One family's mind-bending journey to survive war is captured in candid email exchanges between a Santa Cruzan and a Syrian woman. A GT exclusive.
The last time Santa Cruz’s June Magnaldi visited Syria in 2011, she sat comfortably with her friends sipping tea on the balcony of their second-floor apartment, overlooking a small city street of Homs, the third-largest city in the country. Nearby, a tall green cypress tree reached toward the sky above the neighborhood of Christians and Muslims. June exchanged stories with Suha, a university graduate of literary studies who had become a teacher and whose family ties to Syria go back 1,000 years. The two friends recalled the time they had met 10 years before at Mar Musa Monastery, deep in the silent Syrian desert. June had ventured there to visit, “this beautiful monastery above the desert, open to all faiths and nationalities.” Suha told GT that Mar Musa is “heaven on Earth” and she had gone there “to be away from the city’s moral and actual pollution. I spent three days there and most of the time was with June.”
As they laughed and spoke on the balcony, there was no way to know that only three months later, the country would be embroiled in civil war. And that Suha and her husband Toni, a web designer, and their young children Zoya and Marc would have their lives completely shattered and turned upside-down—or that their home would be bombed and reduced to rubble; their neighbors killed or kidnapped. They had no idea that the whole family would escape to a small village to find respite from the horror of bombs and bullets, before their street in Homs was destroyed.
The deep friendship between June and Suha continued via email as the displaced family tried to find a way to safety along with 2 million other Syrians, even as President Barack Obama threatened to drop more bombs on their homeland. This is the story of one family’s exodus from war and the loving human connection that helped make it possible. June had offered her words here without a photo of herself, choosing solidarity with friend Suha until the time they both can visit once again.
March, 2011: Protests erupt in Syria when a group of teenagers are arrested and tortured after painting political slogans on the walls of their school in Deraa. Protests continued and Syrian tanks attacked Deraa in March, 2011 and Homs in early 2012. Fighting then spread among ethnic and religious groups.
To Suha: APRIL 10, 2011—THINKING OF YOU
(June’s first email as war begins in Syria)
My Dear Suha, Thinking of you, and sending you, your family, and all in your country my wishes for peace. As always, you are in my thoughts and prayers. June
To June: APRIL 10, 2011—PEOPLE ARE AFRAID
Hi June, I thought you would write to me as soon as you hear what's going on in Syria. The general situation is so vague and foggy. Some militia, civilians—or whatever —are threatening innocent people in the streets, schools or over the buildings. An armed car may shoot randomly and kill kids and women. People are afraid of going out and afraid of each other now. We aren't used to such a life in Syria. We’ve always been secure living as one family, oblivious to our sects, but unfortunately not anymore. The Psalms Day is coming and most Christians aren’t attending the mass and maybe are leaving for villages. I agree we need more rights, freedom, less corruption in the government and many other things, but I'm against racism and our country's destruction. Only time can show the whole puzzle. Pray 4 us. Your friend, Suha
To Suha: October 26.2011—IT IS BETTER TO BE SAFE
My Dear Suha, We have shared a lot together: the beautiful monastery, your invitation that first year to visit you and your family. There are times when it is difficult to write—and maybe it is better not to write—we both understand this and know that our friendship continues. It is better to be safe in what you say and do not say. That is why I always write in general words.
Though it may take a big effort, this can be an opportunity to teach, help and share with others. Or do things like gardening. It is not a lost time, but a time to make use of the enormous courage and resourcefulness you have, which is why I love and admire you. No matter what, the olive trees are smiling at us, their arms offering a hug. I feel very close to you, and give you a warm hug with love and friendship, June
To June: OCTOBER 26, 2011 – WE’VE LEFT OUR HOME
Dearest June, I’d like to start by saying you’re so close to my heart. I’m just tracking news and chatting with friends trying to understand what is going on!!! I know you avoid specific questions, but I can’t. When you hold your baby running from a possible deadly shot, when you find two bullets inside your house, when you feel helpless towards your crying kids as you can’t give answers or stop the madness outside, when your neighbor dies mysteriously, another’s kidnapped, another’s cut into pieces … Through all of that you can’t be afraid of thinking or even saying: those are the only rights left (to think & speak). My family has lived all that terror; that’s why we’ve left our home to stay at my sister’s home. It’s a bit safer. I’m still (working) at the same school, which is peaceful, but the journey is so dangerous; many bodies were found there.
