In my Comparative Religion and Culture class, I asked students to write a personal spirituality paper. I invite you to read and discuss with us the following reflection from Sana Aslam.
Sunday 12 December
7 p.m. Central Time
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Syria, one of the most beautiful countries I have encountered. Being half-Syrian has been one of my biggest privileges. It was my home, my safe space, my peace. Although I am half- Pakistani, half-Syrian, my attachment and adoration for Syrian has always been unmatched. Over 10 years ago, before the civil war, when Syria was still beautiful, peaceful and welcoming, I used to spend every summer visiting. It used to be the happiest days of my childhood. My sister, cousins and I used to sneak out of our beautifully built family home, and run around the narrow streets in my city. We used to go to our local supermarket and buy snacks before climbing to our roof top and sharing our secrets. Life was so beautiful, and so simple. There was love, peace, and kindness instead of blood, aggression and violence.
10 years ago, the Syrian civil war was started. As a child, I did not know that would be the end of our happiness and security. My town, my playground, my home were all crumbled to the ground. The war was the most brutal in the city my family lived in. Many of my loved ones have passed away, and some died as martyrs. Under the daily violence and brutality, the men in my family had no choice but to fight for their country and their people. While we were watching and hearing about what was happening with our family in Syria, we used to say the same sentence over and over that we found comfort in, “it will end soon, inshallah.” Neither of us knew that it would last for 10 years, with millions of children dead.
I had not been able to visit Syria again because of the huge risk of us not making it out alive. In 2014, my mom and my pregnant aunt decided to go for a swim in the pool in our building. The first day of Eid, our Islamic celebration, my mom left her phone with me while I got changed to go follow them. Until I received a message on her phone saying that my eight-year-old cousin, Noor, was shot in her stomach while she ran upstairs to meet our uncle. That was the most heartbreaking moment I have ever experienced. I used to spend most of my time with her when I used to visit Syria, so hearing the news certainly shocked me. We also knew that my Grandad and both of my uncles were shot. They all made it, except Noor. She was her father’s only daughter, and my only best friend. Having someone extremely close to me in my childhood pass away has made me view life in a different way. I have countless family members who have passed away during the war. It never gets easier. Although when I think back at them, all I can feel is proud. I am proud that they have died trying to defend their country. In my eyes, they are heroes.
Two years ago, I finally visited Syria again. I remember having butterflies the entire flight. I was over the moon. After 10 years, I got to see my home and my family again. We arrived in Damascus, the capital of Syria. We were going to go to my hometown three days after our arrival, and I could not have been happier. Once we reached our hometown, we went to visit our childhood home. It was utterly horrifying and heartbreaking. The second we stepped out of the car, I could not help myself from crying. I could not recognize my home. It was completely destroyed, rusted, and shattered. The third floor, where my grandparents used to live, was completely broken. It broke my heart to see the house I used to have breakfast in every morning, on the ground. We entered our old apartment, and there was a huge hole in the wall, it was like an explosion. There were bullet holes all over the walls and floors. I could not recognize my home.
My sister and I walked by our local supermarket, and it was almost like it never existed. And I remembered the good man that used to work there. He used to give us snacks even when we didn’t have money to buy them. My heart felt heavy at the thought of him not surviving, and until this day, I hope he is safe and well. Going to Syria has completely changed my perspective on a lot of things. It has made me appreciate life, live in the moment, and most importantly, always focus on the good.
I have watched all these homes that are destroyed, homes that had kids who were my age that I used to play with, and I thought how hard this must have been for them. I had realized how amazing my life really was. I had realized how many things I have taken for granted in the past ten years. We never really know how good we have it unless we look at someone who has suffered more. There are days where I did not finish my meal, or skipped a meal, or even wasted one, when there are people in the world who do not have water to drink. Although it was completely heartbreaking visiting Syria again, I have learnt a lot from it. Despite the broken homes, and demolished cities, it was still one of the most beautiful sites to see. The feeling of breathing that air, walking on the ground that many have died to save, was extremely overwhelming.
After our visit, I have grown so much as a person. I have learnt to always appreciate the little things in life, and always be thankful. I had food on my table, a roof over my head, and clothes on my body my whole life. I have to be grateful for everything I have in my life. I am grateful for my family, I am grateful for my health, I am grateful that I have the ability to hear, talk and walk. I am grateful to be able to continue my education, and I am grateful for being alive. There will always be people who have suffered more than us, and those who have suffered less. We should never be unappreciative for anything.
When I was a kid, I remember I wanted to buy a new set of Barbie dolls that my dad could not afford. I had wanted it ever since I saw my neighbor playing with it. I vividly remember crying because I thought “how come they have what I do not.” I never understood the value of anything in life. My dad came up to me and told me something I will never forget. He told me not to cry about what I do not have, and be happy about what I have. I may not have that doll, but I have a healthy heart and lungs, and others may not. I have food and clothes, while others may not. And I realized those “others,” were my family in Syria. I have watched my mom work over 24 hour shifts as a nurse, so she can be able to provide for her family in Syria who do not have food. She could not visit them, and neither could they. I have watched her cry almost every night in fear, wishing she does not get a call that she lost her parents.
During my visit, I met my grandad again after ten years. I remember how excited he was to see me. He last saw me when I was 8. He did not let me go that day and, of course, as most grandparents, he offered to make me food. I watched him as he cooked for me and I noticed a scar on his left shoulder, which was from the bullet that shot him. I watched how happy he was. The smile never left his face. He would wake up every morning to pray, prepare breakfast and wake us up with his old music. He was happy. I was amazed. My grandfather has witnessed everyone around him die for the past ten years, and has still managed to keep his positive mindset and attitude.
I felt shame and guilt. I felt shame over every time I was ungrateful or unthankful about anything. I was ashamed of the things I took for granted. I did not know how good I had it, until I saw how other people lived. I felt guilt, I felt guilty about every single person’s death. Yes, it was not my fault, but I will never stop feeling guilty of the fact that I have lived a great life, while others have fought to save my country. I do not think I will ever be as courageous, brave and heroic as the Syrians who were my age or under, and stood in front of a bullet while they demanded their human rights. I have never been more proud to call them my people.
I am now extremely thankful for everything. My parents, health, family, friends, education, and everything I have and will encounter in my life. Life is way too short for us to stress about things that will not matter once we no longer exist. Living everyday as it comes makes you realize how beautiful our lives are. Including all our struggles, battles, and obstacles we may have faced over time. The most important thing is, we have survived it, and every day is a new day.
I started being more observant of everything around me. I have noticed the beautiful trees every time I went out, or the beautifully built buildings, mosques and any other little thing that I may have ignored throughout my life before. Being observant makes you realize how much we are missing out on in life. We are drowned with the greed, hatred, and evil in this world that we almost forget how to live our lives to the fullest. I have started living my life in a way that I will never regret. I learnt that the most important thing is, keeping a positive attitude. Always be kind to others. We never know what someone is going through, and our simple kindness can make someone’s day.
I am extremely proud of the person I have become, and I will forever be grateful for every single soul that was sacrificed in order for others like me, to be able to walk on Syria’s ground again. I am sure that every single one of those heroes are watching over us in heaven. My cousin, being one of them. I just hope I can do enough good in my life to see her again.