Living life in Limbo: A Syrian refugee in Massachusetts

Fouad Faris has eight Facebook profiles. Some are variations of his real name, some are completely different, Western names. Some are in Arabic, others in English. He even has an account as a woman. These are the precautions tech-savvy 19-year-olds take when they are Syrian and oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Faris made the accounts before he fled from Syria to the United States last year, in case he was arrested. If the military asked for his Facebook account, he would give them a spare one, with less incriminating posts. The multiple accounts allow him to speak his mind on his main Facebook page, where the cover photo is of a line of children killed by chemical weapons in Syria.

“[If] I get arrested, I have a spare account that has nothing on it,” Faris said. “Same name, same thing, but there was nothing on it.”

faris3He’s not the only one. Faris opened his laptop and scrolled through various friends’ pages on Facebook, showing their two or three different profiles.

This precaution isn’t fueled by empty worry. Faris said one of his good friends was arrested this year at a military checkpoint on the Syrian border.

“I asked him, ‘Did they ask you about Facebook?’” he recalled. “When they ask you about Facebook, they want to check your friends on Facebook. They [have] you already, they don’t need anything on you, they just want to catch more people.”

The soldiers checked his friend’s Facebook, but they also did worse.

“I asked him, ‘What about torturing?’” Faris said. “He said, ‘They did everything, every single thing to me.’”

Faris said there was a saying among Syrian rebels: Keep one bullet in your pocket, because when you’re out of bullets and the military arrests you, you’ll want to shoot yourself.

“It’s better than arrest, ’cause they’ll torture you,” he added.

Over the first year of the uprising, as the fighting between the Syrian government and the rebels escalated throughout the country, Faris led a life that seemed normal on the surface: studying at dental school in Damascus, hanging out with friends, visiting his family in Aleppo. But there were tanks rolling through town, constant water, electrical and Internet outages, military checkpoints, and protests that sometimes ended in a face burning with tear gas.

Aleppo was relatively safe, he said, as was Damascus, although the fear of arrest always lingered. As millions of people fled Syria, to refugee camps, relatives’ homes, and temporary shelters in other countries, Faris and his family hunkered down. They didn’t want to leave their jobs, school, friends and family.

“If you’re there, you get used to [the danger],” Faris said.

But the fighting moved closer to their neighborhood in Aleppo. In August 2012, Faris and his sister, Rama, who was 16 at the time, were sitting in the garden outside their apartment when two bombs exploded 20 feet away, he said.

Faris’s father, stepmother and three younger siblings were on a vacation in the United States. When they heard about the explosions so close to home, they decided to turn the vacation into a more permanent stay, moving to Alabama and applying for asylum.

In the meantime, at his father’s prompting, Faris traveled to Jordan to apply for a U.S. visa. He almost didn’t make it there. An officer at the Syrian-Jordanian border thought that Faris, 17 at the time, was trying to leave so he wouldn’t have to serve in the military when he turned 18. Faris explained that he was in school, and so he had an exception from military service.

“I told him I am in dental school, I can’t waste my life and go [permanently out of Syria],” he said.

After over an hour of pleading, the guard let Faris go. Faris was planning to return to school in Syria after getting his U.S. visa. But after the difficulty he had trying to leave, his family convinced him it was too dangerous to go back. Faris waited in Jordan for his visa, and then flew to the U.S. All he had with him was a backpack with two shirts, two pairs of pants, and his laptop.

Faris left Syria thinking he would be back in a week, but it has now been a year. He moved to Massachusetts, living with his uncle and aunt, Kal and Rasha Faris, and two young cousins, in the quiet suburb of Shrewsbury. He thought he’d like it more than Alabama. Outside the windows here, tall trees are turning orange and losing their leaves. Outside the window of his home in Aleppo, he’s seen bombs explode.

On a recent afternoon, Faris sat in front of a laptop in a small office next to his bedroom. He was injured in a bike accident in September, and wears a brace around his chest and neck. The brace is coming off in a few days, but he plans to strap it back on for his Halloween costume — a robot. On his left wrist, he wears a slim bracelet with the black, white, and green of the Free Syrian Army flag. Occasionally, his 4-year-old cousin Ayla runs into the room, asking him to play hide-and-seek.

