Today was tough. Maybe the hardest session we’ve had yet. It was about naming and recognizing the violence we face in its multiple forms. We introduced it by first talking about our relationships. Following our discussion the previous day about healthy and unhealthy boundaries, we asked ourselves: what are signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships?
People were eager to share the ways that the events of the past few years have changed their lives. “The revolution has changed everything, starting with my relationships with people. Especially with my mom. We don’t talk anymore. Whenever we do, we are yelling or depressed or apathetic,” Samya* offered.
Manar* shared with us a recent episode in her life that forever changed her relationship with her best friend. Her house had just been bombed, and she received news that her brother had died (it turned out that this was misinformation and he actually hadn’t died). This news came shortly after her beloved aunt had been killed not too long ago, so the grief she felt was building onto an existing hole she already felt. In that moment and for the next few days she was in a state of shock, cursing everything and everyone from Assad to the revolution to the Free Syrian Army. Upon hearing this, her best friend was livid. She could not believe that she was cursing the rebels and the opposition. “You should give everything to the resistance,” she told her. “How dare you speak like this?” Manar says she regrets reacting in this way. Now her friend views her as weak, or as a traitor. But she could not help it–she wasn’t in a right state of mind, she said to us. Manar doesn’t speak to her friend anymore.
After speaking about how some of our relationships have changed, we moved to discussing the reasons we stay in relationships that are abusive or unhealthy. People listed things like emotional commitments, economic attachments, and family, friendship, forgiveness. This is where things got tricky, and it was mostly a generational gap. An older khalto basically kept saying that everything else, any struggle or problem–in comparison to the war–was nothing. That if they could escape and live through this war, what was a dysfunctional relationship? Her words were authoritative and piercing. A couple of younger women mustered the gumption to offer a counterpoint, saying that other grievances and wreckages were legitimate and should not be undermined or isolated from the larger structural violence they face as a community. The khalto pushed back, saying that as a fragmented community, Syrian refugees could not pick at one another, that they could not afford to hate each other. They had to recognize, she said, that “everyone has their shortcomings,” and forgive others so that we may be forgiven when we mess up as well.
I feel that I could have been more proactive with facilitating; less neutral.
But how do you resist, even if softly, a much older khalto, a precious elder whose wrinkles and exhausted eyes point to unspeakable stories and vast wisdom? The eye contact and nods I made with the younger women who clearly did not agree with her confirmed that we understood that the older khalto needed to talk. This was her current worldview, and she wasn’t ready to let go. Not at this moment. Right now, she needed to be heard.
In our one-word check out, Tina*–a medical student who was all but done with her studies in Syria and was just one test away from becoming a doctor when she had to leave–said she started the circle today feeling uneasy, but now, at the end, felt much more “quwa”. That recognizing the violence she faced was hard and emotional and made her cry while filling out the checklist as it triggered lots of traumatic memories of isolation and despair. She said it was extremely rare for her to find a place to talk and find affirmation–as she found in our small group discussions today–without others rushing to make comments or give advice. “We don’t know how to listen to each other. We need a cultural shift that centers the hurt, the one whispering, the vulnerable, the weakened.”
Samya* agreed. “Yes. I want their voices to be heard. And I want laws that protect them too.”