A Story From a Blind Syrian Refugee

Before the war in Syria, life was great and safe. My family was happy. Since I was born completely blind, I never went to school. However, when I was 6 years old my father found a teacher who could teach me how to sing and play instruments. By 7 years old, I had started playing at some small concerts and weddings. At 9 years old, I was going from one city to another to perform. Some trips took hours. My dad just put me on a bus, and that was it. I was fine because it was safe back then. Soon after that, things changed.

We lived in Syria for a few more years, and during that time it wasn’t safe at all. The war started and it was clear that things would never feel the same again. The sounds of bombs and guns were everywhere. I remember one day when all of us were sleeping soundly until we suddenly heard the sound of war outside at 4 a.m. It was strong enough to shake the entire house. Once we were about to go to sleep again, there would be another bomb or gunshot. They came every five or ten minutes. My whole family was scared, including myself. We decided to leave and go to Kurdistan. I was only 11 years old.

I remember leaving before the sun came up to quickly get into the van that picked us up. And just like that, we left our house and our entire lives. I can still hear my grandparents crying as we were leaving. We drove in that van all day. When we arrived at our destination, there was just desert. The van couldn’t take us any further.

So, we walked and walked through many mountains and trees. There were lots of children and elderly people there as well. More people than we could count were also making this journey. In the middle of the day, the sun was so strong. However, the only thing I cared about besides my family was the instrument I was holding. That buzuq, which is a long-necked fretted lute, was everything to me. I was doing all I could to protect it from the environment and the people around me. Many walked close by, not paying attention. If I could keep my instrument safe, I knew everything would be fine.

That night, my family and I had to sleep in the streets. There was a bus to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, but it only took about two families each day. When it was finally our turn, we rode that bus for the entire day. Eventually, it took us to a refugee camp. The camp was set up at a school that was on summer break. We stayed there for about 20 days. Many aspects of our lives were difficult back then, but not all of it was bad. In fact, some of it was beautiful. Every night we’d have a party for everyone there. All of us shared grief, but in those moments we could find a chance to dance outside of our rooms, and laugh together. I would play music for everyone and for a brief moment we could pretend like we forgot all of the trauma and live our lives in the music.
After those twenty days, people in the camp were saying it wasn’t possible to stay there any longer. In one room, there could be up to three large families. Some families didn’t even have that much, and had to sleep outside. People were complaining and saying all of us couldn’t continue to live like this. The Kurdish police decided to take us to another camp, even though it wasn’t finished being built yet. In fact, once we got there we discovered that they hadn’t completed anything. There were only tents. Our bathrooms were just an open space and a big, deep hole without a toilet. There were a few times when people even fell into it. Officials kept saying they were “still working on it.”

The discomfort didn’t stop there. At the camp, sirens often went off. Whenever people reported a problem, officials told us that we were told it wasn’t complete and blamed us for “choosing” this place. The tents we lived in were so small. I still don’t know to this day how the seven of us managed to find a way to survive in it.

Everything happened inside that tent. We showered in the same place we cooked our meals. We had to fill our bottles with water from far away and carry them inside. We tried to layer rocks on top of each other to keep the rest of the tent from getting wet, but sometimes it was impossible to avoid. Even in the widest part of the tent you could barely stretch out your arms. In that situation, you are vulnerable to all of nature’s elements. Sometimes it got very windy, and other people’s tents would fly away. Other times it would rain and ruin many of the things we had. The worst part, however, was when it was hot. Tents started burning, even with people inside. I remember one time when a tent caught fire and caused another tent to catch fire, since so many of them were so close together, and people died. Whatever the weather was, we were exposed to the most extreme version of it.

Even during these hard times I found some happiness, because I was still playing music and music created community. All of us were suffering, but we could still talk to each other and enjoy the music.

We stayed in those tents for years. Then there was a philanthropist from the United Arab Emirates who came and said he would help improve the camp. He paid for small rooms with walls. No more tents! We stayed there for another year. My dad created an additional room by himself made out of rocks. Now we had two rooms, like a real house. It was much safer than before.

Soon after that, we got news that applications for visas were being accepted by those who had a disability or had a family member with a disability. Since I am completely blind, we were able to apply. It took a long time but eventually we received the news that the United States accepted us.
One night, our names were called, and we actually got taken to the airport. We had only been given one week to prepare everything and leave. Several times they’d give us a date, and then it would change—but this time it was real. We were actually leaving. While this was great news, leaving felt much more complicated than just being happy. We were sad to leave some of our family—aunts and cousins—and many of our friends behind. There were so many years where we were all living together side by side. Now it was time to say goodbye, possibly forever.

Around 2 or 3 a.m., we left the camp and went to the airport. Many came to the airport with us to say goodbye. We didn’t sleep at all. It was our very first time on a plane. Being inside the plane and feeling the sensation of flying made me so happy. After several layovers we made it to California. At first we didn’t have a place to stay, so we slept in hotels. We got support from a counselor who was assigned to our family, and she was very helpful and quickly found us a place to live. We were so grateful. However, we didn’t have anything to eat or a car to help us go shopping. We also didn’t meet any Arab people. It felt very isolating and scary in this new and foreign place.

At the time, I didn’t speak any English—I only knew Kurdish and Arabic. So, I listened to YouTube videos and watched a lot of TV. I was only 15 years old. Then it was time for me to go to school for the first time in my life. I was so nervous. However, I felt something inside of me say that it was OK and to just go for it. That voice told me to do this challenge and that whatever happens, happens. As soon as I got off the school bus, I met the one-to-one aide that was assigned to me, and she spoke Arabic. I was so relieved. She worked with me for two years and helped me learn English.

Many people came into my life who helped me, not only at my high school, but also at the California School for the Blind in Fremont, where I went after a few years of high school. If it wasn’t for my visual impairment, I wouldn’t have met the incredible people who helped me succeed. My visual impairment has brought me so many things that I am grateful for. And as far as music goes, I now play more than ten instruments and am planning to one day be a music teacher.

I love where I am now. We might be a family of seven in a two-bedroom apartment, but we are safe now and we are grateful for that every day. I am not scared of anything anymore. I feel like I can become whoever I want to become. I hope that my story can bring hope to others with a disability who are new to this country. You never know what can happen. Right now, I feel like every door is open for me. Before, I would never have guessed that I would one day feel this way.