Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I needed Damascus to decompress. Parking myself in a guesthouse, I intended to chill for only a few days and head on toward Jordan. Things change...

I ended up meeting an English girl named Leonie who had studied in Damascus before and was coming back to see friends and brush up on her Arabic. She was kind enough to invite me out to meet her friends at a cultural center in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian camp in Syria. The center was run by local Palestinian volunteers and was non-political. Because of this, they refused funding from any Palestinian political factions and were forced to run on nearly nothing other than the good will of its volunteers. I was introduced to a really kind man named Deeb and he invited us to break Ramadan fast the next day with his family.

That was a meal to remember. The next day we were driven to the far outskirts of Damascus to a park marking the boundary between concrete apartment buildings and rural countryside. As the sun set, we prepared food with Deeb's approximately 20 family members and played a card game called Abu Foul.
*important note: Palestinians cheat at cards

After a hilarious few minutes watching the brothers try to get the coals going, the meat was on the grill and the call to prayer was blasted from the minarets. We feasted. One of Deeb's brother in laws made me eat a piece of raw sheep liver. Other than that it was all quite delicious. After the first round of food, a few people got together and played music (Oud, tambourine and tabla). Then horrible Arabic children's pop music was blasted and some kids came out in animal costumes and became to dance with all the children. As entertaining as it was, my ears were about to start bleeding, so Deeb and I took a seat in the far corner of the park while Leonie fended for herself among the relatives. The conversation was one of the best of my trip. I was deeply inspired by Deeb's commitment to peaceful means of helping his fellow Palestinians. I couldn't help it but I had to ask about Hamas. What did he think of them, and was their leadership really based in Yarmouk?

-Hamas is like a relative that you really don't like because he is a bad person but he is still family."
-Why is he bad?
-They advocate violence and employ former criminals to act as enforcers. And though they point to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority's corruption, they are equally as corrupt.
-I know the leadership is based in Damascus, are they in Yarmouk?
-You want to see Hamas? Go to Mezze (the richest district of Damascus). That's were they are.
-Really? (This really surprised me)
-Think about it, they get all this funding from radical religious governments and they have no way of getting it into Gaza so they spend it on themselves here.

We moved back to the family and grabbed Leonie for a little walk up the road before coming back for more food. Finally after 2:00 am the party was over and we returned to the guesthouse.

I was planning to get moving after some exploration of the old city but I one night I met a French girl who in turn met the head of the Health Department of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and we went to meet him at his work the next day. Adam, a Sudanese man for had worked for Borders without Borders for a decade, was relatively new to the UN scene. He was now overseeing the health support for Iraqi refugees in Syria (of which there are 2 million). Everything sounded wonderful. They received decent free health care and were given living stipends. Many thousands were being granted asylum in the US and Europe.

Leaving, more than slightly optimistic about the situation, we next to a nearby shop and bought drinks (even though it was Ramadan) and relaxed for a few moments. After some time, an older woman missing her legs came up to the shop in a wheel chair. I help her get what she needed and paid for it for her. She thanked me and began asking me questions in Arabic and telling me about herself. She was a Shia Iraqi from Najaf (or was it Karbala?) and she had lost her legs in a car bombing. The same explosion claimed the lives of her three sons. I wished her all the peace and luck I could with my limited Arabic and gave her 100 Syrian pounds (a little more than 2 dollars). Caroline and I walked away and I felt like I was being torn apart. We hit a park and I asked to sit for a second.

I wept.

This woman's suffering was a result of my country's foreign policy. I faced it; as an American for a moment and then as just a human being.


  1. You are an inspiration James. I really enjoy reading your blog and look forward to the day we can finally cycle together instead of randomly meeting in cities! -Lloyd