This is where Faris spends most of his days: sitting at the computer, reading updates on Syria, video-chatting with friends in Syria and Turkey, and listening to music about the Syrian revolution.

“It’s been hell,” Faris said. He has a comfortable life here, but he wishes he were back in Syria. “I am doing nothing.”

In March 2013, his family’s asylum request was accepted and in April, Faris applied for beneficiary asylum under his father. It has been six months, and he hasn’t heard anything about his status. Because he doesn’t have a social security number, he isn’t able to get a job, enroll in college, or get car insurance to drive.

“My life here is waking up, eating, and going back to sleep,” he said.

In Syria, Faris made a Facebook page where he posted pictures, videos, and news of what was happening in his neighborhood.

“News like, I just heard a helicopter in the sky, an ambulance car is going that way. Shabiha — people who get paid to fight — are going this way. Just everything that happened,” Faris said. “The first day it started, we get 500 likes.”

Today, Faris scrolled through a similar Facebook page, called “Eyewitness of Aleppo.” He translated the most recent posts, written in Arabic.

“The Internet’s so slow today…and two minutes ago the lights came on. At midnight we hope the water will come too.”

Now, from Massachusetts, Faris runs a different kind of Facebook page, called “Lens of a Syrian guy who is homeless in America.” He posts pictures of Fourth of July fireworks, a Boston Celtics logo, rain drops on leaves. He recently posted pictures of an apple-picking trip he took with his aunt, uncle, and cousins.

“Sometimes I feel so lucky and sometimes I feel not lucky at all,” he said. “I left my perfect life there and came here.”

Does he feel he made the right choice, coming to the U.S.? He doesn’t know. His sister, Rama, has been in Turkey for the past year. She was granted asylum there, and is now working at a clothing store and getting ready to start classes.

“Sometimes I tell her, ‘I wish I’m with you, it’s better than being here,’” Faris said. “She would reply, ‘No! You’re living in America, you’re living at the top of the world.”

Faris hopes to sign up for classes at Quincy College, but he can’t register until he gets a social security number.

Meanwhile, he spends the majority of his unrelenting free time traveling back home through his computer screen. It is his only connection to Syria — to news, to his friends, to a reminder of what he left. He pulls up a folder on the laptop with pictures of himself and several friends from his university, right before they left for summer break in 2012 — just weeks before Faris left Syria for good. One shot shows the friends standing in a garden with their arms around one another’s shoulders.

Out of the 10 people in the pictures, only four ended up back at school when the break was over. Some, like him, decided to leave the country. Others are in Syria, but decided to put off school until it is safer.

Faris pulled up another, more recent picture, of his university classmates and friends. In the middle, one student holds a white sign with the words “Fouad Faris” scrawled on it, showing they wish he were there with them.

He doesn’t think his group of university friends, now scattered, will ever be together again.

“It’s very awful. I never saw a friend of mine in person since a year and four months.”

Faris clicks over to 20 second video filmed by an uncle. It shows the Aleppo street where his grandmother used to live, now filled with rubble and burned out buildings.

“Neighborhoods I used to play [in] are destroyed,” he said.

But he still wishes he were there.

“The people there, there’s no difference between me and those people, we’re the same,” he said. “Why they have to suffer while I’m not? We’re both Syrians. What’s the difference? Why them not me? We’re all equal, right?”

Faris is tired of having his life on pause. He wants to continue his education and keep moving forward. But for the past year, he’s been unable to do anything but sit and watch as tragedy continues to ravage Syria, where, according to United Nations estimates, more than 100,000 people have died and millions have been displaced.

In his bubble of safety in Shrewsbury, Faris clicks and scrolls, watches and listens, as each day danger increases for his friends and family still in Syria.

“I know I’m not like any other people here,” Faris said. “I’ve seen too much. From now on, whenever I hear that there’s a war in some place that will take my interest because I’ve been through it and I know how people suffer… img-sidebarNow everything’s different for me.”

This article is featured in the Winter issue of The Islamic Monthly. Purchase a copy here!

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    Emily Files

    Emily Files is a freelance print and radio journalist based out of Boston. She has previously worked for NPR, The Boston Globe, and PRI's The World.

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