STAMFORD — Salma Almidani remembers her childhood home, Damascus, as being so safe that as an 8-year-old she could ride the city bus alone to her grandmother’s house.
As she got older, she and her friends would go out on their own to get lunch, wandering by buildings that were thousands of years old.
“I felt comfortable going around,” said Almidani, who is 22. “Everything was in the capital. Damascus has a lot of history. That was something I took for granted.”
Before moving to Connecticut and enrolling at the University of Connecticut-Stamford, Almidani spent her childhood in Syria with her father, mother and two younger brothers. She attended a private school for international students, studying English and dreamed of being a sports journalist.
Things began to change in 2011. On March 15, a protest for government reform erupted in Damascus after a young boy was arrested for graffiti. The government attacked the citizens, kickstarting the Syrian Civil War.
Almidani was in ninth grade at the time, an “exam year” for Syrian students. She had the month of May off to take exams for high school admission. However, the testing center kept getting vandalized. A curfew was introduced as were government checkpoints.
“They’d be nasty to us, the government soldiers,” Almidani recalled. “It was becoming dangerous ... but I think all of us thought it was going to be a temporary thing.”
Almidani’s father could see the growing danger. A graduate of Southern Connecticut State University and a U.S. citizen from his time studying abroad, he began planning to move the family to the United States. The family left Damascus that summer and settled in Milford.
The gravity and permanence of the situation did not hit Almidani, then 15. Despite enrolling as a sophomore at Jonathan Law High School, she didn’t unpack her suitcase her first month because she assumed she would soon go home.
“It was totally chill because I thought I was coming back,” she said. “You have this invincibility mentality when you’re young. ... I didn’t see it as home. It was this temporary place until everything works out.”
Her youthful will was part of her parents’ concern. Back in Syria, she spoke out against the government in school and she videotaped protests, offenses that could have landed her in prison.
The precedent set by her former government followed her to the United States. Almidani was surprised by little things — like how students here don’t stand up while addressing their teachers — but also by the freedoms Americans took for granted. She recalled a teacher showing a video of former President George W. Bush and her classmates laughing at some of his comments. In Syria — which has a “walls have ears” mentality — laughing at the government is a crime.
The adjustment was made easier by Almidani’s English skills and involvement with soccer and swimming. But despite having been raised on American movies and music, she still felt culture shock.
”When I came to high school, I thought it’d be like ‘High School Musical,’” she said, referring to the Disney movie.
Almidani spent that first year educating her classmates, many of whom knew nothing about the civil war. It was the end of the school year, when her dad started talking about applying to American colleges, that she realized the move was permanent.
“It was heartbreaking to me,” she said. “I was 15. I wasn’t aware of the gravity of the situation, but after I moved here, it settled in.”
The stories coming from Syria illustrated how bad things had become. A neighbor who had been helping protesters was kidnapped by the government. Two months later, his dead body was discarded on the doorstep of his family home.
Over the past seven years, many of Almidani’s friends and family members have fled to countries welcoming refugees like Germany, Switzerland and Turkey. Distant relatives who have stayed live a nomadic existence, moving from city to city as each is bombed. Some have lost limbs from “barrel bombs” of TNT dropped from helicopters.
“A lot of people — their entire life has gone to scratch,” Almidani said. “It’s such a shame to see all these talented people leaving.”
Through her father’s citizenship, Almidani has been able to stay in the United States and study at UConn-Stamford. She spent three semesters at the Storrs campus, but returned to Stamford for her final semester for the psychology classes offered there.
On May 6, Almidani will graduate with dual degrees in biology and psychology. In the fall, she will attend Yale to study for a master’s degree in public health. She hopes to become a doctor and work for groups like Doctors Without Borders, something she was inspired to do after seeing the way physicians in Syria responded to the war. Doctors were banned from helping people injured by government attacks, so many began operating in basements to save the lives of war victims.
“They risked their lives to save people,” Almidani said. “I see it as a way I could give back not just to Syria, but to my community here.”
Almidani hasn’t returned to Syria since she left and likely can’t go back soon. After publicly participating in protests against the government outside the New York consulate and in Washington, D.C., returning would be too risky.
But in the past six years, she said the U.S. has felt more like home despite the increasing negative sentiments against refugees since Donald Trump became president. While Almidani isn’t here on refugee status and personally hasn’t experienced xenophobia, people will say negative things about Syrians around her, not realizing her background.
“I could’ve been someone in a refugee camp,” she said. “It’s out of fear and ignorance. I feel like I have this duty to dispel that (fear) ... but at the same time, you can use your own resources.”
Almidani’s goal is to someday return to her homeland and be part of its rebuilding efforts. She hopes to see people develop more compassion around Syrians and the situation the country is in.
“I just hope the war ends,” she said. “I hope Syrians take back their country. Syria is such a nice place. I hope one day people reclaim Syria and turn it into what it can be. ... We have more in common (with the rest of the world) than people think. People like to focus on the differences, but Syrians just want a better life for themselves. It’s hard to have the history of you erased and starting over again. No one wants that.”
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