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Encounter at Darra

A Short History of Syrian Orphans

by BARBARA NIMRI AZIZ

Are others as bewildered as I am by news stumbling and reeling interminably out of Syria–those accounts of starving, besieged children? We are moved by the stories yet also immobilized. The “worst humanitarian tragedy of our time”, say experts of catastrophes. (As if we need their authority.) Anyway, how can I distinguish between a 4-year old alawite corpse and a 6 month old miasmatic christian infant, between an orphan and a refugee?

Prospects for relief are bleak. Impossible to comprehend who is fighting whom and how can it possibly worsen? Who is responsible? Maybe we find solace in having yet another out-of-favor-dictator on whom to heap responsibility.

I hesitate to join any chorus, recalling an early story of Syrian orphans. Today it seems like a mythical tale from this ancient land of Syria. But it was just four years—forty eight short months–ago in 2009. Told to me unsolicited by Samir, a proud college student from Darra. That quiet rural region bordering Jordan would gain international recognition as the site of the earliest civil uprisings in Syria in 2011 following the 2010 revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

March 2011 was unimaginably distant from this story, an anecdote of what transpired at a local Darra orphanage. It was during Eid al-Fitr feast that marks the end of holy Ramadan month. Customarily, officials and celebrities visit orphanages distributing gifts and celebrating the talents and progress of the youngsters. Mosques and churches across the region are especially generous and attentive to orphans and the government supports many children’s centers too.

Feeling the encounter at the Darra orphanage was particularly noteworthy, my student Samir recalled it with pride when I met him on my first teaching assignment in the country. He told me how an orphan, barely 6, had asked the visiting dignitary, a lady from Damascus, whether she had a little boy. And when she replied that yes she had, he countered with: “Then why have you not brought his daddy with you?”. The next day, the woman returned, now accompanied by her husband. She called for the orphan and introduced the man at her side with these tender words: “Here is my boy’s daddy.”

The lady, of course ,was Asma Al-Assad.

I share this story not to absolve the Syrian leadership for what’s happening today. It’s to account for my utter dismay and express how difficult it is even for me to imagine that that 2009 encounter was real. It summons a testimony I heard six years ago (although it could be today) from Iraq: a weeping elderly man shouts, “Look at what we have become; look, look at what we are doing to each other!”

As for the Darra orphanage, I’ve no update. Except, a week back I received a message from Samir; he writes from inside a UN refugee camp in Jordan, pleading for help to “get out”. Of the orphan child who summoned the president? I doubt if even Samir remembers the event.

Syria remains the only home they have for many thousands of orphans in both government and private centers. Then there are schools for the blind; also hospitals for the handicapped. Each is staffed by men and women who can’t and probably wouldn’t abandon them. Doubtless state support for these institutions, once so generous, has dwindled. Meanwhile you can expect that dedicated private citizens, men and women, somehow manage to cover the basic costs of feeding and caring for their wards.

Whether or not the Syrian first lady recalls her Darra visit in 2009, I don’t care. But that episode should be registered somewhere in the nation’s history.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist, author and journalist with Pacifica-WBAI Radio in New York. Her latest book is Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters in Iraq (2007).