Remote Encounters with Syrians: A Personal Account
Amman – Jordan
It was the green bus. More than the shelling and the airstrikes. It was that appalling bus with an abysmal shade of green that violently and symbolically succeeded to chronically disturb my balance and scar my soul.
Prior to 2016, I had never believed in hate at first sight. But seeing footage of the green bus displacing people from their hometowns in Aleppo city to neighbouring opposition held areas turned me into a firm believer that such a negative feeling can be born in seconds, at first sight. I was still new to the Syria context, and witnessing live uprooting of people within the borders of their own country challenged every definition and understanding of statelessness and uprooting I had accumulated over the years of studying the Palestinian diasporisation. Little did I know back then that my hatred towards those buses would turn into personal loathing.
As employees of humanitarian organisations working on Syria Response outside Syria, encounters with our Syrian counterparts often started with a very remote, reserved and formal Skype conversation. Whether the conversation was written or verbal depended on the connection strength and on the security situation in the Syrian colleague’s area. Overcoming that remoteness was never easy. It required a great deal of affective labour that was (and still is) surprisingly not rewarded nor considered in the humanitarian workspace. Choosing which path to take to build remote trust with Syrian partners has always been a personal decision very dependent on personality, life experiences, and self-protection strategies. Some chose humour when and where applicable, some rigid professional conversations, others personalised the relationship. Once remoteness was overcome and trust was built, the relationship would step into another level, one where instant messaging mostly over WhatsApp became a daily occurrence where both work and life topics overlap. Although technology is sometimes rightly accused of creating remoteness, in this case it was creating closeness.
I recall sharing and/or receiving poetry and devastating breaking news, book recommendations and footage of airstrikes, family photos and lists of casualties, jokes and existential questions, all remotely through instant messaging between people who haven’t met in person yet managed to build a very personal relationship.
Months passed and the remote encounters with Syrians increased and grew in strength and intensity in parallel with the escalating conflict dynamics. The daily overlap of work and life in the form of instant messaging was overtaken by messages on safety, and sometimes survival. The shared stories, despite being experienced remotely, were agonising and traumatising. It was, and still is, surprising how much can be shared and felt from distance through a small device and an application. “There was not a single human being left in our village” said one Syrian colleague in a very composed manner over a Skype call, “we escaped the airstrikes and shelling overnight … a stray dog followed our car on our way out of the village for 5 kilometres. You should have seen how he looked at us. He was afraid of the sounds of bombing. He was afraid of staying alone”. On the other side of the line was myself, not only nowhere as composed as he was, but nowhere near composed. It was one of the many instances where I had to mute my microphone to cry privately in an attempt to protect my resilient Syrian colleagues from my fragility.
What was prominent in such recurrent encounters was my colleagues’ very strong faith in God. InshAllah and AlHamdulillah, they would always say. This solid faith amidst the presence of every single condition encouraging the opposite made me question my very understanding and appreciation of life. Am I seriously worried about what this said or that did? Am I seriously wasting my life on absurdities while other people are under an imminent threat of loss, displacement and death?
Sometimes remote workers at humanitarian organisations think that they are the ones helping people in conflict ridden countries, but reality proves otherwise, it can also be vice versa. If I was helping them to survive, bureaucratically, they were helping me to live.
“Do you advise me to take the bus to Idleb or should I stay here” asked a colleague who with time became a friend. It is the green bus again, this time transferring people from Eastern Ghouta to northwest Syria after a heavy military campaign on the area. Never had I imagined, or never did I want to believe that one day, one of my colleagues will be on the appalling bus, let alone ask me if I
advise him to do so. He decided to take the bus and he chose to share his displacement with me in pictures and words, remotely. A few months later, another colleague turned friend sent me a picture of himself waiting for the green bus, in southern Syria this time. Seeing how much weight he lost and how pale he looked was harsh and continues to trigger my vicarious trauma whenever my subconscious brain dictates. And still, while they were the ones on that green bus, I was the one protecting my colleagues from my weakness by reflecting their strength and resilience in the form of messages and prayers.
What made me detest the green bus even more than the airstrikes and shelling is a question that I continuously ask myself. I am not sure I arrived to a fulfilling answer thus far, but for the time being I think it stems from my lack of closeness to death. My remote experience of the Syrian conflict and my imagined everydayness of those affected by it made me think that a fast death caused by an airstrike is a merciful one, and that a slow death represented by uprooting and uncertainty is not …