I escaped war-torn Syria for college in America

Car bombs used to explode next to my school

“They’re shooting at me.”

The one sentence, spoken by my sister, that was enough to transform the lives of my family.

The one sentence that will never escape my mother’s memory, and the one that brought me here today.

Almost three years ago, my sister Maria was nearly shot following a terrorist attack near our school in Damascus, Syria. Today, I sit in Woodruff Library of Emory University and wipe away the tears as I reflect on the journey that completely transformed my life.

It was the 24th of December when my heart was filled with joy from reciting Christmas carols in our choir that I had just left with my parents and siblings. It was to be my last recital with the choir that I had been basically living with for eight years. And it was also the last Christmas with my dad at home.

As we carefully drove back to our apartment in one of Damascus’s most crowded and lively suburbs, I got a phone call from Michael, my best friend since 2nd grade. He said he only wanted to wish me a merry Christmas Eve and check if we got home safely. It could have been a clash he heard near the church I was in, or something he read on the news, but I did not ask him, simply because that had become the second question you asked a person who lives in Syria after hello and how are you.

By the time we got home, the awkward phone call ended, and my parents discussed the plan for our Christmas lunch at my grandparents tomorrow. Two hours later, I was praying in bed and wishing for nothing but peace and whatever my parents decide to put under our tree from Santa this year. I quickly fell asleep to the smell of red wine and chocolate coming from our living room and ran around 7am to open the presents. Never a Christmas without presents. Never too old for the excitement.

That was my last Christmas at home.

New Year’s Eve came and so did 2013, the biggest year of my life.

The family poses in front of a giant Christmas tree in Damascus, Syria in 2001

The family poses in front of a giant Christmas tree in Damascus, Syria in 2001

Mario and I hug in front of our Christmas tree at home in 2008

Mario and I hug in front of our Christmas tree at home in 2008

All that Christmas chocolate was much needed during the first two weeks of January because it was exams week, a stressful week that a snow storm in Damascus made easier on students.

Our curriculum was difficult but our lives were easy, at least mine was. I was never bored at school, not even with the same 30 students who I had been with since learning the alphabet. We shared everything, including our hate for the strict dress code that our Sisters, the nuns running the school, enforced. École Lourdes was the French name of the Catholic school where I had my first successes and failures in life. It was where I learned proper Arabic, French, and English. It was where I met Michael, my lifelong friend. It was where I learned Christianity. It was where they told us Israel was an imperialist enemy. It was also where I did not learn about the Holocaust, communism, or any historical event that was not related to either the growth of Islam or Syria as an independent state.

My life was perfect, but that did not last too long.

Protests began in 2011 but we never thought it would become what it is now. My parents rented two of our apartments to Iraqi refugees, never thinking that one day these rentals would pay our rental as Syrian refugees in the United States. We lived too safe of a life to even imagine what could come.

Soon enough, we adjusted. Everyone did. Everyone was forced to. Little after I watched the first protest on the news in March 2013, I was praying for my parents to come back from work safely. Soon after, I lost a friend, a choir member, in a terrorist attack. A few months later, another died from a falling mortar shell.

Two weeks later, a car bomb shook our entire building and the books off my desk, killing tens of innocent lives about four buildings away. Yes, four buildings away. Yet with all of this, my parents still had faith. Not until the day when my mom answered my sister’s call screaming “They’re shooting at me” did my parents seriously consider fleeing. Thank God, a thousand times, my sister was never shot and was not being shot at, but was enduring a traumatic moment when she made the phone call.

That morning, we woke up to no power, which had become a norm that we adjusted to during the war, along with the frequent loss of water. Our driver took us to school, and as we were driving, we could see the massive fire from the highway. Maria, my sister, and I tried to play a game and guess where the fire was coming from but that was hard. We felt it close to our destination but hated to admit it. The closer we got, the bigger it seemed, until our car was stopped by police vehicles closing the road. Our driver managed to get us to my school building, but Maria had to walk about two blocks to hers. This is when she witnessed what she later recalled as militia chasing a man with a beard, while fire fighters and ambulance cars spread the place. She was in shock and had no idea what to do.