Kids can’t go out at night so you have to provide some fun at home. The best news I can give you is that we are still alive. Your words are always healing … It’s right the olive tree is not only smiling but her bushes hold people tight wherever they are: it is the power and magic of humanity. Suha
To Suha: DECEMBER 12, 2011 – PRAYERS AND CANDLES
My Dear Suha, I am sorry that you are having this experience. When I left your country in January 2011, how could I have imagined the events that you are enduring? Such terrible times show us clearly what is important in life, and even in these worst times there can be moments of joy, with your children and Toni. Around the world, each country is experiencing turmoil. Maybe much of human history has been this way. But we must see the light in the darkness and be carriers of the light. Amma, the holy Indian woman I have told you about, says, “Don’t be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness in the world. Light your little candle and step forward.” The truth is that the little candle can be immense. Loving thoughts, June
PS: Is this the time to go to the village and do some gardening? Near the peace and wisdom of the olive trees? Wishing you joy, good health and continued courage at this Christmas time. June
To June: MARCH 10, 2012— A DISTORTED PLACE, ANOTHER KOSOVO
Dear June, It's been so hard to survive and continue believing in God's mercy or even existence. You can't imagine how I desire to cry over your shoulder, to get your soothing words, feeling once more that we humans are equal. No sectarian differences can let brothers kill each other. Homs is another Kosovo, a distorted place, a graveyard for humanity. I can't keep on.
We’re safe now at the village. The kids are happy & out of their joy we get our consolation and the reason to survive. Toni is going to work now in Lebanon. Prices are so high in Syria and most people are homeless and begging for food. Thank God, we are far from this. One good news is that I’m gardening. I remember when you said that plants are small babies. I couldn't understand these words until I had mine; my little babies are growing, hoping to see light just like Syrian babies. Thanks for your prayers. Suha
To Suha: MARCH 17, 2012—SAFE IN THE VILLAGE
My Dear Suha, I am so relieved to learn that you are safe in the village. I am concerned about your husband. Naturally he will want to care for his family by getting a job, but going to another country could be dangerous, as they have put in landmines and there are dangers of being shot at.
Being such a responsible person, Toni would have been tempted to go to your apartment to save some personal belongings. But believe me, now is the time to save one’s own life, and also not risk being injured. It’s the time for learning more deeply what is precious and irreplaceable and what is not. Wait and see how things go. In the meantime recognize that life is Now, in the present moment. And now, however difficult, has the possibility of love, smiles, beauty and being together.
I’m glad you are gardening. Do more and your children can help you, too. Nature is a great teacher. Why can’t Toni help with farming? It would keep him physically and mentally well and he would learn a lot. It’s this that is rewarding in life. Not just white-collar jobs, but learning and helping everyone. I suggest that you hold English classes for children and even adults.
For now I’m sure farming people or neighbors would share their vegetables and olive oil in exchange for lessons or other help. You and Toni and your children might come to love and appreciate this new life. Within the supposed poverty there is great riches. And in your present life, please don’t write me too specifically about things. This can come later. Please take this advice seriously. Always know that you and your family are continuously in my heart. Love, June
To June: APRIL 12, 2012—SPRING FOR THE FIRST TIME
Dear June, Marc and Zoya are so happy. They are experiencing spring for the first time in the village; the colorful land decorated by rosy trees. Being in the village is another blessing I’ve never thought about before. My kids’ faces and hands have become brawny and their eyes are full of joy. Toni is happy in Lebanon and we chat every night. He’s missing the kids of course but he’s thinking now of migrating to Europe, maybe to Sweden or Switzerland. My onions are now tall, the parsley and the mint are still young. Next month we’ll plant tomato and green peppers. I wish you are here as always … Actually, my eyes flood when I read your words and, now, too … Take care, Suha
To Suha: APRIL 21, 2012—SILENCE OF MOTHER NATURE
My Dear Suha, I’m very happy that you are safe and that you are appreciating the blessings of mother nature. Nature gives to everyone, no matter who they are and what they believe. This is universal love. There is nothing like the silence of nature to bring peace and contact with the infinite (the silence of Mar Musa or of the olive groves). How happy I am that you are enjoying your vegetable plants and that your children are brawny with joyful eyes. This is true richness!
