Lina: At the end of the day I did not decide to be a refugee because people decided that for me. They’d be like you are a refugee you are this name that’s who you are. I wasn’t understanding the word. I did not even understand it in Arabic neither in sign language neither in English. At some point, I realized the word refugee has an incredible meaning. Not only a refugee that you are displaced. You handled a lot of stuff. Violence, wars, scenes, that no one could actually handle. Me? As a refugee I am a survivor I am a brave person I am a learner I am a child I am who I am. I am a refugee. This is who I am.
Clare: That’s Lina Altaan Al-Hariri.
Lina: And that’s Clare, my tutor and also my friend.
Clare: Lina and I met three years ago, through a group called Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment.
Lina: BRYTE for short.
Clare: BRYTE pairs Brown students with refugee families in Providence.
We work on homework together, and applications, things like that. Today we’re working on the script of a powerpoint presentation for Lina’s English class. What you just heard is her plan for the first slide.
Lina: My teacher told us to choose a topic, and I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I wanted to do the Syrian Civil War. Not because that’s what I know about, and it would be easy to research. But because I don’t want the details to get lost.
Clare: But slide after slide, they do. So Lina and I decide to record the conversations happening around each bullet point. We curl up on her bed. Her little sister Wafa holds the recorder while we talk.
[tape of learning to use the recorder]
Lina: Our little sister Kefaya is playing video games on another bed. You can hear my mom, Sadia, making tea in the kitchen. Even my dad, who is deaf, interrupts us when he comes into the room and signs.
Clare: It’s been noisy and joyful like this since we met.
If you’d visited every Monday night for the past three years, you’d have seen Lina grow from fourteen to seventeen, and me from seventeen to twenty– basically without moving. We work on homework, drink tea, and talk about identity.
But this spring has felt different. It’s the first time we’ve worked on something that belongs equally to both of us.
Lina: It’s like a therapy session to me, too. I feel like I’m talkin about stuff that I don’t want to be removed from my mind and memories and talkin about this makes me feel more connected. Even though I was pretty young when all that happened. But it kept that part of me awake. Is that the right way to make it make sense? And divide my life into three sections.
Clare: Three sections: one for her time in Syria, one for her time in Jordan, and one for her time in the United States. Lina divides her memories by the places she’s lived. It’s how she structures her story, and how we decide to tell it. But she doesn’t see the story as hers only.
Lina: People are living the life that I lived in 2016. They’re going to Germany. They’re going everywhere. Talking about it. It’s a story that’s shared with millions…[30:00] It would hit me if it was only personal for myself but it’s a story that’s shared with millions. Mine and their stories is the same. So my struggle is their struggle, too. You know what I’m saying? It’s not something special?
Clare: Part I-Syria
PART I: Syria
Lina: What I do remember from my house in Syria, that it was big. I loved spending time in my house because it was calm and I always wanted to watch anime and cartoons and stuff like this. I wasn’t really talkative, the opposite of now. Who I was and who I am is a completely different person.
Our house was literally surrounded, flowers, trees, and stuff. Red, green, all different colors. [1:22] And my mom used to take care of flowers. My grandmother used to yell at her all the time and say we’re probably gonna have rats between the flowers because our flowers were so huge. So huge that a human could hide between them, yes. And if there was a wedding in our town, they come over and they get flowers and make necklaces for the bride and stuff. [3:00] L-No one would pay for that they would come over without even permission, because they know my mom would say yes, and just leave.
Clare: This was in Busra al-Harir, a town in the Southern province of Dera’a. Lina lived there with her parents and eight siblings. Their aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins lived a fifteen minute walk away. The whole village felt like family.
Lina: You can’t realize, you can’t imagine how the village connected. We all care about each other. When we cook, Ramadan, I would never cook for me and you only. If I cook falafel, I will take to everyone in the village a dish, and they’re gonna send me dishes. That’s what happens every Ramadan every night. Every night, every night.
Clare: So of course, when the people of Busra al-Harir started gathering to protest Dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Lina’s family went with them.
It was January 2011, the Arab Spring just beginning. Lina was nine years old.
She and her sisters followed the crowds to the seh-huh, a giant field near her house. She says she never took protests too seriously. They were exciting. Even fun.
Lina: Me and Door and Raeda used to go sit up there and yell, because there were lots of people, and our voices with their voices got louder and louder. Even the guys, when they go to protest, they cover their faces in case someone wants to snitch.
Clare: That’s exactly what happened to a young boy named Hamza al Khateeb. Someone reported that he’d peed on Assad’s photo during a protest, so security forces captured, tortured, and killed him.
Lina was at her Grandma’s house when she found out.
[news report about Hamza]
Lina: I remember we had this TV, and it was on the floor technically. I entered the room. And I saw everyone sitting around it. Old people and young. My grandma, my uncles, my cousins. I saw them watching and I was like, “Oh my god what happened?”
What I’m trying to tell you, what I’m trying to tell you is when I was watching the dead kid, Hamza al-Khateeb, I felt it’s just an action movie. It’s all make up and it’s gonna be removed at some point. When I was laughing, their faces were dead. Their faces were dead.
Then they said that he was thirteen. He was my brother’s age. Raed’s age.