She froze in her place and called mom screaming: “They’re shooting at me.” No one was shooting at her specifically, but guns were firing in the area. I never wanted to ask her why she thought she was the one targeted. She doesn’t like to talk about it and I would rather not have her remember what still causes her nightmares to this day. Somehow, a teacher found her and brought her to my school building, where I was waiting with the driver, whom I called to come back and pick us up because the school was shutting down. We made it home and by the time it took us to be back, I assume my parents prayed to every saint known to human kind for our safety.

The Al Chammas family pose for the annual Easter photo in 2013 at home in Damascus

The Al Chammas family pose for the annual Easter photo in 2013 at home in Damascus

About a month later, we left home and traveled to the American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon for our visas. That was a miracle. Few Syrians were being granted the visa to come to the United States. I was one of the few. Since the incident near the school, the number of our absences kept getting bigger and bigger. I never imagined my parents would ever force me to skip school, but the war was expanding beyond anyone’s imagination. Four days after my last exam, I was in Beirut’s airport hugging dad goodbye along with my sister.

I had never seen him cry in my entire life until the moment he kissed me goodbye. This is when I experienced deep sadness, when I realized that the helpless movie farewells are not just seen in Hollywood films. It was when I began to lose faith in perfection. Baba, dad in the Syrian dialect, did not have a US visa so I was deeply concerned and aware of our long separation to come. I was always on his side during the family’s arguments. I always will be. Baba, if you’re reading this, I love you.

Maria and I hug dad on Easter Sunday of 2013 at home in Damascus

Maria and I hug dad on Easter Sunday of 2013 at home in Damascus

From Beirut to Frankfurt to Dallas, my imagination tried to draw pictures for the future but had no colors, no information to build on. I was clueless of what was to come. My life was unexpectedly transforming. All I knew was that I had to make sure Maria and I didn’t miss a flight or go to the wrong gate. With common sense and our language abilities, we arrived to DFW airport on June 4th, 2013 and were kindly received by my uncle, who has lived and worked in the United States for longer than I have breathed. We stayed with his loving family for the summer until mom and Mario, my little brother, joined. Maria and Mario are my siblings, and if you, too, are wondering how I am the odd one out, you may ask my parents why Farah was their chosen name.

That summer felt more like a winter as the tree of my life lost what I thought were perfect leaves and grew new ones that I have never seen before. After meeting with the school counselor, we decided Maria and I were to participate in the International Baccalaureate program instead of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. After all, my obsession with Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana allowed me to master the American accent as our teachers wondered why only Maria sounds foreign. Well, too bad she did not enjoy Disney Channel as much as I did growing up. My goal in high school was to receive the International Baccalaureate diploma and two years later, I did. First day of school was nerve-wracking: it was something I have never experienced before. I wondered how to introduce myself, how to reflect on my country, how to study, and how to make new friends, which was something that I never needed to learn back home. Although I was jokingly called a terrorist, when literally leaving Dad and home because of terrorists, and although I was constantly forced to erase the stereotypes about my religion and life in Syria, I was able to adjust.

OK, that was inaccurate. I was not able to adjust, I made myself adjust. Skimming through the names of martyrs and injured, which my neighborhood’s local Facebook page posts following every attack in the area, to check if I recognize any names, was difficult. But it was the only way to ensure the safety of my loved ones. As much as I hated the fear that the Syrian news brought me, I tried to stay in touch and not lose contact. Skyping with Dad only hurt more, reminding me of how much I miss him every time I saw his face, and a phone call with Michael was no different. I never shared these feelings, because adding to mom’s already-hurting heart would not have been a smart idea, nor did I open up to friends whose main concern was finding a homecoming date.

Pre-prom photo with my girls in Longview

Pre-prom photo with my girls in Longview

At least my experience in an American high school was not too much of the Mean Girls nightmare that I was trying to prepare myself for. Everyone was nice, some were scared. I was definitely more scared though. By the first month, I had made many acquaintances but one really good friend. Hannah was the nicest person I have ever met. She always had a big smile, walked me to classes, introduced me to people, and ate lunch with me.

