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Student Voices: My Story


I cannot speak on behalf of others because different people went through different things, learned to cope differently. I can simply tell you my story, which is only one experience out of thousands of others, and hope that it is enough.

It all happened gradually.

Frankly, I do not remember the day it all began. I didn’t realize that that day was so important that I’d have to remember it. I didn’t know that from that day on, my world would slowly start to break into pieces, pieces that would end up scattered all around the world, leaving me incomplete.

Ever since I was a child, my whole future seemed to be figured out. It was simple. I was supposed to live in Aleppo and go to school at IISA until I graduated, along with all the classmates who over the years had made my days at school bearable, sharing crayons and lice, gossiping and hugging when tears would win, and learning by heart the sounds of each other’s laughter, almost as if they were lyrics to a song. Subsequently, I would go study abroad and then bring my knowledge back home. It never occurred to me for even a second that I’d ever have to leave my home before.

With time, we learned to adapt. We went out less often because it was too risky, and we went to sleep earlier, in the hope that we’d be profoundly asleep when the bombings began. We left home every morning to go to school as usual and in a way it became our salvation: it was our second home and the teachers and students were our second family. Walking through the school gates felt like entering a separate world. A world where harm did not exist and kind words were all that escaped a person’s mouth. A world where differences were set aside, where no one was left behind. That is why, when the number of people showing up to school every morning started to decrease, we started to feel lost and forlorn. When a family member leaves, it takes you a few months to adapt-to alter your habits- yet years later, even in spite of everything, you find yourself walking around the house aimlessly, trying to find something to fill up the empty space they unintentionally left behind.

There is nothing good about goodbyes. Nowadays, I am as familiar with the word goodbye as I am with my own name. It started off in January 2012- this I cannot forget. We had just returned from Winter break and already, 2 people in my class were missing. As February came, it grew to 4 and then 6. March came along and then it all sped up: 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16. Considering we were only a class of 32 students, by the end of March, only half remained. By then, goodbyes had become a component of our daily lives; it began to feel like a routine. With every coming day, one person left. It was as if our school was a bush and every person who left was a flower. Once a flourishing and luxuriant plant, the bush had begun to lose all its beauty and instead looked empty, abandoned.

Bombs and gunshots were things I only witnessed in movies; things I didn’t think truly existed- things I sincerely hoped didn’t exist. Nevertheless, no matter how much I yearned for their absence, I couldn’t deny their existence. I couldn’t turn weapons that were responsible for millions of deaths over the years into nothingness. They went from being a figment of my imagination, to being a feature of my daily life. At first, every bomb we would hear would make us jolt. We’d hold on to each other, praying there were no more. Many nights were spent sleepless and our hearts raced faster and faster after every bomb that was heard. But eventually, with time, it started to feel like a routine. Instead of running inside and cuddling all together under the bed covers, we sat outside trying to keep count of them. It was as if we were sitting beside the microwave as it popped our popcorn except that with every pop, either a human life was taken, someone was severely injured, a building had collapsed, or worst of all, all three. I never thought I’d ever feel like I was in danger in my own home. I never thought I’d hear my first gunshot or my first bomb, let alone get so used to it that when I heard one, I wouldn’t even twitch. However, with time, we realized that all we could really do was patiently wait for it all to come to an end.

As school came to an early end on April the 5th 2012, summer break began. Students were ecstatic. Five months of summer sounded like a dream come true. Excitement was dancing in the air as hugs were exchanged and yearbooks were signed. As the buses were making their way out the gates one last time, the teachers all stood in a unified line, waving cheerfully, their proud smiles furtively accompanied by tears that were secretly dominating their eyes, as they desperately tried to hold them back. At that brief moment, a rare bond was shared between us all. We were all holding on with all our might to Hope, because although we were not all willing to admit it, the excitement we were displaying was a façade masking the fact that we were all feeling heavy, carrying around the pain and knowledge that we may never see each other again.

Consequently, the following weeks of summer were spent in Aleppo. It was an ordinary summer; mornings were spent at the pool, roasting in the sun, and afternoons were spent out with our remaining friends. In June, schools everywhere else around the world had finally come to an end and so we eagerly packed our suitcases and just like every typical summer, we headed off to Turkey for two months. My parents had carefully planned out our summer, as they always do. We were supposed to spend two months in Turkey and then head back in time for school to begin: August the 19th. What we didn’t realize then was that very often, things don’t work out the way you want them to.

The shocking news had made its way to us like a slithering snake by the beginning of July. IISA was not going to open. Panic had taken over; everyone was hysterical. We were devastated. Confusion, anger and tears tainted our faces as we all tried to comprehend this horrifying news. When you are young, there are many things that you get mad at: your mom who won’t let you go out because you have to study, or your teacher who gives you too much homework. There’s always someone to blame, someone to aim all that anger at. Sadly, we didn’t know who to accuse or who to take to take our anger out on. That day was the day the invisible bonds we shared appeared. Teachers, students and parents were selflessly worrying about each other, rather than themselves. By then, the dominating question floating around was, “What are we going to do?” What do you do when everything you have worked for, everything you have carefully planned suddenly seems like it has evaporated? What do you do when the future you had always imagined and strived to make come true vanishes into nothingness? Our thoughts were too crowded and we couldn’t form any more words. Our vision had been shattered into a million pieces and no matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t put it back together.