Clare: In 2011, I was thirteen too.
Lina: What were you doin’ when you were thirteen?
Clare: Not this.
Lina: Not this for sure! Sometimes I compare my life and I’ll be like oh, what was I doing and what were they doing. And what were us doin’, we were playing. You were playing, and he was dying.
Clare: Hamza’s death was a turning point, not just for Lina but in the war.
[tape of Hillary Clinton]
Clare: That July, rebels organized into the Free Syrian Army. The uprising had become a Civil War.
Lina says her memories of that time are like Youtube clips you can click in and out of, but which don’t connect to each other.
Lina: I remember everyone, but I don’t remember their faces. Or how they look like. Or me talking to them personally. I feel like I was invisible to them. It’s so weird. If I write a book, that would be so complicated to—what’s the word—articulate. I can’t articulate my emotions.
To make sense of things, she compares iftars during the war to what she’d known before.
Lina: I could see the difference. The meals…they were so tiny. It’s all small. Juice and rice. This is when I realize we’re poor. Before, we used to have a lot. And we’re fasting? We need energy! Not only physically, mentally, too. We’re hurting.
Clare: And the next year, there wasn’t just less food. There were fewer people, too.
Lina’s oldest brothers were in danger of being drafted into Assad’s army. They escaped with aunts and uncles to Kuwait, Lebanon, and Jordan, just like many others in her town. It was the first time her family had been separated.
Lina: This is Ramadan, right? After all that, all of them gone, the environment was calm. No guns no nothing no war. It was calm but no people. Not a lot of people. Very tiny percent of people. And if you see them you don’t know them. Who are they? We used to leave our doors open. Now we started locking our doors.
Clare: Lina couldn’t know it then, but that would be her last Ramadan in Syria.
All throughout the war, Busra al-Harir had been a rebel stronghold. Finally, Assad’s army came to punish the town for that support. They started by burning Lina’s favorite bakery.
L: They used to make the bread with their hands and stuff. They had the windows you could see everything. I was waiting for the bread it was fresh, it had air inside of it. I hit it so hard that the hot air comes to my face. It was good it tasted like cake.
And they had the bakery and they burned it. It’s new! It’s only one month. Why you did that? After that they burned the gas station. And then they burned the hijab store. Everyone else in the village came to our house. Our house right here…our house was protected. And I was wearing my new pjs that my dad got me from Kuwait. It was white with dots that are blue. I remember, I swear to god! I was sleeping on Raeda’s lap. And she was like, “Go, change! Get ready. Put clothes in the suitcase.”
Oh my god, I remember! I remember conversation. See? She woke me up. And all of us got into a truck. And I was standing up. And a guy was yelling at my mom, he was like, “Why did you not dress your daughter? She’s cold!”
And I was standin up and lookin at the fire. Everyone’s cryin. It was like a dream. You cannot imagine. It’s like a dream. Lookin at the fire. It’s red! It’s orange! It’s beautiful, I thought. At the same time I was in the car, I’m not getting hurt. Then, after this, I sat and started looking. And it took us to the mosque.
C: Lina and her family took shelter in the prayer hall of the mosque in a nearby city called M’lehah.
L: In the mosque, everyone was disrespecting the mosque. No one cleans, no nothing. Raining constantly. And you know they step on stuff. It was like a prison, I felt that.
Clare: But she also remembers good things about it.
Lina: I loved organizing our corner. Cause there’s a lot of people in the mosque. Every family had a corner. And the adnan, when the sheikh would do the call to prayer. And watching all the people talking.
Clare: Lina says she hardly paid attention to time as her family fled from one place to another before finally leaving Syria. But for just a moment, sheltered in the prayer, hall she stopped. And looked. And for once, it was time moving instead of her.
L: I saw the clock. I didn’t know what year it is. It was 2012. Something like this. I close my eyes, I open my eyes. 2013. I asked my oldest sister, why is it 2013, she’s like “Cause we entered the New Year. People are laughing right now, people are drunk,” and we’re right here struggling. Probably they don’t know what we’re dealing with. No news coverage, no one came and ask. Food for now, but probably no food for tomorrow. That’s really a struggle.
Clare: Did you know what you were waiting for?
Lina: No. It’s like something that is written, but you can’t read.
Clare:. If her future was written, Lina’s read more of it by now. After the mosque, the Al-Hariri’s walked across the border to Jordan, where they lived until being resettled in the United States.
Lina’s a high school junior.
She studies for the SAT grudgingly until we frame it as the first step towards her dream of becoming a therapist and supporting Arabic speakers in their native language.
She’s moving forward, planning for college and her future beyond it.
But in some ways, she still feels the uncertainty of that moment in the mosque, a suspension in time and questions about her first country.
Lina: You know what I think sometimes? Who’s gonna build Syria again? If all the Syrians are leaving Syria? Imagine no one builds it.
Clare: Is your house still standing there?
Lina: Half and half I guess.
All what happened in the first section, the first couple years of my life, eleven years, those caused this. So the past affected the present, the present right now. And the present gonna affect the future, which is gonna help my past community after I become a therapist. After I make money I’ll go to Syria and build my own house again. But if I do nothing right now, who’s gonna build Syria again?