You and your family and friends have been thrown into experiences that perhaps you would have never imagined. Conflict, running from your house, living in the village, loss. I lived two years in Cambodia during the (Vietnam) war, trying to understand and help refugees who had lost everything. We were evacuated in the end and my very best friends, Cambodians, became refugees in Thailand. I visited them in the camps there and they never knew if they would be joined with their families again. I learned then what is most important: Life, safety, family, friends and precious traditions.
After Cambodia I spent five years in Sri Lanka. My last visit there was the moment of the start of civil war, which lasted 20 years. In 1982 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I fled with my Tamil friends from their house. Later these friends became refugees in India. So, both in Cambodia and Sri Lanka, my dearest friends became refugees. And now, suddenly and unbelievably, my dearest friends in Syria have to flee their houses as refugees.
In a way, I have been able to live moment to moment with you, wondering when and where the next bullet or rocket will land. Making a precious existence in what seems to be great darkness is a greatness in human beings. I am thankful that Toni is safe and that you are able to talk to him each day. Carry on with your Light, which is an inspiration to others. June
“When you hold your baby running from a possible deadly shot, when you find two bullets inside your house, when you feel helpless towards your crying kids as you can’t give answers or stop the madness outside, when your neighbor dies mysteriously, another’s kidnapped, another’s cut into pieces … Through all of that you can’t be afraid of thinking or even saying: those are the only rights left (to think & speak). My family has lived all that terror; that’s why we’ve left our home to stay at my sister’s home. It’s a bit safer..“ —Suha
To June: JULY 14 2012—HUMANITY FILLS THE GAP
Dear June, It's been hard for me too to connect with you or anybody else because landlines, Internet and mobile phones are interrupted from time to time. I do appreciate your sooooothing prayers and words. I can see that we humans are connected not by any kind of language, culture or any of these craps; it is our humanity that fills the gap among people in the world.
The future is foggy but we are trying to survive. I would like to thank you for offering money. As we say in Arabic: alhamdullah. “Thank God.” We have enough. Toni is still working in Lebanon & his work is good. BUT, June, I do beseech you, if you can, help us to get out of Syria. Toni is seeking from Lebanon to help us get to Emirates, Europe, Australia or anywhere. We are afraid in case our regime collapses Christians will suffer a lot. Please, if you have any way out, maybe an organization, church or the UN. We would be so thankful. Yours, Suha
To Suha: JULY 20, 2012—REFUGEE?
My Dear Suha, I know how worrying the future may be. Australia: can you get in on a work visa or as a refugee? In Beirut there may be an office of the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. People register with them and get put on lists to emigrate to various countries. It can take time, but it’s good to stay in contact and register early. I’ll try to think of other ways, while I continue to pray for the well-being of you and all your family. Love, June
PS: I have contacted my two Canadian friends and will let you know their response.
To June: FEBRUARY 4, 2013—LIVING UNDER PRESSURE ALL THE TIME
Dear June, It’s been a long distance between us, as I couldn’t answer your last emails. There is no need of course to tell you why but I need to assure you how much I’m glad to get your words. We are doing well. We still can afford our necessary stuff. I’m so stuck to “hope” because living under pressure all the time can suffocate a human. I’ve tried to make my time busy as much as possible, so I’m teaching students now conversation plus the regular curricula. Other times, I’m working in a church group to have more social activities in the village. Being with my kids, teaching Marc and playing with Zoya, is a must.
