Cover Photo: Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn via Unsplash
Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn via Unsplash

We Lined Up for Bread and He Massacred Us

Here in Idlib, Syria, we have gone back to the most primitive ways of living: We cook on coal. We wash our clothes by hand. But we are surviving. Some days it feels like a miracle.

This is the final essay in Displaced Voices, a monthly column by Jessica Goudeau which tells first-person stories of refugees, asylum-seekers, and economic migrants. The as-told-to format gives them control over their narratives; when appropriate, we have used pseudonyms to protect their identity.

Jessica’s note: For the last two years, I have been in weekly, sometimes daily, contact over WhatsApp with “Amal,” a woman who lives with her six children in Idlib Province, the last rebel-held region in Syria. I connected with her through her relative, who was resettled in Texas, when I was looking for a source on the ground for an article about the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017. I interviewed Amal over video chat and “met” her six kids—while we talked, we could hear bombs falling outside of their shelter. Since then, a translator—based in the United States and using the pseudonym “Amena”—and I have chatted often with Amal. Filmmaker Amy Bench joined several of our conversations, asking many of the questions that led to this article. Our little group celebrated when Turkey brokered a truce in Idlib in September 2018, which meant that the combined Russian and Syrian regime forces would respect a buffer zone and no longer target the 3 million civilians who were internally displaced, like Amal and her kids. In late April of this year, backed by Russia, the Syrian regime broke that truce and began bombing its own people again. Amal’s messages took on a new caliber, begging us to do whatever we could to save her children and to get her out of the war zone. I cannot do that, though I have tried through every connection available to me—no one is getting out of Idlib right now. The only thing I can do is share her story, told in short messages over several days in April and May.

Inshallah,

Jessica Goudeau is the author of AFTER THE LAST BORDER (forthcoming, Viking 2020), a narrative nonfiction book about refugee resettlement in the US. She has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, The Los Angeles Times, and other places. She has a PhD in Poetry and Translation Studies from the University of Texas. In most of her writing, she partners with displaced people to tell their stories with dignity while protecting their identities. Find out more: jessicagoudeau.com and @jessica_goudeau