Jerked out of peaceful slumber at 2 a.m. you awake to the sounds of bombs exploding and intense vibrations from their impact.
You and your family hurriedly pack necessities; your neighborhood is being bombed, and you must leave the city to a nearby town where it’s safer.
As you rush to your car, there is yet another explosion, but this time, it’s much closer — too close, actually. It was the apartment right next to your own, and it leaves your neighbor dead.
Your one and only priority is to keep yourself and your family safe.
Civilians — men, women and even children — are being kidnapped right off the streets and tortured, and homes and hospitals being bombed. Staying safe is no easy feat.
Life of terror
For 16-year-old Asma and the seven other members of her family in Syria, this was the harsh reality they woke up to.
When taking a walk she had to be accompanied by her father, and spending entire days inside her apartment was normal.
“After 6 p.m., you would find the streets would be empty. You wouldn’t see any men — no one,” said Asma, who requested her last name be withheld for the safety of relatives still in Syria.
She would still walk to her nearby school herself. Sometimes, however, even school wasn’t safe from government soldiers and agents, she said.
“They took our teachers one day, so my friends and I and all the schoolgirls didn’t want to attend school, and we just stood outside the school, and they started bombing us,” Asma said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t explosives. It was just bombs that caused dizziness, and your eyes would turn red. They would come in their cars and shoot them at us. We wanted our teachers back, and we weren’t going to attend school until they gave them back. They just took them for no reason.”
Asma is the oldest of five siblings. Living on a tight budget, they stayed in an apartment in Damascus, the capital of Syria.
“There are no jobs there,” Asma said. “There’s nothing there, and life conditions are horrible.”
Asma narrated stories of men being kidnapped off the streets for protesting and being tortured to death. She recalled stories of women and girls, taken and raped in front of their own fathers and husbands, some girls as young as 13. Many were also killed and left on the streets.
Asma told stories of children murdered in front of their mothers.
“They are like young kids, and they see these horrible things around them,” she said. “And it puts in their minds that they might not wake up in the morning and that there’s no food. The stuff that small kids are going through, it makes them more mature about what’s happening. ... Kids over there, their moms and dads have died or brothers or sisters. ... We can’t be happy or enjoy anything until everything is fine again.”
Her own siblings, who had to leave a comfortable life in America to move to an unknown and scary place, did not take the experience well.
“My sister would cry every day for her doll,” Asma said. “My brothers and sisters had it hard in the beginning. They wanted to know why they had to leave our house and have to come to a place and they don’t know where it is. The sounds of the bombings — it would just make them cry, and it wasn’t any of these kids’ fault.”
She tells the account of a few young children in elementary school who simply expressed their desire for peace in their country by writing it on their school wall: “We want freedom.” Those young children, no older than 12 years old, were then kidnapped and tortured. Their fingernails were torn off and they were beaten until they were battered and blue, 10 of them made it home alive, if barely. Two others didn’t survive the torment. Their bruised and dead bodies were sent home to their parents.
“They’re animals,” Asma said. “The things they do are beyond what you can imagine.”
She hears many things and sees many of these things daily, but she is not short of personal experiences either. Her own family was subject to some of these unimaginable atrocities.
“A lot of people from my relatives were taken. One of my cousins, he was kidnapped for six months,” Asma said. “When he got out, he told us what’s going on in the jails. It’s beyond belief, the way they’re torturing men, children and women. It’s really bad. They found out from pictures that my cousin was in a protest so they took him. He was just 19 years old. When he came back, he had to stay for one month in bed, even though he said he had the least torture. They would just hit him.”
The husband of another cousin was kidnapped in his car, Asma said.
“Until now, we don’t know where he is,” she said. “We don’t know if he’s alive or dead, and he’s been gone since August.”
The girls she met at school and the friends she made whom she still tries to keep in contact with in America weren’t completely safe either. She would see them one day, and the next day they weren’t there. Her friends’ families were in constant danger, as well.
“I actually had one of my friends in school, and they took her father and brother because she used to go to protests,” she said.
Damascus wasn’t always like this, however. When Asma and her family moved from the United States to Syria in 2007 to be with family, life was peaceful and fun.
“I have a lot of cousins there,” she said. “We lived in the same neighborhood as them, and we visited them almost every day.”
Asma hung out with her friends, went shopping, walked in the neighborhood by herself and visited her family. She lived a life that could be deemed quite normal.
That all changed when the government army came to Damascus in 2012.
“The first thing they do when they enter a city is they bomb the Masjids and the hospitals,” Asma said. “They would bomb them so that if there were any sick people, they wouldn’t be able to go and get help. They would just die.”
Civilians came together to rebuild the mosques, and families would still go to pray despite the dangers of leaving their houses.
The Syrian people are in constant danger, Asma said, and doing or saying anything against the government is equivalent to signing their own death warrant.
“If they know you said something against the government, they would just come and take you,” Asma said. “The news, the channel for the government, it always said that everything’s fine. Syria’s fine. There are no bombings or anything. They would just say that there were some terrorists that we need to take care of. They would just always lie about everything.”
Back in the U.S.
Now Asma and her family are back in America. After stopping in Jordan for a few months, her family decided to return. Asma is going to a public high school and trying to catch up on work she missed.
“I’m trying to make friends,” she said.
Her siblings are not having it quite as easy. Their English is limited, so they are struggling at school.
But friends and family in Syria are always on her mind.
“We still watch news over here about them,” Asma said. “We’re still worried about them. It doesn’t mean that we’re here and we’re going to forget about our family over there.”
For Asma, the experiences of Syria have forever changed her.
“Because of the stuff I saw there, I can feel what’s going on around me, and I have to take more responsibilities,” she said. “I’m still scared of what happened. I can’t go have fun and my family is still stuck there.”
With the horrors Asma and her family faced, she brings a message to those who have free speech and who can make a difference.
“We just need to do protests here or enough people need to just say that what’s going on in Syria has to stop,” she said.
Freedom for the Syrians requires the removal of one person: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, she said.
“We just want him to go,” Asma said. “He said it’s either him or no one. I mean, what kind of president kills his people?”