My day is full and in that way I’ve developed the best way to forget my agony, to restrain my hatred toward people who caused this pain and wound into my heart. I know you agree with me that preserving your heart—clean and pure—in such situations is a big challenge. June, I’ve lost my house, my birthplace and the proof that one time I did exist in this world. My old photos, books, my kids’ toys, parents’ house, streets; all are vanished. I’ve lost them all but I can’t lose my humanity and identity. The fact that I am a good person; it’s something nobody can deprive me of. And so are my precious memories that I keep revisiting so I wouldn’t forget them.
Concerning Australia, in a couple of weeks we will have a final decision whether to be approved or not. It will cost as much as $28,000 U.S. for all of us, but will include travel costs, health insurance, kids school, English courses, plus housing. Actually we have only $1,500 in our pocket, which is funny but we say in Arabic “inshalla khair” (“God willing”). Your prayers and candles are really working. Yours, S
“Hundreds of thousands were killed for almost three years, hundred thousands were reported missing and 2 million were evacuated while the whole world steps aside! What makes the world wake up from his long siesta? Yes, the chemical weapons are used, but still the question: Why now have America and it’s allies decided to move? The only answer, we are sorry for, is because of the safety of Israel and to nail Iran down.“ —Suhaʸ
To Suha: FEBRUARY 6, 2013 – YOU HAVE NOT LOST WHO YOU ARE
My Dear Suha, I share your tears and agony. I admire your courage and that you are helping others in your community. Yes, you have lost much, but you have not lost who you are as a person. I hope the Australian visas come through. Just as the wild flowers bloom, your life will bloom and renew itself. You are always in my heart, June
To June: JUNE 20, 2013—PARALYZED: MY MIND IS ABOUT TO BURST
Dear June, Your emails are always inspiring whenever I’m depressed. These days, my mind is about to burst because we can’t feel safe anywhere at anytime. The worst is that we are like paralyzed. I don’t know what to do! In Syria, death has become so close, and I believe we are living “by chance.” Our country is being torn apart. Brothers are fighting brothers, women have become widows, mothers have lost their sweet young blossoms, and the blossom kids have lost everything. Most of all they have lost their ambition, future, and the simple right to live. I can write volumes about our suffering, agony, deprivation, homelessness, unfairness… but what for?
The story of Australia has eventually proved to be a fraud. So we are back to zero point. We have inquired about the Canadian refugee program, which is also invalid for us. It takes two years with the expense of $25,000 US. This is completely absurd because two years later Syrian people will be extinct!
People in our village are leaving to America via Mexico. They get a tourist visa to Mexico City. Then they go to the U.S. border and submit themselves to the U.S. authorities. There they stay in prison for two months and later an American lawyer will let them into America. Of course it’s a long, expensive, hazardous journey. But finally they have managed to come out of this hell. I can’t picture my family being involved in such an adventure. One of my relatives advised us, as my English is good, to go straight to the U.S. embassy and we may be accepted. Thank you now and always, Suha
To Suha: JUNE 24, 2013—KEEP TRYING NO MATTER WHAT
My Dear S, I am actively trying to find churches or other groups which could sponsor you. All of this—asylum, immigration, refugees—is complicated and can take a long time, unless one is lucky. Here are some things I’ve learned while pursuing your request:
Asylum—one makes an application in the U.S. and in three months they give a yes or no answer. Lawyers’ fees are $5,000–$10,000. While waiting for a reply, I’m not sure if an applicant can legally work.
Mexico—My friends and I shudder at this risk.
Refugee Status—If you go to Lebanon (safer?) you could apply to the UNHCR for refugee status. Eventually various countries will probably agree to take certain numbers of Syrian refugees, but only those with refugee status. In Lebanon, you could contact the various embassies and make immigration applications. I realize how hard it is to receive a no answer regarding immigration, but being persistent is important.
Being a Religious Minority – If you have fears about this in Syria, I think you should say so in your immigration applications.
Zero is a Round Number—It’s an oval, not a straight line leading to “the end.” Understandably you’re disappointed—and living in a difficult situation. But you are a wonderful family with so many qualities and gifts. As we go around the circle of life, there are ups and downs and new opportunities. Getting to another country will take patience, effort and perseverance. Keep trying no matter what. It will give results. My prayers, a million lighted candles surround you. June
To June: AUGUST DAY 12, 2013—“WHAT ABOUT YOUR LIFE?”
