Sanctuary from Syria — what will it take?

Members of the Free Syrian Army running through the streets. Photo by WordswithMeaning.org, via Flickr.

Each time I travel to Syria to follow the plight of Iraqi refugees there, I also visit with Palestinians from Iraq. During my last trip to Syria, in December 2011, I was sitting with one of these families in their humble apartment in Damascus. “Tell me again,” I asked, “where are your family members living?”

I began to note the countries: Germany, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Australia, Cyprus, New Zealand, Jordan, the United States, etc. As the list went on I put my pen down and began to chuckle in disbelief. The family joined me and we all ended up laughing, a welcome respite from the tension of the violence and chaos that has beset Syria. Over the years this family has become like my own. The ever-present question in our minds is how to get this family, and others, to safety?

Palestinians in Iraq were targeted in a particularly brutal fashion after the fall of Saddam’s regime. The majority who fled found refuge in Syria. Currently there are about 2,000 left in Syria, and of those about 350 are in the two refugee camps on the Syrian-Iraqi border. There are only about 5,000 Palestinians left in Iraq.

Palestinians in Syria are one of the most vulnerable populations. They have no papers, no statehood — nowhere to go to escape the killing and violence. No countries want them. They can’t even get a death certificate when someone dies, and the bodies have to be buried clandestinely in a cemetery.

But they do have something. They have families around the world who want them. Families sick with worry. Families waiting with longing and open arms to receive them.

On August 22, I was in the Boston area with a dear friend who is a member of the family I described above. He had recently received his American citizenship. Nevertheless, he was beside himself with worry and concern about his family’s well-being. I was with his wife and small son for Eid, and we spoke with one of his sisters by phone in Damascus.

“Everything is fine,” she lied. We learned later that their other sister and her family had to vacate her apartment in the same neighborhood just that day as it took a mortar hit. Thankfully, no one was injured by the collapsing walls and roof.

Afterward my friend showed me a video clip of the violence in the same neighborhood, which I know well. The short clip showed charred bodies, still moving. I had to turn away. He told me that a cousin of his was recently killed there.

I have the photo of the beautiful face of his elderly mother before me. She allowed me to take it at our last visit. She is over 80 years old and is presently in one of the two camps in Syria. She has always been a refugee she told me, and her children are refugees scattered all over the world. How I wish I could share the photo of his mother, but I fear it would put her at even more risk.

My friend in Boston has recently rented an apartment with extra rooms to receive his mother, and maybe even a sister, a nephew, a niece. What will it take to get her here? Do we have to wait for the news of yet another family member’s death?

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