She was my hero, until one time, during lunch, a friend mentioned something about her being Jewish. I was shocked but tried to hide it. I asked, “are you really Jewish?” She answered “yes” with her friendly smile. I went home venting to mom “how could such a nice person as Hannah be Jewish?” Mom, who was, well, obviously, much wiser than I was, gave me a speech about how politics and religion are different and how I should be accepting of everyone and how people are people. Hannah and I quickly became closer. We soon enough realized how our similarities clearly outnumbered our differences.

While I was figuring out how to live in a household with a single parent, she was figuring out how to deal with her dad’s cancer. We learned so much from each other and wrote our college essays about our experience. We both applied to Emory but she chose Brandeis as was a more fitting choice for her future career. Our mothers, too, have formed a unique bond and now frequently send us their pictures sharing a meal while Dad rests in Syria and Hannah’s father in heaven.

On Hannah's back although she always has mine at a graduation party in Longview, Texas in 2015

On Hannah’s back although she always has mine at a graduation party in Longview, Texas in 2015

Hannah, herself, was a learning experience who taught me the meaning of tolerance, peace, and integration, but America had more lessons to come. My first American crush came out as being gay about a year and a half after knowing him. That, too, was another lesson that truly showed me how acceptance on this planet is the key for a happy life. Although I grew up in an extremely conservative Christian community, I was able to hold onto my faith while respecting his decisions and preserving our friendship. My high school friends enriched my experience, just as much as the different American high school curriculum did. IB, SAT, ACT, TEKS were all acronyms that I had never heard of but had to fight with all my power. SAT and ACT were especially frustrating, but my writing got me here, to Emory.

Somehow, after filling 26 college applications and becoming friends with every mailing service in Longview, Texas, Emory was the one. I did not choose it. God chose it for me, and I could never be enough thankful for this blessing. With such a huge number of applications, I honestly knew nothing about Emory besides the facts that it was a good name and that Hannah was applying. But once I arrived here, I realized how magical of a place this is. Somehow, I was named an Emory Liberal Arts Scholar in my admission’s letter, which I had to Google after I Googled where Emory was even located when mom asked.

As of today, I have only spent four months here but I can guarantee that I learned as much as I have learned in four years. My interest in creating peace between the Arab and Israeli cultures led me into a Hebrew classroom where I have developed a great admiration for the language that is extremely close to my own. Although I was the only Arab in the class and had an Israeli teacher, I never felt more comfortable and confident in a classroom before. My Israeli teacher further affirmed what Hannah had left in me about tolerance and acceptance. I now strongly believe that if I could overcome the natural bias, which every human being inevitably demonstrates in defense of what they are raised upon, everyone else can. Now when that happens, I can go visit home because peace would actually become a reality. Through all these lessons, I have realized how proper communication is essential for interaction that allows acceptance and peace. I plan to minor in Hebrew and major in the Interdisciplinary Studies department at Emory, where my passion for human health and political science may be combined into the Emory masterpiece of a Liberal Arts education.

My siblings hug me congratulations on graduation day in Longview in spring 2015

My siblings hug me congratulations on graduation day in Longview in spring 2015

As a freshman, I am always typically asked where is home. My answer in the beginning of the year was Syria and Texas. However, I now consider Emory home. Emory is where an international student from Paris held my candle while I spoke about my experience during a candlelit vigil that was held for world peace, a week after a Syrian terrorist was blamed for the Paris attacks.

Emory is where I have already formed lifelong friends. Emory is where I accompanied a classmate to a Shabbat service and attended a Buddhist mediation after I finished my usual Catholic mass in the Cannon Chapel. Emory is where I was given an opportunity to research refugees in Atlanta, Georgia. Emory is where I am not afraid of my identity as a Syrian refugee in a state that is trying to vanish my existence within. Emory is where I brought the photos from the one out of nearly fifty photo albums that I was allowed to pack in my personal suitcase when I left Syria. Emory is where I keep my favorite memories and where my new ones are to be made. Emory is where I am living my version of Hannah Montana’s Best of Both Worlds, the Syriamerican style.

For fifteen years in Syria, my life was perfect. During my two years in Texas, life stripped me from my view of perfection.

After four months at Emory, I learned how perfectly imperfect my life is.

This is how my heart was made in Syria and my mind was made in the United States.

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