People spend their whole lives searching for something to make them feel complete, whole. I was born whole; I was born fortunate. I grew up oblivious to what worries were, oblivious to their existence. Unfortunately, the day I found out that I was not going back home was the day my whole world fell apart. From that day on, I thought that I would never feel complete again. It made no sense to me, what had I ever done to deserve this? How was I going to cope? I woke up to a damp pillow, and I fell asleep tightly holding on to my teddy bear, almost as if I were still five. I spent days baffled and lost, trapped between walls of frustration and devastation. As the dreadful days crept by, the fogginess of the situation began to clear up. Unfortunately, the more it cleared up, the worse it looked. At that moment, I began to make realizations. No matter how hard I pinched myself, I would not wake up from this nightmare. Thoughts flooded my brain and at times, I found myself drowning, desperately gasping for air. When was I going to return? When was I going to see my friends and family? When was I going to set foot in my own home again? And yet the thought that haunted me the most was the fact that I was fortunate compared to others. What about the people who did not have a plan B? I walked around insensitive to my surroundings while the sorrow was growing within me, causing me to wither away.

Time crept by and summer came to an end. Along with it came more goodbyes, ripping me further apart. As much as being reunited with loved ones after a while is enchanting and delightful, parting is always the most difficult part, it almost feels like you’re being torn into pieces. We got into a plane; unaware of where we might end up, where our final destination might be. We transported with us all the memories we could hold on to, some that would trigger the nostalgia, and others that we wish we could forget. Home had become a foreign word, a distant dream that we longed for and a question mark: When were we going to return?


Aleppo’s a city in Syria, a city many people had never heard of before it all began. On account of the media, an abundance of people finally knew where Aleppo was. What they grasped though was what the media portrayed. They made our beautiful city look like ruins. They buried a heritage that took more than 5,000 years to build, under rubble. They hid its splendor and instead showed the world its flaws. They silenced the crowded streets that used to come to life every day, tinted by hundreds of people. They replaced the sounds of friendly chatter and contagious laughter by those of bombs and gunfire. They made the people look like savages when really; the people in Aleppo were identified as some of the kindest people you would have ever had the fortune to meet. They were the kind of people who when asked for directions, gladly dropped everything they were doing, got into their cars, and directed you safely to your destination. They were the kind of people who even when they only had one loaf of bread left, they would still decide to share it with stray cats. They were the kind of people who in the morning, kindly smiled at you when you walked by, revealing a ray of sunshine on a rainy day. Aleppo was no ordinary city. It was absolutely exquisite. The lovely people living in it were the main reason behind its mysterious beauty. They strived all their lives to try to make their city even more picturesque, spending years building and investing, oblivious to the fact that the years of building, could all be destroyed in a matter of seconds.

Nowadays, I impatiently await the summer holidays. To see people reunited never ceases to amaze me. The way they run to each other, almost as if they’d had a rush of adrenaline, the long tight hugs that they have craved for so long, bringing them back together, creating one entity; the embracing that then triggers the tears, each drop carrying the pain of each other’s absence. Later comes the impatience, the stories that the mouth can’t seem to tell fast enough, the ears that aren’t big enough, the eyes that can’t take in all of the change and the hands that can’t seem to stop moving, unable to hide the eagerness and the thrill of finally being able to take a break from missing that someone. No matter how tight we hug or how many words we whisper, we cannot seem to have enough of each other. Unfortunately, the knowledge that goodbyes are unavoidable hangs thickly in the air, making it harder for us to breath.

To this day, the aching in my heart remains. I get asked dozens of questions, we all do. Everybody is constantly trying to put themselves in our shoes, always failing. Turns out, we were barefoot instead, we were completely vulnerable to the blind rage around us and no matter how innocent we were, we had all been dragged into the same misery. And unless it is experienced firsthand, the horrifying recollections that reside in my mind could never be envisioned. We try to put what we feel and what we have felt into words but our thoughts are a painful mess, they are too muddled. How do you explain something that you can’t even seem to understand yourself?

My friends and family were dispersed around the world, each one of them blossoming into a remarkable flower, sharing their strength and knowledge with the rest of the world. Miles lay between us and barriers divided us up, and yet we have never felt closer. We had been intertwined and woven together- our bonds stronger than ever- creating a dazzling quilt. Together, we untangled the situation, attempting to make sense of it. We alternated roles: offering a shoulder to cry on or being the one who needed a shoulder to cry on. In the end we discovered that it was like everything… eventually it started to feel normal. We figured out the right words to say to other people and we adapted.

Sometimes, the best way to think about the worst situations is to perceive them as fate. Maybe bad things happen because it’s the only way we can keep remembering what good is supposed to look like. Time has a funny way of showing us what truly matters. When the fog cleared up and we had each settled in our own corner of the world, we realized that for every little thing that was taken from us, we had gained something else. We grew as a population in an unimaginable way. One of the most difficult realizations we made was that we should never take anything for granted. In the blink of an eye, your whole world can be altered, changed into something unrecognizable. I now take a moment every morning and just look around, feeling grateful for the simplest things such as being surrounded by a loving family, a group of outstanding friends and under a sturdy roof. I now carry around the knowledge that “home” is people, not a place. If you go back there when all the people are gone, then all you see is what is not there anymore. Furthermore, I learned that memories, although often painful circulate in your blood. They are reminders that you are alive and that although life is sometimes a struggle, you should eternally hold on to the remnants of hope. Whenever we began missing someone again, we started to feel privileged because we had the fortune to have such special people in our lives, people worth missing. Finally, we learned that we all have blemishes and we all carry around scars. We are tarnished, tainted and sullied; but under all that dust and dirt, we all have sparkling stars.

I now realize, however, that the day all of this began was a day worth remembering, a day I should not have taken for granted, a day only made special by what was going to come after it.


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