A Survivor’s Guilt

The view from Aposhian’s room in Aleppo

Same-sex marriage laws were approved in Denmark, the state television of Egypt lifted its ban on veiled female news presenters, and the Mayan calendar came to an end. The year 2012 seemed like any other through the eyes of my 13-year-old naive self, but little did I know, the harmonious life I’d led was coming to an end.

The early 2010s marked the beginning of the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, as an Armenian who was raised in Syria, I, along with thousands of other Armenians, was heavily affected by these events. It was not until 2012 that my city Aleppo was sucked into the hole of hell and became a theater of modern-day war.

The conflict in Syria began with peaceful protests against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in 2011 and transformed into a bloody civil war. Reports from BBC, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Al Jazeera characterized the war as a religious conflict opposed by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, with Shiite fighters from neighboring Middle Eastern countries pitted against the Sunni rebellious groups. Yet all of that meant nothing to me. I could not comprehend how a country where my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and I had lived safely for decades could suddenly turn into a battlefield.

I could not comprehend how a country where my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and I had lived safely for decades could suddenly turn into a battlefield.

I vividly remember the very first bombing that took place in Aleppo. It was late January on a cold morning, and I was at school. Everyone was quietly sitting in the classroom when suddenly, we sensed an internal vibration. We first thought that it was an earthquake, so we all hid under our desks for a few minutes. When we no longer heard the sounds, we returned to our seats, and the teacher tried to reassure us that nothing bad had happened. Yet it was no use, as we were all panicked. Parents showed up at school to take their kids home, including my two younger brothers and me, even though our house was just next door. On our short walk home, I asked my mom what was going on, to which she answered, “No one knows yet. Walk fast, and let’s get home safely.” 

When we got home, my dad hugged us tight and detached himself from the newscast for a few seconds. On the television, the reporter was announcing that the bombing location was a gas station a few blocks away from our house. I looked at my parents’ faces for reassurance, yet they could not offer any. My father’s eyebrows were pulled up, and my mother nervously bit her nails while watching the livestream of the attack. A few hours later, my mother got a call from our school, informing her that schools would shut down for a week until further notice. As we heard the news, my brothers and I jumped with joy, as we thought we would have more time to have fun, but this new announcement made my parents worry even more. Nothing happened during that week, schools and shops reopened, and normal life continued in Aleppo for a short while.

Just a month later, another bomb attack took place, and then another and another. These explosions got bigger and more frequent, and large numbers of people were killed and injured. Water shortages and electrical outages all over Aleppo followed. Leaving your home meant risking your life, yet homes were not safe either, as a bomb could fall and demolish a residential building at any given second.

A few months passed, and it was already summer. Living without electricity, especially without fans or air conditioners in Aleppo’s heat, was unbearable, as the temperature would reach 37 degrees Celsius, almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We spent our days sitting around the house, waiting for the power to go back on so we could use the air conditioner and watch some television. We hardly left the building except to go to my grandmother’s house, which was two blocks away, and we would return home before it got dark.

At first, people remained optimistic and convinced themselves that it would all be over soon, yet unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. As time passed, bomb attacks became more brazen. Having electricity and water for a few hours a day became the new norm, and anticipating large-scale bombings became surprisingly mundane.

In early August, my father decided that it would be best to send my mother, my siblings and me on a short trip to Yerevan, Armenia. My father was not the only one who thought of this plan, as a large number of other Syrian-Armenian families considered moving to the motherland as the best short-term solution.

Despite having never visited Armenia, my parents thought that it would be the closest thing to a safe home, and if the situation got worse in Syria, we could settle there.

My siblings and I were enthusiastic when we first heard the news about traveling to Armenia, but when I saw my mom pack my school certificate, the reality hit me: I could leave Aleppo and never come back. Although living through those six months was unbearable, I was still living in my own home with my entire family, and I got to see my cousins and friends every once in a while.

Aposhian’s seven-year-old brother drew this airplane when he learned that his family was leaving Syria for Armenia

Moving to Armenia meant leaving all of those things behind, and I was not excited about the idea of being a foreigner in my own motherland. With tears falling down my face and a muffled voice, I selfishly sobbed, “I would rather live here without water or electricity than in some strange country.” Yet it was no use, as my parents had already made up their minds.

