Jenna Sabbagh, Contributing Writer
Hama, featuring the نواعير حماة‎, or water wheels of Hama in English, which are along the Orontes River and date back to 469. Source: Wikimedia.

The beautiful scent of jasmine filled the air as I walked down the streets of Hama with my mother, exploring what seemed to be a whole new world in my eyes. My grandparents lived on the end of a street commonly referred to as الكتف, which translates to “the shoulder,” as it was the end of a street that was left in rubble because of war crimes that occurred in the ‘80s. 

As a child, I didn’t know of this story at all. In my eyes, it was a fun edge where my friends and I used to play, daring each other to get closer to the edge. It was an edge that overlooked the countryside and gave way to stunning views: a lush green landscape with mountain ranges outlined in the distance during the day and a sky filled with stars and a bright, beautiful moon during the night. 

To the left was a street lined with homes of family and friends that led up to a corner market that had all the snacks and treats a child could ever want. I remember visiting with my friends after a long, hot day of playing outside and snacking on ice cream cones and fresh mulberry juice so sweet and refreshing that it left pink stains on our lips. 

I spent every day swimming with my friends, playing tennis and practicing basketball. We would come home, clean up and get ready for the night, which varied from going to restaurants that served some of the best food I had ever had, such as the mandatory كبة and برك بجبنة served at the beginning of every meal that still make my mouth water, to spending time in my family’s traditional Syrian home, where we gathered and laughed the night away.

My summers were defined by our yearly visits to Syria, and I cherished every second of it. From the moment I arrived, my days were spent with friends and family, making memories that lasted the test of time, whether it was waking up early to go swimming with my grandfather before he went to work, playing with my friends for hours on end or ending the night with dinner on my grandparents’ balcony surrounded by all my loved ones, with the starry night sky above us.

I remember the anticipation that filled my entire being the moment we’d book our tickets back home and the painful sadness that hit the minute the plane took off from the ramp of Damascus International Airport.

To me, Syria wasn’t only home but also the best place in the world. The overwhelming ease and sense of belonging that came with this feeling of being home is unexplainable. 

I was with all my relatives and loved ones residing in Hama, Homs and Damascus, surrounded by people who looked like me, talked like me and ate like me was a feeling I yearned for while in the U.S. As strange as it may sound with the current situation in Syria, it felt like the safest place in the world. Walking down the street and recognizing every face as one who genuinely cared for you is a feeling I can’t find anywhere else.

Throughout my childhood, I’d return to school and tell my classmates about all the wonderful memories and experiences I made that summer, and how excited I was to see Syria again the following summer. 

However, my naive perspective soon clashed with reality. In March 2011, the first protests began in Syria. Being 12, I was confused as to why people were protesting in my beloved Syria. After all, it was the best place in the world to me. 

As a child, I didn’t pay attention to the corruption evidently around me. I was oblivious to the limited rights and freedoms that innocent Syrians had. As I learned more about the situation in Syria, I began to ask more questions. Eventually, I found answers. 

I unraveled horror stories of oppression and started realizing how so many of my loved ones suffered. As the daughter of two Hamwi natives, I remember hearing snippets of war stories from the Hama Massacre of 1982. I had never fully understood the extent of it because everyone was afraid of talking about what happened, even across the world in Florida. 

However, once the protests began to occur more frequently in 2011, my parents slowly revealed their personal experiences from that traumatic period. My father, who lived in Damascus, returned to Hama to renew his ID and see his grandparents, planned to return that evening. That wasn’t the case because he was forced into hiding and saved from army generals because his grandmother gave up all her gold and jewelry in exchange for his life. My mother’s family was residing in Homs, but her parents went to check on their Hama home that day. They were forced against the wall of their building with their neighbors while army generals held loaded guns. My grandfather was a well-known physician and had actually treated one of the generals, who recognized him and eventually released him and his neighbors without a single scar. 

To hear these stories and process that they took place in my favorite place — the place closest to my heart — left me at a loss for words. I was in shock as to how my second home was also home to so much pain and suffering. 

As a high school junior, I attended my first Students Organize for Syria event held at University of South Florida, where Qusai Zakariya spoke about his experiences in Syria and all the brutal, life-and-death scenarios he faced. I remember leaving in complete and utter shock, with my heart torn in a million pieces. This experience only motivated me to do more. In that moment, I had no idea just how much SOS would help me in the years to come. 

Fast forward five years, and I am at the end of my undergraduate experience, in which I was heavily involved with SOS. Here I was, still supporting a cause so dear to my heart and soul. I started as a member, moved on to tutoring coordinator and eventually became vice president of our amazing chapter. 

As a sophomore at USF, our SOS chapter established a refugee tutoring program. It was anything but chaotic at first. Worksheets were made and printed hours before students from age 5 to 16 were running around. However, with much help from our community, we established a steady, successful program that proved positive results. Tutoring was a project that I put so much effort into and worked so hard on flourishing. The students were like my own kids. They drove me insane, but each one holds a special place in my heart. 

One of my fondest memories of tutoring was with a student from the outskirts of Homs who left Syria at a young age and was forced to move to various refugee camps across the Middle East. We were working on his writing skills, and he was assigned a prompt about the best day of his life. He was struggling with a topic and after giving him suggestions like a favorite birthday or a fun summer day, he still couldn’t think of anything to write about.  His eyes lit up all of a sudden as he took his pencil and wrote for what seemed like hours. Once he finished, he handed his paper to me, his eyes glistening with excitement for my reaction. 

This 10-year-old boy wrote about the day he and his family were approved for visas to the U.S. and would all get a second chance at a new life. I was overwhelmed with emotion and couldn’t help but hug him as he told me of all the struggles he and his family experienced, starting by losing his home after a shelling in Syria to struggles in the refugee camps. He told me he was excited to finally start school because he didn’t have that opportunity before and how he was relieved his sick mother could finally receive treatment. 

This past year, I was honored to hold the position of vice president.  We held our first-ever refugee mental health seminar, where we were honored to host Dr. Hadia Zarzour, and our annual volleyball tournament, in which players donate to compete in a volleyball bracket. We also hosted a global oppression awareness event, which was meant to shed light on persecutions occurring all over the world. Our last event, and one of my personal favorites, was a screening and discussion of the Oscar-nominated film “The Cave.” As usual, our chapter still held its weekly tutoring sessions and participated in refugee food packing and distributions. Although our semester was cut short by COVID-19, I am so proud of what we were able to accomplish.

Through my experiences, I’ve advocated for Syria and told the stories of the voiceless. I’ve reminded the world of the magnificent beauty, history and culture Syria has held onto. I’ve worked hands-on with refugees, running monthly food packing and distribution drives and weekly tutoring sessions. I’ve also had the honor of working with some of the sweetest kids who’ve experienced more than most people do in a lifetime. 

SOS connected me back to home — the most beautiful place in the world — that, after 10 years, I long to see again. 

Jenna Sabbagh is a first-year pharmacy student at the University of South Florida. She is involved in USF’s Students Organize for Syria chapter. Her social media is linked below.