I can generally hold it together when I hear of war atrocities and human violations on others. I’ve always prided myself on being the “let’s do something to fix it” type instead of “let’s get caught in the emotional moment”. But like the book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” suggests, a small event can surface that blurs emotions and breaks down the flood gates. This happened to me last week when a panelist spoke in a tone and uttered words my late father would use during and after the Assad regime’s assault on Hama in 1982. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Even though we weren’t in Hama at that time, I felt the longing, sadness, defiance, and solidarity through the words and emotions of my father and knew precisely what he meant. Those few words are the reason I work to educate refugees and youth impacted by conflict.

The event was the launch of Madaniya, a civil society organization bringing together 150 Syrian civil society organizations in the medical, education, human rights and other domains supporting the 17 million refugees and 13 million internally displaced Syrians post-conflict. The panel discussed justice for those killed, detained, tortured, widowed, orphaned or lost during the conflict. The numbers were staggering. Four panelists including of a civil rights lawyer, a human rights activist, the sister of a detainee, and the head of the White Helmets. They spoke in that order and the message echoed louder and stronger. The room filled with 150 Syrians and a dozen European and American diplomats fell silent, captivated by the serious, heartbreaking, loving account of the speakers. It was the feeling you get when watching Schindler’s List or The Pianist

When Khoulod, a member of Families for Freedom, described her brother Ahmad, she smiled remembering his beautiful face, cried recounting the night he was taken away by 15 armed officers, and lamented describing their mother’s sleepless nights without him. She described her young nephew’s confusion; “Khaleh the boys at school call young men baba! They don’t have real babas?” his Baba (dad) is his grandfather, the only father figure he has ever known since his father was killed. She spoke with determination when vowing to continue her peaceful protests until she finds him. A man in the audience cheered her. “Keep looking, I got out of the nightmare that is Tadmur prison after 10 years in that hellhole; your brother will be found!”. Later I learned the camera man covering the event, whose name was Ahmed, shook with tears at her account; he too was detained for 7 years in Sednaya prison. He got out of prison and reunited with his family who had fled to Europe.

I looked around the room and saw women crying, businessmen wiping their tears, and young men lowering their heads in sadness and shame, those left behind bear the burden of not having done enough. Then Raed Saleh, the head of The White Helmets spoke. He has seen it all! His face is calm, and the look in his eyes is fearless, confident, defiant. It is a look I remembered from childhood. Raed recounted giving a talk at the Holocaust museum, bearing witness to the tragedy of the Jewish people. He added “What happened to them was unspeakable, and today, we see our people, the Syrians, imprisoned, tortured, mass executed. We’ve had air-raids, chemical weapons, floods, famine and fires in refugee camps and an earthquake! But we are strong and are holding out for the volcano!” The room chuckled. “We are strong! and I vow to keep the legacy of every White helmet who fell, I promised their children I would not stop.” 

And right there, I broke down. My father made the same vow with the same tone and that defiant, peaceful, surrendered look in his eyes in 1982. The trauma he experienced when Hama’s massacre occurred broke him. In the months that followed the massacre, my father received survivors or their family members in our home who shared accounts of the horrific acts of violence that happened against cousins, friends, neighbors and the community at large. Dad’s personality changed forever. The look I saw in my father’s eyes every day for the rest of his life was that same look I saw last week in Raed’s eyes. The mix of fearlessness, resolve, strength, determination. The look in his eyes said this unbearable sadness killed my fear. This is my fate, I survived so that I can help others; my life’s meaning is this work. And that’s what my father spent his life doing. Helping anyone and everyone he met who was broken by war, prison, poverty, the loss of parents, illness or other. 

The moderator asked one last question: “How many of you in the audience has someone in prison, missing or died under torture in the Syria?” Everyone in the room raised their hand! Tragic. And when tragedy happens, it breaks us. We have the choice to ignore the calling, suffer in silence, or become fearless and accept the responsibility of surviving to support families of the fallen.