As the day of our flight, August 22, got closer, my anxiety grew. My friends told me how lucky I was to be leaving Aleppo and moving to a city where terror was not a component of the daily lifestyle, but it was no use. When I visited my grandparents’ house for the last time, my grandfather dug out an old book he got in Armenia when he last visited it in 2010. The book was Armenia in Pictures by Bella Waters, and as he read it to me, I understood why our people admire Armenia. The idea of living in a peaceful country with beautiful nature did not sound so bad after all.

On my last day, we met up with our acquaintances for one last time. They all expressed their excitement for us, yet I felt guilty leaving them behind. Although I was going to have a much more comfortable and safe life in Armenia, they were still stuck in Syria, living every day as if it might be their last, risking their lives every time they went outdoors.

On the days leading up to our trip, I witnessed the sadness in my father’s eyes, as he realized that it might be the last time we all spent time together in our own home. He was putting his life in danger by staying in Aleppo and not leaving his job to make sure we could live a comfortable life elsewhere. Of course, he would try his best to visit us every once in a while, yet the household dynamic would never be the same again. I felt inescapable shame as I packed, leaving my hometown and my family behind to start a new chapter in my life. Yet there was nothing that I could do but accept the harsh reality and hope that one day things would go back to normal.

I still remember my last night in Aleppo. The bed that I had slept in for the past 11 years did not feel as comfortable anymore. I spent that night rolling around, looking outside the window, listening to the chirping of birds, and waiting for the sunlight to reflect on my skin. Finally, the alarm clock rang at 6 a.m. sharp. My young brothers could barely open their eyes, and I was in charge of waking them up and getting them fully clothed. “Come on, get up! We’re leaving for Armenia,” I sighed while standing in the middle of their two separate single beds. They both jumped out of their beds with excitement and smiles that ran from one ear to another. Breaking away from its usual mold, I witnessed pure chaos in our home as I left the room. My dad carried our heavy luggage out the door, while my mom ran back and forth shoving paperwork and passports into her handbag.

The moment arrived. We stepped outside our building, and my brothers and I waved goodbye to the place we called home. The airport was just a 30-minute drive, but it felt never-ending. Each street, each building and each shop represented pieces of home to me, pieces that I tried so hard to cling to as I took blurry pictures of them from our new pink digital Sony camera that my father bought for our trip. As my father accompanied us inside the airport, I remember how firmly I held his hand, trying to stop the tears from falling and gathering the strength to say goodbye. 

What followed next was a blur–tearful eyes, long hugs and saying goodbye to things and people I never thought I’d ever have to leave behind. As we sat on our cold, metal chairs at the gate, waiting for the announcement to get on our plane, I saw the emptiness in my mother’s tired brown eyes. In a desperate attempt to distract myself, I took out the camera and glanced through the pictures I had taken earlier that day. I gazed at those pictures of random empty streets in amazement, clueless that the city, my home, would never be the same again.

I can never erase the beautiful view of Armenia from above from my memory. The mountains were like nothing I had ever seen before, and I remember thinking to myself that the pictures in Waters’ book did not do the country any justice.

I’d be lying if I said that moving to Armenia was easy, regardless of the misconception that moving to one’s motherland should be easier than moving elsewhere. It was difficult to get accustomed to the Eastern Armenian language, post-Soviet culture and an unfamiliar yet calmer lifestyle than the one back home. Yet as time went by, waking up to the view of Mount Ararat every morning, having sweet Medovik cake and hot tea with our new neighbors in the afternoons, and seeing Armenian letters used for street signs, neighborhood names and billboards made it all worthwhile.

In spite of all the efforts to move on and live my new life, the sense of wrongdoing would forever linger. Whether it was a simple phone call with a relative from back home, a scroll through Facebook or even a glimpse through old photos, all the feelings I so desperately tried to leave behind would effortlessly reemerge. It still occurs to this very day, 11 years after I moved to Yerevan. Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I reply Syriawith a tone saturated in both remorse and pride.

Although we were forced to move to Armenia, we were caught off guard when it turned not into our second home, but our first one. Despite all the tragedies and difficulties my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents endured, we were finally in the motherland. We were back home. 

Hena Aposhian is a freelance journalist who primarily focuses on Armenian arts & culture. She is a graduate of the American University of Armenia and holds a bachelor's degree in English & Communications.