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Life After Escaping ISIS: From Syria, to Turkey, to Greece The story of a Syrian refugee family's haunting memories of being under ISIS control

It has been difficult for me to process all that I witnessed during my most recent medical mission to Greece earlier this month, where I provided medical care, administered medications, and gave psycho-social support to families living in the various refugee camps in the mainland. To recount the horrors that these Syrian families have seen in their homeland is near impossible to put into words. They want the world to know their stories, so I would be remiss if I didn’t share their experiences for others to understand the depth of what they have gone through. This post is not for the faint of heart, so this serves as my trigger warning that what is in this post may be disturbing for some. This is the reality of war, what the families have dealt with, and what haunts their memories every day.

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Deir Ezzor, Syria – Today

In the Nea Kavala refugee camp, I spoke with one of the mothers, Umm Mohammad (in Arabic Umm Mohammad translates to mother of Mohammad) who was living in a container with her husband and children. She escaped with her family from their hometown of Deir Ezzor in Syria and fled to Turkey, then to the island of Lesvos, then to Athens. They ultimately ended up in this refugee camp in the northern part of Greece, not far from the Macedonian border. As I was sitting with her and her family and the other volunteers in her container, she was recounting the horrors she and her family had seen during the war while they were in Syria. While they were in Deir Ezzor, ISIS was in control of her town. ISIS was forcing all women to dress completely in black from head to toe, including covering their faces with only their eyes showing. She showed me pictures of her sisters who were forced to cover in all black, while they were sitting inside their homes, for fear that ISIS would come busting into the home and punish them for not being fully covered. When Umm Mohammad showed me a picture of her elderly mother in Syria that her sister sent her a few days prior, her mother’s face appeared to be sunken in — there was much pain in her eyes. Umm Mohammad looked so sad as she recounted how her mother was usually so full of life and smiling, but her spirit had been broken by the terror that ISIS had been spewing in her hometown.

To recount the horrors that these Syrian families have seen in their homeland is near impossible to put into words.

Perhaps the most horrific story she recounted was that of the death and destruction her family has seen. She told me about how ISIS was decapitating people and hanging the bodies separately from the heads in the public square. One father saw his son’s body hanging and his head hung separately resulting in him becoming paralyzed with terror. When he tried to take down the body and head and give his son a proper burial, he was told that his son’s head and body must remain hung on display for 3 days and he was forced to rehang them. Not only did Umm Mohammad’s children, along with all the other Syrian children, deal with bombing and war, they were also traumatized by daily taunting from ISIS. These children have nightmares, flashbacks, memories of the war, and find themselves in a constant state of fear — panicking when they hear loud noises that sound like bombs or planes flying overhead.

For those who have not figured out by now, ISIS is the furthest thing from true Islam possible. My Islam is a religion of peace, love, and tolerance – not fear and hate and terror. Anyone who is afraid of Syrian refugees entering their country because they think they have some ties to ISIS monsters, let me be the first to tell you that these refugees are the very people trying to ESCAPE ISIS’s control. To deny these families safety is to re-traumatize them over and over again.

As I sat with Umm Mohammad and her husband and children, they continued to tell me more of the horrors that they witnessed. I allowed them to express themselves and share their stories. The youngest son, who was around 7-years-old, showed me his mother’s cellphone and wanted to play games with me on the phone, so I used this as an opportunity to lighten the mood and provide some fun for the kids in an effort to help them heal and feel “normal.” I pulled out my phone and opened Snapchat, and after a few minutes, Umm Mohammad, her husband, and all the kids were roaring with laughter as they took pictures and videos with the silly filters on the app. I will never forget their smiles and laughter for those few precious moments. It was a beautiful moment of human connection. Despite all the horrors they have experienced, they can still find a way to feel normal and enjoy life for those moments we were together.

To deny these families safety is to re-traumatize them over and over again.

They give me hope that even in the darkest of times, there is always joy to be found, and hope will always find a way to prevail.

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