I used to seek adventures, but the one I didn’t plan for was the one that made me find out who I am. It took a war for me to know myself.
I was born and brought up in a camp for Palestinians in Damascus, the capital of Syria. The camp wasn’t full of tents but exactly like other neighbourhoods with buildings and markets filled with people and crowded streets. It was a little city that never slept.
My parents raised me to simply be free, the kind of girl who would ask taboo questions in religion class just to get kicked out or jump over the school wall to escape military class.
During my second year at university, I got my dream job in the humanitarian field. Two years later, the war broke out in other parts of the country, but not in the capital. Not yet, until…
I had just arrived home from Lebanon, where I was attending a workshop and shopping, of course. I bought a pair of pink and gray Nikes, which I was wearing when the tanks surrounded the camp.
Suddenly an explosion shook the whole building. Then came the sound of bullets raining in the street. I tried to tell myself that I was strong, but there was nothing I could do. For the first time, I felt that I wasn’t in control of my life.
My dad ran to my and my sister’s rooms. “Stay here. Clear away from all windows. This will be over soon. Don’t be scared.”
I nodded and went to bed. I hugged my pillow, put my headphones on. Music blasted these words into my ears as I tried to sleep, “I’m leaving today, living it, leaving it, to change… packing all my bags… I’m finally on the move.” Christina Aguilera singing with what was left of the battery on my phone.
Suddenly I felt cold metal touching my arm. A rough young voice said, “I’m looking for the Free Army.”
I looked up and saw a soldier.
“In my bed?” I responded. The soldier wasn’t alone. A group of more than twenty were waiting for him on the rooftop, from where he’d entered our house.
My family and I did our best to convince them to leave without hurting us. When they were finally gone, I looked at my new running shoes. “It’s time for you guys.”
My sister’s reaction was the same. We had to leave.
We waited for a peaceful moment, got in a cab and left for Lebanon. On the way, I looked back like I always did when I left town. This time the view was full of smoke.
Eventually, we went to Turkey. From there, refugees were getting in dinghies for Europe, drowning on the way. I began helping others find a safe escape. Every night my phone was filled with cries for help. I kept answering and assisting with the rescue efforts for months until it was my time to leave.
Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was one of the biggest I’d been to. I realized that going so far from home meant a total change, meant that I had to get rid of everything. Change: it was the thing I loved most. So, I threw open my luggage and screamed at the top of my lungs to the crowd of travellers.
“Take whatever you want to people!”
The bag emptied out in a blink of an eye. I got on the plane with nothing but my phone, computer and the clothes I was wearing, my pink and grey Nikes on my feet, so sad and so happy, the two extremes. They do meet. I was happy with a shattered heart, leaving my girlfriend and family behind. Flying to change.
If Zero is the place to start, let’s go there. In Canada, I chose to be born again.
RAWAN NASSAR is a Syrian-born Palestinian, an English literature grad, and a humanitarian activist.