The end of 2012 marked the end of many things for Isra’. And, six and half years ago from today, a short phone call changed her life. Six and a half years ago, a few short words confirmed that perhaps her fears and worries had not been enough. That perhaps she would not survive this.


Months passed. Then, on a cold morning in March 2013, Isra’ zipped up her backpack. She closed the door to her room. She walked downstairs and gently closed the iron door that opened into their living room. Her father grabber her hand, escorting her to the car. The door shut too loud.


Isra’ would never see her room again.