Dearest June, Thank you so much for giving me such hope. It’s enough for me to feel that I’m “visible.” Two weeks ago, when I went to Lebanon for the interview in the U.S. Embassy, I came across a very wealthy Lebanese man. I thought: “He may help us.” He asked us to have lunch. We were very excited, so happy whatever might happen.
He asked, “What about your life? Does it go well?” I sighed deeply. I told him our story, plus what hopes, fears we have. I asked him about refugees and countries like Switzerland, Sweden, or Canada. His face blushed. He nodded a while and said, “I am sorry for what is happening to you.” I added, “I’ve lost my properties and won’t lose my kids!” After two long minutes of silence he said, “ I think you may find better opportunities but you have to keep trying.”
His answer was too unclear, yet I was happy to meet a man who lives simply, despite the money he has. Yesterday I came back from Lebanon and I feel happy although I have no promises. Sorry to write so long but I like to share this experience and that I’m following your advice to knock on all doors. Suha
To June: SEPTEMBER 5, 2013—“DEAR MR. OBAMA”
Dear June, I appreciate your email. It means a lot to me and gives me a further push forward. Attached is a letter I had written to President Obama last Sunday. Suha
Dear Mr. Obama: While your country is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech: “I have a dream,” my country is living a very bad dream! What makes Dr. King so impressive is not that he fights for America alone, but that he struggles for the whole world. The “dream” is the “vision” of equality between races, ethnicities, colors. We Syrians have such eagerness to “dream.”
King said, “I have a dream that one day my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This quote I have learned by heart thirteen years ago. And now I may say, “I have the dream that my two kids will not be judged by their nationality or religion but by the content of their character.”
While you are resolving to bomb the Syrian regime, think of the panic of our kids, the nightmares of more suffering and displacement, the revenge that may hail upon innocent civilians. When you became the President of USA, at that very pure honest moment, what was your dream? Was it to build? To destroy? To transcend? Let’s move peacefully to the International Court of Justice so we may save what’s left of my people, and most of all, prove our belief in the power of humanity.
To Suha: SEPTEMBER 7, 2013—NEVER GIVE UP HOPE
My Dear Suha, My prayers surround you, your family and your country. About the possibility of going to Lebanon, my mind continues to be on your safety and having the maximum possibilities for a visa to a new country. I hope you will act soon. I can encourage, advise, urge. But you must always be true to yourselves, and what you think is best. Never give up hope. Count the Yes things in life. June
LEAVING HOME & CROSSING THE BORDER
In early September, Suha, Toni and their two young children decided to leave their country and cross the border into Lebanon. “The journey from Homs to Beirut should be a short journey but we had many military stops,” Suha told GT in a Skype interview from Beirut. “It was so expensive to get out because you have to bribe everyone. It was very exhausting.”
The family’s attempts to obtain visas or permission to go to Australia, Canada and the U.S. had been unfulfilled, narrowing their options.
Suha explained her decision to go to Lebanon instead of Turkey or Jordan, where tens of thousands of Syrians are living in refugee camps: “The journey to Jordan or Turkey is more risky than to Lebanon. If I had only the choice of going to a camp in Turkey or Jordan, I wouldn’t go. I’d prefer to die in my village. We’ve heard many stories about rapes and maltreatment at the camps.”
A Christian church in Beirut helped the family find temporary housing in a two-bedroom apartment, shared with seven other people. Suha describes it as, “… an old flat with little furniture. A Muslim family with three little kids are in one room, two single guys are lying on the floor of the living room, and my family with two kids are in the other bedroom. Eleven people share the small kitchen and dark bathroom.”
She reflected on how much her life has changed; “One day you have your own house and two years later you’re sharing a house with 11 people. We are Christian and sharing a house with a Muslim; for me this is very strange.”
