“At first I was afraid,” Layla Aboukhater, MCAS ’18, said before breaking out into a surprisingly light-hearted laughter. “That sounds like the beginning of the song,” she laughed, amused by her unintended reference to the Gloria Gaynor classic, “I Will Survive.”
I couldn’t help but laugh along to this playful outburst with a hint of incredulousness—Gaynor surely wasn’t referring to fear on the same scale of that which Aboukhater was alluding to.
The fear occupying Aboukhater’s mind night after night was rather a product of the noise from far-off gunshots and rockets, which until recently kept her awake at night in her home city of Aleppo, Syria.
“When you’re not used to the noises and how loud they are, it’s kind of terrifying, but then you really get used to it,” she said.
A recent transfer student to Boston College, Aboukhater escaped Syria’s escalating violence in Nov. 2014 alongside her father, who was allowed entry after a multitude of failed attempts to acquire a visa.
The two landed in Boston and began the daunting process of migrating the rest of the family.
Though raised from the age of four in Syria, Aboukhater was born to her Syrian parents during their time studying in the United States, making her a U.S. passport holder.
Though this citizenship made her own entry into the country a relatively simple one, it provided no benefit to her parents, particularly her mother.
“My parents had no visa, no green card, nothing,” Aboukhater said. “They decided to send me by myself, but miraculously my dad got a [professional] visa. We started setting things up, my sister and brother followed with the cat and the dog—who was pregnant—and it took another five months to get my mom here.”
This flight from war-torn Syria is unsurprisingly quite common among Aboukhater’s peers, she explained, several of whom are now scattered around the United States and the world. Despite her success at finding a home in the United States, resettlement in the country is rare among the families of her friends and classmates.
“They’re countable—it’s really, really rare,” Aboukhater said of her Syrian friends with the United States as their final destination. “Most people ended up in Canada, Sweden, or Germany. I could go there and find my whole city packed into one of those places.
“Right now what’s happening is, anyone who has enough money to leave would get to Lebanon [and] get a plane ticket from there,” Aboukhater said.
Urgency became an ever more palpable sensation in Aleppo over the last five years due to escalation in violence, best illustrated by one detail in particular—darkness. As regime and rebel forces fought their war, power lines were destroyed day in and day out, leaving thousands of Syrians without electricity and in a constant state of cold and literal darkness. This darkness provided a stark reminder of the world outside of the walls of Aboukhater’s home.
Recalling the first power outage with a shrug, Aboukhater explained that the power was only out for an hour. As the violence escalated, the number and duration of these outages became increasingly frequent, escalating right up until the bitter end of her stay in Syria. In the month before her departure, the instability was such that during one two-day span, she had electricity for a total of one hour.
The typical “buy a generator” response to this darkness, however, implied a level of acclimation or admission of defeat to Aboukhater’s family, one which she feared deeply. To Aboukhater, her family’s purchase of a generator would be a gesture of acclimation to the violence escalating around them.
With this in mind, the Aboukhater family came to a resolution—they would not buy a generator. They determined that if things were bad to the point where they would need a generator to get by, they would simply leave the country rather than adjust based upon what the situation demanded.
But the darkness grew.
“We went through a really, really dark year,” Aboukhater said. “Literally dark—like candles and flashlights. But then we adjusted like everybody else and got a generator, and you just live life like everyday. Your entire family comes home—that’s cool—but maybe not.”
Aboukhater spoke candidly about living in this hostile environment and the terror of adjusting beyond the point of seeing the need to leave, likening it to the story of two frogs told by her father.
“One frog was put in boiling water so he jumped out and survived,” Aboukhater recounted. “The other was put in water that was heated up really slowly and eventually he boiled to death.”
“We were boiling to death,” she explained.
In the face of this violence and death which daily shook the foundation of her home and her relationships, Aboukhater insisted that life had to go on. For a brief moment of playful inquiry, we talked about the Aleppo party scene.
“You’re kind of dirtier because you’re not as showered,” Aboukhater said, laughing at the absurdity. “But that look became the trend.”
Aboukhater found that this violence, though undoubtedly an exercise in hardship and pain, was also an agent for community building. In her description of the mentality of a community plagued by death and violence, one expression that she emphasized stood out: “YOLO mentality.”
“The people that were left became such a tight community, everyone was going through the same hardships, and the social life was really interesting,” Aboukhater explained. “Our cafes had never been fuller at points when I was there. People would sit outside even when it was really unsafe to do so.”
Taking a moment to be lighthearted was essential to the people of Aleppo—an escape from the cold and dark quarantine of a barricaded basement.
Aside from a physical escape, carrying on in ways like this worked to remove oneself from the shackles of emotional confinement. Maintaining a feeling of purposefulness in the face of extreme violence was crucial to survival.
“I mean you go to a funeral in shock like, ‘Oh my God, they were so young,’” remembered Aboukhater.
But as violence began to escalate and the funerals became more regular, the mourning which accompanied each funerary procession necessarily began to likewise become more regular.
Much like the lack of electricity and the constant sounds of far-off shelling, death and mourning became nothing more than facts of life for a young girl in her teens and early twenties.
“If you want to lose a week every time someone dies, that’s a lot of weeks lost,” Aboukhater said plainly, a frightening reminder of the massive amount of bloodshed with which every Syrian inevitably comes face-to-face. “You have to get work done and get on with life.”
Physically distant now from the battleground that was once her homeland, Aboukhater brings parts of Syria with her, which is not always an easy thing. Having escaped from Syria, the burden of awareness is often a backbreaking weight.
Hot water, electricity, security, and ample opportunity are now realities of Aboukhater’s daily life in the United States.
Realities that, with one eye back on Syria, weigh on Aboukhater with a feeling of helplessness.
She describes it as a feeling of gratitude that is haunted by an underlying guilt—a feeling that while her new life is good, her old one still exists for countless innocent people living in fear in Syria.
The feeling of obligation which comes with this freedom is not merely a peripheral sensation.
“I’m basically just sitting out there in O’Neill Plaza on the grass, and it’s sunny, and looking up at the sky knowing nothing is going to fall on me right now,” she said.
The burden of this knowledge, fears of checking Facebook and learning of neighbors’ deaths, and overcoming the language and cultural barriers of new surroundings are all certainly large loads to bear. But Aboukhater’s positivity is as unmistakable as it is improbable.
Aboukhater’s enthusiasm was self-evident throughout, and her face lit up when she talked about her recent experience of fearlessly wearing a dress to class, a novel experience for her.
“I could not believe myself, I was on such a high,” she said, laughing. “I’m so used to trying to be invisible when I walk, and now I’m here where everything is green and everyone is undressed.”
Certainly, walking out of our conversation I saw the world around me with a very different filter, like I had stepped into Syria for an hour-long verbal tour.
The grass was a little greener, the sky a little bluer. A distinct mix of contagious hopefulness and unseen ordeal pervaded our conversation—a complex mix too difficult to fully put into words appropriately, either in conversation or publication.
It’s a mix that can only fully be lived, not written.
When I inquired about any last-minute requests before walking away, however, the response was an appropriate mix of sincere poignant geniality and BC-student enthusiasm:
“You should mention the Harry Potter club,” she said with a laugh.
Featured Image Courtesy of Layla Aboukhater