Imagine going to school one morning and your life suddenly changing forever. While you’re taking a test, the building next to you is destroyed by a missile. War has come to your front door. That’s what Jiana Azar experienced. She was born and raised in Syria. Six years ago she was forced to flee her home. This summer she began taking classes at Onondaga Community College. Her goal is to become a physical therapist. Below in her words is the story of her journey from Aleppo, Syria to Central New York.
“Challenges are a part of everyday life. They make us stronger and without them life becomes somewhat meaningless because we have nothing to compare the good times to. These challenges come in many forms. But, regardless of the challenge, facing up to difficulties is key. Doing so will create a sense of independence and appreciation. Facing up to challenges and living through them give us the experiences that make up life. Facing challenges is a way to push ourselves and see what we are capable of. When we look back on tough times, we can be proud of how we dealt with the challenge and remind ourselves that life does get better.
I was born in Aleppo city which in north Syria in 1989. I lived there for almost 23 years before the war started in 2011. I am the fourth, and last, child in my family. Our dream as a family was to have a better life and live in United States. Fortunately, our dream came true, but in a really hard situation. My family is well known in Aleppo because my father is a lawyer and my three brothers are doctors who got their medical certifications from United States before the war began. They decided to practice the medicine in the U.S. At that time, I was still studying English literature because I was interested in English culture in addition to the English language itself. Unfortunately, I couldn’t graduate from my college due to the war that took place in my city at the beginning of 2012.
It is said: “ink must flood in university, not blood.” On a beautiful autumn day, I was getting ready for exams. I remember how I used to get out of my house, taking different routes to get to my college because some of them were either closed or too dangerous to pass by. I still remember exactly how I used to hide myself in the entrance of the buildings if I heard any gun shots. I learned to pay attention to each step I took until I arrived at the college. On that particular day, I was doing my test when all of a sudden a missile from a plane hit one of the campus buildings which was in front of our test building. Without thinking and with a strong ringing in my ears, I ran away to the nearest exit door not seeing clearly because of the dust. Students were pushing each other but I managed to sneak out. I tried to use a different exit door to flee away, but it didn’t open so I jumped from a broken window that wasn’t too high from the ground. I started to run but I didn’t know to where. My legs were leading me into unknown directions. Everyone was yelling in fear. Blood was all over the street and gunshots started to be noticeable in the air. I ran away from the bombing location and I kept running and running although my heartbeats was racing at that moment from fear more than fatigue. I entered a building and waited there about an hour, until things calm down, then I went to my house, and I told my mom what happened. My father at that time was in Saudi Arabia and because of this incident, he asked us to get prepared to travel out of Syria once I finished my final exams.
I have been singled out and threatened because of my faith, and I remember one particular incident that was extremely disturbing. In June of 2012, when I was preparing for my final exams, I was waiting for the transit bus when I was approached by three men, one with a heavy beard and the other two wearing black masks. They demanded that I show them my national ID, and when I opened my wallet to give it to them they saw a picture of Jesus Christ. They became visibly angry, then grabbed my university ID and my books. The bearded man grabbed me on my arm and started yelling at me for being a Christian, and berated me for not covering my hair and my face. He then saw the cross I was wearing on my neck and he demanded it from me. At first, I refused to give him it but he squeezed my arm very tightly and pointed his gun towards my head, slapped me and yelled, “Give me the cross if you want to live.” I gave the cross to him, and he threw it on the ground. At that moment, some shots rang out on the street, and people started to flee in panic, so I fled too. After that incident, I was very afraid because I knew that he saw my name and my parents’ names, so it would be very easy for him to find me and harm me and my family. Every day after that while I was in Syria, I thought about this incident and every time I saw a heavily bearded man like the one from that day, I became afraid until I was sure that it was not the same person.