Other Syrians who have crossed the border to Beirut are less fortunate, Suha observes: “We’re meeting a lot of Syrians in Beirut. Some people are in the streets; they don’t have shelter. And some Lebanese people don’t like Syrians. In my building, some don’t say ‘hi’ to you.”
She pointed out that rents are high now and that some people are exploiting the conditions as Syrians are rushing to Lebanon and need rooms.
For Suha, Toni, Marc and Zoya there is a deep sense of relief in having distance between themselves and the war.
“Today I'm more relaxed, far from bombs,” she says. “But I have worries about the coming days.”
She points to her direct experience with the reality that modern wars are causing the most harm, death and displacement to non-combatant women, men and children who are simply wanting to live and be creative.
Meanwhile the possibility of a U.S. attack on Syria remains, according to U.S. officials. Discussions and threats of U.S. military action have been ongoing since Aug. 21, when more than 1,000 people were killed in Ghouta, Syria in a chemical weapons attack.
“Lebanon is very close to Syria and if there are attacks from NATO or America, Lebanon is also going to have a war inside,” Suha told GT. “So, we’re afraid about what may happen in Lebanon, too.”
In fact, the threat of a U.S. attack in response to the chemical weapons attacks raises profound questions for Suha and other Syrians who have been struggling there.
“Hundreds of thousands were killed for almost three years, hundreds thousands were reported missing and 2 million were evacuated while the whole world steps aside! What makes the world wake up from his long siesta?” she asks. “Yes, the chemical weapons are used, but still the question: Why now have America and its allies decided to move? The only answer, we are sorry for, is because of the safety of Israel and to nail Iran down. The international community (governments) doesn't care about humans suffering.”
Suha reflects on other reasons for the ongoing war, noting that “maybe those companies that sell guns are really pleased because they are exporting their tools of war. I don’t know.”
One of the most difficult aspects of leaving Syria for Suha was that her parents and sisters decided to remain.
“My parents are old and they said, ‘We live here, we die here,’” she says. “Once they escaped from Homs to the village, my mother said, ‘I don’t want to escape one more time. Whatever happens, I will stay in Syria.’ It isn’t easy to leave people you love. That is what was agonizing me.”
THE ODOR OF ANTIQUITY
Suha dreams of one day returning to a peaceful Syria, to once again enjoy the cheeses and sweets that are famously produced in her city of Homs; and visit the old churches and the Khalid bin Alwaleed mosque.
“The odor of antiquity is still inside my lungs,” she writes to June via email. “The racial clash has turned Homs into a city of ghosts. Sixty percent of the population drifted away trying to find a new settlement. Sixty percent of the houses and infrastructure were completely destroyed.”
Being close to nature and gardening have been grounding experiences for Suha during this difficult time; “This year the plants were better than last year,” she says, reflecting on their time in the village. “We have aubergine, tomato, corn, pepper, parsley, potato, and mint. I guess we started to be villagers. Last week we left Syria to Lebanon, so I left my plants to my father's attention.”
And yet, Suha and her family continue to persevere amidst difficulty, with emotional and spiritual support from June Magnaldi and others.
“I believe that human connection and empathy are the best ways for creating a peaceful world,” she says.
Regarding the lack of international aid and intervention in the Syrian war she is quick to note that “the misunderstanding between the West and East is eternal, I guess.”
She pauses and expresses gratitude for making it to safety with her family. And then she mentions her love for the writings of Edward Said, especially his idea that, “The gap between East and West can be bridged.”
Suha agrees and reiterates, “It is our humanity that fills the gap among people in the world.”
FUTURE WAR MANUFACTURERS By SUHA
I’ve reconsidered that all history superbness might be a fake!
The scoop always sheds light on the victorious countries. But what about the people? The whole suffering from displacement, hunger, maltreatments and psychological problems. Those people are the future war manufacturers: they will ask blood for blood and the tree of malice growing inside their bodies will become the guillotine to all their opponents! How can we grow up the seed of forgiveness inside our hearts?
John Malkin is a local writer, musician and host of the weekly “Great Leap Forward” on Free Radio Santa Cruz. Some names and dates have been changed in the above story to ensure safety.
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