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A Grandmother’s Return to Damascus

As of last week, Nadia, a 66-year-old grandmother, was living comfortably in the U.S. at the home of her daughter in an upscale Washington, D.C. suburb. Today, she finds herself back in a leafy district of Damascus wondering when Syria’s civil war will come to an end.

Written by Omar Duwaji Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Nine months after coming to the U.S. from Syria to visit daughters and grandchildren who live in America (other siblings remain in Syria), and to get much-needed medical treatment, she decided that despite the ever-worsening situation back home, it was time to go back.

“I’ve visited many times,” she says. “But this is the first I’ve been here for so long.”

While in the U.S., Nadia spent most of her time on Skype calling the son and daughters she left behind in Damascus, keeping up with the latest happenings in their daily lives. She’s also glued to Arab news networks like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, rarely missing an update from home.

Nadia admits she finds it difficult to be away from the center of the action. “I used to hear what was happening in Darayya, Jobar, Barzeh and Harasta,” she said, rattling off the names of the Damascus suburbs that have borne the brunt of the regime’s offensives.

Nadia (not her real name) is from a well-known Damascene family and a member of Syria’s once-flourishing middle class. She was educated there by Franciscan nuns, attended college, and claims to be among the first women to drive in Syria.

Prior to the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Nadia says she supported her president in the hope he would eventually bring about political reform and more economic opportunities for youth.

“We lived for 40 years without our basic rights under Hafez [his father] and then Bashar,” she says. “Then we asked for reform and got war instead.”

For Nadia, the cushy life she leads in the U.S. isn’t just about missing home – it’s cause for embarrassment.

How could she leave her entire family behind? How could she leave her 13 grandchildren behind?

“What if they’re arrested?” she asks. Being so far away, “what will I do then?”

Nadia’s 87-year-old mother is still in Damascus. She is sick and in need of medical treatment. Her age has left her too weak to travel for treatment abroad. Both Nadia’s and her mother’s doctors have departed the country due to the instability, leaving the elderly woman with no medical care – a problem faced by thousands of Syrians with long-term ailments.

For months Nadia delayed her return home as requested by her children in Syria, as well as those she lives with in the U.S. When she announced a month ago that she would be returning to Damascus, there was nothing her daughters could do to dissuade her.

“Her mind’s made up,” says one daughter, who lives in Virginia. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

She says that whenever other Syrians learn of her mother’s departure for their home country, they are “shocked and surprised.”

“Everyone asks if I’m crazy,” Nadia’s daughter says, exasperated. “But just as I worry about my mother’s safety, my mother has a mother of her own to worry about back home, not to mention kids and grandkids. Who am I to keep her here?”

Her worst fear is that her mother might be trapped in Damascus in a scenario where the city comes under bombardment or shelling from either side – a very real possibility as the situation in the capital intensifies.

Nadia’s lack of a solid evacuation plan heightens these fears. She’s unsure of how she would leave Damascus in case of emergency, much to the alarm of her daughters in the U.S. She did mention, however, that she would then attempt to go to Beirut – the fall-back plan for all Damascenes – until things calm down.

Nadia puts the blame for Syria’s problems and civil war squarely on the back of the regime. “How can he live with himself?” she asks, referring to Assad.

Voicing concern about the state she would find her hometown in upon her return, Nadia fears Damascus could soon meet Aleppo’s fate, were rebels to advance any further into the city.

Before leaving Syria nine months ago – with her confidence of victory for the rebels still high – she promised one of her eldest grandchildren that she would be back in time for the victory rally in Damascus’ Ummayyad Square.

“I told him not to worry about me,” she says. “I told him I’d be back.”

And she is.

(Omar Duwaji is a writer, researcher and journalist focused on the Middle East.)

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