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Since the tragedy, I have asked, “Why them? Why us?” thousands of times.

As many

times as refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. At other times, I lash out far and wide,

in every direction. I cry out to the governments that deny a safe harbour to so many refugees, or

fail to provide a slip of paper that legitimizes their right to the most basic necessities. I ask the

military forces, the rebel fighters and the ISIS terrorists that turned our homes in Damascus and

Kobani into rivers of blood, “Why? What are you fighting for? Oil? Political ideologies?

Religion? Power? Revenge?” I call out to the global authorities, in the Middle East, Russia,

Western Europe, America and Canada, “We are not animals. We are human beings, just like you.

Why did you close your hearts and minds to forging a peaceful end to this war?” Still other

times, I shout at the smugglers and human traffickers, the faceless boogeymen who profit from

misery: “Why is money more important to you than human life?”

I envision the island of Kos, the stable rocks of the cradle of Western Civilization that my

brothers and sisters could see from the shores of Bodrum. It was a journey of fewer than three

miles. Why couldn’t that island have been just a little closer? I ask the sea and the wind, “Why

did you take our loved ones from us?”

I call out to the media, “Why did you ignore the plight of the refugees for so long? Until

it was too late to save my nephews and sister-in-law? And why did some of you attack Abdul-

lah’s reputation, after he’d lost everything else?”

Often, I cry to God, “Why?” Sometimes he doesn’t answer. Sometimes he responds with

a question of his own. Sometimes I know how to answer it. Other times, I am speechless. I

reserve the most vicious condemnations for myself. I may appear like an average middle-aged

woman going about my business at work, shopping for groceries, cooking a meal for my family,

resting my head on the pillow at the end of the day. My body is there, going through the motions,
but my mind is somewhere else. In a brightly lit interrogation room, staring myself down across

the table, demanding, “Why did you send Abdullah that money for the smugglers? “Why didn’t

you send him more money, so that he could take a safer, sea-worthy boat? Why didn’t you go to

Bodrum? Rent a motorboat, like so many tourists and holiday-makers, and take your family

across the sea? Why didn’t you start trying to get your family to Canada on the very first day that

the war in Syria started? Why were you so foolish and naive? So selfish?” I’m still lost at sea,

drifting. Sometimes I float. Other times I sink like a stone and drown.

Ghalib and Alan’s short lives were very difficult, spent primarily on the run from one

desperate situation to the next. I knew that, but I didn’t know it until that visit with my brothers

and sisters in Istanbul, when they’d already flown from our homeland and were living as illegal

refugees in a land that could not sustain them yet refused to let them go. At some point before the

tragedy, my family had begun to live on borrowed time. When did it start? How far back in time?

When ISIS began to put a chokehold on my ancestral homeland? Years before, when Rehanneh

was pregnant with Ghalib and the first rumblings of protest against the Syrian government be-

gan? Decades earlier, after I immigrated to Canada as a young woman? Before I was born?

When you wake up from a nightmare, you reach out to your loved ones, seeking solace, warmth,

and safety. Among my family, we often discuss our recent waking nightmare, and these

conversations steer us back in time, to memories from the past, our family’s past, our people’s

past. About what life was like before. Perhaps we are attempting to find a place where we can

truly belong, whether it’s a place we’ve already lived, or somewhere else. A man-made disaster

forced us to abandon our homeland, but there’s at least some comfort in knowing that we carry

our history with us, in our hearts and minds.


Many members of my family have perished because of the war, which still rages on in

Syria. Many others have survived, but their lives remain tenuous. Abdullah’s pain continues. A

year after he lost his family, he was still in the intensive care unit of a Turkish hospital, clinging

to life. In his hospital bed, he would often slip into delirium, calling for his wife and his boys, “I

need to get them clothes, water and food”—as if he was still preparing them for a journey. The

doctors told me he needed heart surgery, and that there was an 80 percent chance that he would

die. When my father heard the news, he said, “I would gladly give my son my heart.” Then my

father, too, had to be rushed to the hospital in Damascus, where he has remained since the start

of the war. My father doesn’t want to worry me, so I still don’t know what’s wrong with him, but

I believe the true cause is heartbreak.

Even in my deepest moments of despair, I recognize that we are the lucky ones: We have

lost too many loved ones and nothing will bring them back, but we are alive. We have our mem-

ories and our cognizance. We have many wonderful children and grandchildren with whom we

can share our history. It’s our honour and our duty to pass those memories to the next generation,

to put words on paper and share them, not just with our relatives, but also with the world. By

writing this book, I am also attempting to document the story of Abdullah’s family—to give it a

permanence that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

“Millions of refugees were in the same desperate situation as us,” Abdullah says to me

every time I push him for more information. Story by story, we must bear witness to the

experiences of millions of refugees and the many victims of war and genocide around the world.

I hope that my words help bring all of us one step closer to each other. I hope that my story

plants the seed of hope in your hearts and minds. I hope it inspires you to join me in speaking up
for all of the people who have no voice. And for all of the children who were taken from us

before they could speak.

When you saw the photograph of that little boy, dead on a faraway shore, you became a

part of our family. You shared our horror, our heartache, our shock and our outrage. You wanted

to save him, but you knew it was too late. In your grief, you reached out, and by doing so, you

grabbed hold of my hand and pulled me to your heart. You joined my family’s chorus of grief.

You helped save me from drowning.

In Syria and other Arabic countries, we call elders “Auntie” and “Uncle”—strangers,

friends and family alike. If you are older than me, you are my aunties and uncles, and if you are

younger than me, I am your auntie. Now, our histories and our destinies are entwined. Now, we

are all one family.

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