Blood & History: a family's ties to Syria amid civil war
For Lemma history is something living and immediate. A Santa Monica College History major, Lemma carries a legacy bearing the weight of her family's country of origin: Syria, a country few Americans were aware of until a 2011 uprising spiraled into a civil war that has now gripped the world's attention. What began as an Arab Spring revolt has changed shape into a bloody collage of images haunting our news: The cold looks of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his wife, the Lady Macbeth of the Middle East, Asma Assad and the apocalyptic rebel groups like Islamic State (ISIS) waging war against them.
But for Lemma this is only the culmination of a history that goes back further in time. The family roots are deep in Syria's soil. They can trace their lineage back to ancestors who were the first tribe to fight against the medieval Crusaders.
In recent times, Lemma's family has been linked to Syria's stirring political history. "My grandfather's cousin was Prime Minister in the 1950s," explained Lemma. "During that time there was a coup and they overthrew him and they killed him. The man who killed him became the man in charge, and then my grandfather killed him for revenge."
Her grandfather, Hersho, now in his 90s, became a fugitive in 1950 when he assassinated Syrian strongman Sami al-Hinnawi. Hersho made his way to Lebanon where he stayed for a number of years. Her father was born in Hama, a town known for its rebellious streak and where 10,000 rebels were massacred during a 1982 uprising by the regime of Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar.
Lemma was born in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked for an American company before moving the family to California. "Most of the family is still in Syria," said Lemma. "Family there have had to move, like in the capital, Damascus."
In the 1982 Hama uprising, at least 20 members of her family were wiped out. "That's what fascinates me about history too, because I like to go back to my own family history. And with what's happening, I can't ignore it."
Before a revolutionary storm overtook Syria in 2011, Lemma and her siblings would travel to the country often to visit family. At one point Lemma lived for a year in the country with her sister at the age of 10. "It was culture shock," she said, "but it was good. Now looking back, I learned a lot. I learned how to speak Arabic fluently. I went to a public school. I got to meet family I had never met before."
Lemma was able to experience first hand Syria before the civil war, under the firm grip of Bashar al-Assad's regime. "When I went to school, it was interesting because we would do the pledge of allegiance but it was militarized. It was an Assad version. We would get in trouble if we didn't salute. I would see pictures of Assad in the classroom and it seemed even the kids were afraid to talk about politics." According to Lemma politics would only be discussed in whispers. Trust in neighbors was fragile as it was never known who could be a member of Assad's notorious secret police.
Lemma described a country with a diverse society where some cities might tend to be more conservative than others, like her father's hometown of Hama. "I couldn't walk out with short sleeves there," recalled Lemma with a smile. Family honor is important in Syrian society as well.
And then in 2011 the Middle East was shaken by the wave of uprisings that began in Tunisia and soon dismissed the region's borders. "It was like an anticipation when we first heard about Tunisia, then Egypt, we were just waiting. We knew it was going to happen," said Lemma, adding that at first there were doubts in some sectors that Syria would rebel because of the long history of bloody suppressions. "When it actually happened I was pretty proud. I thought the country stood up for themselves. It was like the first step towards something bigger. Yet I was still scared for my family."
Everyday Lemma and her family in the U.S. would skype with relatives in Syria to keep track of what began as popular, nonviolent protests that spread like wildfire. "It was hard because they can't really say over the internet what's happening. For example my relative would say 'they're going to have a big barbecue tomorrow' which meant they [the regime] was going to start bombing," she said.
The Assad regime responded to the protests with sheer brutality as crowds were fired upon, organizers disappeared, and even children were broken and tortured. Weapons were raised under Syria's burning skies and the uprising became an armed struggle to overthrow the government. The Syrian revolution became a civil war.
"Given the history of what the government has done we expected it," said Lemma. Even her grandfather feels compelled to return. "He's upset, he wants to go home. He wants a peaceful Syria."
Again Lemma's family are witnesses to history, and again they must endure its heartbreak. "We would hear that one of my dad's cousins and his 16-year-old daughter were walking down the street getting bread and were gunned down, just randomly. Eventhough we're not there right now, it has definitely affected us," laments Lemma.
Now the Syrian civil war has also become an international war as fighters pour in from different countries to join different factions in a struggle that could now change the Middle East itself. "Before the war, people here that I knew had no idea where Syria was," said Lemma. "Now people are fascinated with Syria. My friends see it on the news and they're confused. There are so many different opinions."
For outsiders the Syrian war has also become a mirage distorted by the rise of radical groups like the Islamic State (ISIS), who wage war against Assad under the banners of an extreme religious vision. "Learn the facts first. Learn the history to understand what's going on today," she recommended. "It's almost like two evils fighting each other."
And while she watches Syria change the world from afar, Lemma feels her roots deep within. Her sense of Arab hospitality and pride in her history are forever shaping her. A practicing Muslim, Lemma says "it has helped me be the person who I am. The better version that I am."
For Lemma, even two years is too short to hope for the war to end or for real change to come to Syria. "Syria might need 100 years to get to a good, stable, autonomous, democratic country. I'd just like to see peace."
As the land of her family roots smolders, Lemma looks forward to finishing her education and hopefully do international work. "I want to do it all," she says enthusiastically.
Therein lies the hope that a new, free Syria might one day emerge from a new generation willing to rebuild and end a continuing song of blood and fire.