From Syria to Savannah: Part II

- by

Photography by Molly Hayden

In December 2001, Ghassan Mahmoud* was a single 28-year-old whose thoughts had turned to marriage. His mother, Rasha*, had noticed Fatimah* and told her son, “I know of a beautiful young woman from a good family. Go meet her and see what you think!”

Rasha made an appointment to visit Fatimah along with Ghassan, his sister, and sister-in-law. The four of them arranged a signal: If Ghassan liked her, he would say, “Thank you,” when he finished his coffee.

The women smiled when Ghassan said the words. He asked if he could return alone the following week. After their second meeting, Fatimah told her parents she would like to see this kind, funny man again.

They were married in October 2002.

Quickly, Ghassan was offered a good job in Cyprus. The newlyweds formed a plan: With this job, they would save enough money to buy land back in Syria, where they would build a house. Eventually, they would build a second house on the property so that their children could remain close once they’d grown.

Elisar Mahmoud.Thus, the Mahmouds uprooted their lives for the first of many times. Things moved along seamlessly. Ghassan and Fatimah adjusted to Cyprus, worked hard and saved, learned to speak Cypriot Greek and designed their future home. Fatimah gave birth to Mourad*, and soon after, they purchased a plot of land next to Ghassan’s brother’s house in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Construction began.

In 2009, their dream house was completed. With five-year-old Mourad and newborn Elisar*, they returned to Darayya as a family of four. Ghassan opened his own auto body shop in a rented space, and Fatimah stayed home to care for their young children. Surrounded by family, they were happy.

But there was a growing sense of discontent in Syria, and soon the Mahmouds found themselves in a warzone. Fatimah relocated with the children to her parents’ home in Midan, a safe area on the edge of Damascus. She waited, terrified, for news of her husband, who remained in Darayya to tend to their home and business.

During the Darayya Massacre in August 2012, Ghassan was tortured and nearly killed. His experiences–involving bullets, fire, and land mines–are too brutal to share. After escaping for the third time, Ghassan returned home to find the house he had built stripped completely bare. Soldiers had taken everything, even the kitchen sink.

“I felt like I was having a heart attack,” he told me. Sources cite different numbers, but Ghassan says some 1,700 people were killed in Darayya—including his brother.

From that point forward, Fatimah, Mourad and Elisar remained in Midan. Ghassan went to stay with his own parents in Bawabeh, a small village in Damascus, and began making plans to move his family.

In February 2013, Ghassan left for Jordan, staying with Fatimah’s sister’s family while he searched for a job and a house to rent. Fatimah and the children joined him in April. All the photos and precious belongings they’d brought with them to Fatimah’s parents’ house would remain there until things calmed down and they could return home. They registered as refugees so that the children could attend school. They remained in Jordan for three-and-a-half years.

While they were in Jordan, another of Ghassan’s brothers was killed in Darayya. Fatimah’s brother was kidnapped and taken to an unknown prison. To this day, she has no idea if he is alive. When I offered my condolences and asked how they cope, Fatimah said, “It just became like an everyday thing.”

Based on their refugee status, the United Nations called in July 2015 to ask if the Mahmouds would like to emigrate to America. It was clear by then that the place where Ghassan and Fatimah had intended to raise their children and live out their lives, was no more. They accepted the invitation.

Ghassan and Fatimah had interviews with United Nations representatives every three months thereafter. In November 2016, it became official—they would fly to America and apply for green-cards. After five years, the Mahmouds would be eligible to become American citizens.

On December 6, 2016, the family began the 26-hour journey to their new home. They touched down at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in a heavy downpour, emerged from the concourse and breathed in the thick, pea soup air. A car was waiting for them in the pick-up area amidst palm trees and rocking chairs. As they rode, they took in this new place, so different from anything they’d seen: the colorful row houses, the downtrodden neighborhoods sandwiched between blocks full of columned mansions, the sprawling Spanish moss-covered oaks. They noticed something else, too: uprooted trees and piles of brush still fresh from Hurricane Matthew. Things were beginning to settle.

* The Mahmouds’ names have been changed to respect their privacy and to take the deepest care with their safety.