Mia Z.* is 18 years old and from Homs in Syria. She currently lives in Barcelona with her mother and two sisters.
It was a Monday morning in 2011, when my life changed forever. I was 12, and a friend and I were on our way to school when the bombing started. We ran for our lives, got separated, and I headed toward my house. When I got home, I was alone and in shock—my mom was at work, and my sisters were at school. I was freaking out, desperate to forget what was happening all around me, so in an attempt to shut it out, I decided to read a book.
I clicked around online for a while when I found something called Unbroken. I wasn't that into reading back then, but as I started to read, I felt calmer. The voices, the screaming, and the sirens took a backseat, I just focused on the book. From then on, reading became my way of escaping and understanding the horrors taking place around me.
Unbroken is a nonfiction book about an American WWII Army lieutenant, Louis Zamperini, whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. He drifted at sea for weeks, catching birds and fish to eat and stay alive. Reading that part made me think of our city of Homs being under siege and of all the people I had known who were struggling to find food. My cousin, for example, who lived in one of the most dangerous parts of the city, had to resort to eating tree leaves and insects. I thought of my mom and sisters—what if we didn't have anything to eat some day?
From the window in my house, I saw the police taking people, and I couldn't do anything.
When Zamperini finally reached land after 47 days, he was captured and taken to a Japanese prison. There, he was mercilessly beaten and tortured for two years. Reading that, I thought of the prisoners in Syria, being beaten and tortured. I had friends and family in prison—a few managed to escape, but others died there. Luckily, Louis's story had a happy ending—his side won the war, and he married his girlfriend. With every book I read, I can't wait for the happy ending.
Another book I read while I was still in Syria was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. It's the story of young lovers Florentino and Fermina, who were separated when Fermina's father forbade their relationship and sent her far away. She is like a tree ripped from the ground and shipped off as timber. Later, that's how I felt when I was forced to leave Syria. The book also reminded me of the time, back in Syria, when I stopped talking to my best friend. She and her family supported the president, while mine were against him. We had a lot of issues because of that, and in the end, we stopped talking to each other.
In all honesty, though, I didn't finish Love in the Time of Cholera. I couldn't stand the idea of two people loving each other and being pulled apart.
When I arrived in Barcelona, I didn't stop reading—though it wasn't always books. Somehow, during a Google expedition one day, I landed on the script of the movie Colonia, starring Emma Watson and Daniel Brühl. I haven't seen the film, but I devoured the script. It follows the story of a fictional couple, Lena and Daniel, who become involved with a real historical cult in the south of Chile, called Colonia Dignidad.
Watch: Follow a Syrian Boy's Dangerous Journey to School in a War Zone
In one scene, the police attack a protest and start to hit and shoot people—it reminded me of the beginning of the war in Syria, when the police would kill and arrest protesters. The police arrest Daniel in front of his peers—and no one can do anything about it. They don't have the power, like the people of Syria didn't have the power. From the window in my house, I saw the police taking people, and I couldn't do anything. When they were taken to police cars, I knew their destiny. We grew up feeling afraid—afraid to express ourselves, afraid of everything.
Sara Nović's Girl at War was the first book I read with an actual war theme. It's about a girl from Croatia, Ana Jurić, who's ten years old when the civil war breaks out in Yugoslavia. I can relate to her account of the horrible events she witnessed, and what she did to stay alive and sane. Especially when she writes: "In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept."
People in Syria lost control, too. Ana was 10 when her war started; I was 12 when mine started. She fled to the US and had to start a normal life, had to act normal around people—even after everything she had seen. I had to do the same in Spain, and it was the most difficult thing I've ever done. I sometimes feel like an actor, telling people I'm OK—like, "It's OK, I'm not thinking of anything. I'm just doing my homework." I act normal when I hear a plane fly over while I'm in class at school. I pretend I'm not shaking on the inside.
In reality, I'm very afraid planes. I remember planes flying over Homs, bombing houses, and shooting people. I feel scared every day when I see police on the street in Barcelona because I remember seeing police beat up my neighbors. I remember the voices, the sounds—at school, at home, in the street, everywhere. Knowing that I'm just like Ana doesn't make any of that go away, but it helps to know I'm not the only one.
*The name of the author has been changed for safety purposes.
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Illustration by Ana Jaks