My family received three separate threats by phone during the period the beginning of 2012 until we left Syria on August 2012. The first caller asked for my father, but he was already in Saudi Arabia. The second caller threatened my mother, promising to harm all of her children. The last caller told my mother that we would all die if we stayed in Syria, as all Christians must be killed. Furthermore, two weeks before my mother and I left Syria , some people came to our house when my mother was home and I was out, and they began to bang on the door and shout. My mother did not know how many people there were, but they were men, and they were very very angry. She didn’t open the door, and she began screaming and the men finally left. This was an extremely upsetting experience for my mother, it made it clear to us that we needed to leave Syria as soon as possible.
My mom and me managed to flee at the end of 2012. It was the best and most difficult decision to take at once. Best, because I was trying to save my life, and difficult because I had to leave twenty-three years of memories behind my back. Not only memories, but also people and places as well. So we packed and decided to go on a mysterious and unknown journey, not knowing how many challenges we had still to face.
The road to Aleppo airport almost cost us our lives and our plane was the last plane that took off from Aleppo airport before Isis took over the airport and destroyed it. I can’t describe the moment when the plane took off high in the sky away from Syria. I felt the whole twenty-three years of memories is in front of my eyes as a vision of beautiful memories including all the laughs and the tears. We arrived in Lebanon and we stayed for 10 days until we got our tourist visas to Saudi Arabia. I was excited to meet my dad after all. I had to stay only 6 months in Saudi Arabia. During these months me and my mother got a tourist visa to USA. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that these 6 months might be the last months to be with my father, who is currently still stuck in Saudi Arabia for some visa issue problems.
I arrived in the USA in the middle of 2013, knowing well that I have to walk by faith not by sight. I was happy at the beginning, but the homesick feeling came more quickly than I expected. I had very difficult nights when I squeezed my pillow and cried until I slept. I do remember everything was strange to me; places, people, language, food etc. I suffered a lot at the beginning, especially with coping in a new environment. I got a job at Panera Bread which for the most part was helpful to improve myself in English language. It helped me get to know more people that I can call friends. It was a fun job, yet it was hard sometimes to deal with. Co-workers, and even the customers, themselves, especially when they ask me where I was from, due to my unique accent. I had to answer them what I was trying to hide in pain, because saying “Syria” would trigger some emotions that I was trying to hide from myself. Some customers showed some empathy by saying “Aww, we are glad that you are here safe,” but others looked at me as a foreign, invaluable human being.
I remembered one incident happened to me here in US, when I was on my way to a camp with my friends, I got pulled over by a police officer. When he asked me where I was from, I answered, “I am from Syria.” He backed off and called more support and cops to come and investigate the situation that ended up with five more cop cars. I felt humiliated, and I teared up because they treated me just like a suspicious person.
Days passed quickly, and I had to ask for asylum in the beginning of 2014 after we discovered that our house in Syria had been taken over by armed men. Our neighbors told us that they saw masked people with guns living in our house using it as a shelter but were afraid to approach the armed men and ask what they were doing in our house. We have not able to find out any more information about what is happening with our house, but it is obvious we can never return.
After applying for asylum, I prayed to get an answer quickly but didn’t hear anything until 2018. Four years of waiting with more challenges and obstacles arising in ever day life. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed, but not a day passed I wasn’t grateful for being alive in a safe country.
Later, I got a chance to have a job as a security officer at Destiny mall. This experience shaped my personality in a better way, as I was dealing with the mall property as if it was my country to keep it safe and clear. It also made me more responsible about decisions and more dedicated to help people.
In the beginning of 2018, I got a letter from the immigration office that said I am legally a permanent asylee which means there is no more fear of being deported to Syria. Also, I am looking forward to one day to gather all of us as a family in one place, including my father.
I still remember clearly all the difficulties that I have had to overcome, including the decision of going back to school and get back my education, but this time in a different field, which is physical therapy. OCC is the beginning of my journey, and I am looking forward to getting back what I lost because giving up is not an option. I know I still have a lot to overcome, but with willingness and prayers, I should rest assured that I can keep myself on the track in pursuing my dreams and work harder to obtain everything I lost back home in a place that finally I can call my second home.”