Personal Reflection of a Syrian Immigrant | Mathew Whitwell

This semester, I sat down with Emory first-year, Farah Al-Chammas, who spent this past summer transcribing the journal she’s kept since seventh grade. In that embarrassed way everyone seems to comment on their former selves, she said, “Just reading through some of what I wrote… wow.”

Farah decided to transcribe her journal in order to document and share her story. She and most of her family immigrated to the United States from Damascus, Syria in mid 2013 in escape from the violence of the civil war. They settled in Longview, Texas, where Farah attended high school before graduating and coming to Emory. She clarifies to me that she sometimes feels uneasy thinking of herself as a refugee; the connotation seems too monolithic. “Others have been through much worse, and it doesn’t feel right to use that word. I think that, even though I am, the classic idea doesn’t always fit me.”

What seemed to interest Farah the most was her own transformation during the last few years in America. She explained to me that many political and social views of hers that have shifted and developed since moving to the United States. Regarding some of her journal entries, she said:

“When I was going through them, I couldn’t believe some of [what I’d written], but I chose not to change anything, including the grammatical mistakes. In the end, that’s what I said, that’s where I was. Part of the reason I’d like to have this published is to show just how much someone changes. And I still bring my journal everywhere… I just have a personal connection to it. It’s my self.”

Farah told me that by being able to so plainly compare herself, past and present, with her circumstances, she understood that everyone has their own, valuable perspective that is shaped by their upbringing and surroundings.  “I think that we can’t really blame people for their biases,” she told me.

The writings below include first, several of her journal entries, as noted by their dates and locations, and second, a section of an article titled “Heart Made in Syria, Brain Made in America” she wrote and published on the online publication The Tab a few months ago. She has written a few other articles for the same publication that may be found on their site.

Farah is a kind and open person who I had the pleasure of being able to interview. She is heavily involved on campus and works, among other positions, as an executive board member of Emory’s Arab Cultural Association and Emory Medlife, a writer and photographer for The New Americans Project, a freshman legislator for SGA, and a member of the freshman advisory board with Dean Nair.


April 4th, 2013                                                                                                 Damascus, Syria

I still have exactly two months here in my Syria. It kills me when I think about how I’m gonna miss my life, but everything happens for a reason, so I hope there’s a good treasure behind this trip. I’ve never expected this to happen to me, never even thought about it. But who knows? Maybe it’s for the best… This year was full of the most unexpected events; it was full of surprises: both good and bad ones.

April 8th, 2013                                                                                                 Damascus, Syria

Sitting here on my bed in my kiwi, cozy bedroom with a pink pillow on my lap and pink pen in hand, writing and jamming to my favorite song: Rihanna’s Stay, is definitely something I’ll miss when I’m in the United States, where I’ll be starting my new life and creating my future. This is such a scary idea and everyone warns from its bad consequences; however, I’m simply relying on God in my journey, because I know that no one has his strength that it’s surprising how we tend to ignore that and still worry too much. I see that most of us, both children and adults, are pushing God out of our lives instead of relying more on him. This is more serious than we could ever imagine. I hope you, who is reading, will think about rearranging your priorities in the right way, seeking power and inspiration from the one and only right orientation… Obviously, you’ve noticed that my writing is slowly becoming deeper than usual, and I’m getting the desire to express more, because it’s a great relief for my unstable emotions and because this is how I’m making myself, discovering every little treasure in myself and growing up!

April 10th, 2013                                                                                               Damascus, Syria

I’ve never been this nervous and scared in my entire life. I want to go follow my dreams and make them all come true but it’s way much harder than I thought, getting scarier day after day. The only thing that I can do right now is to be patient and have solid faith in GOD’s hands, which will always spread magic, peace and perhaps stability in my life. The hardest part in this journey is that I’m pretending to be happy and excited but the truth is… I’m scared to death.

Please GOD! Stay by my side.

I need a MIRACLE!!!

May 7th, 2013                                                                                                  Damascus, Syria

We started packing and it was seriously sad to see my closet, my drawers and my whole room being emptied of all the memories. It was tragic. Throughout all these painful emotional rushes, I’ve trying to appear happily strong and continue my last days at my home as normal as I can. This is why I’m still cooking to burn off time instead of tears.

May 24th, 2013                                                                                                Damascus, Syria

Exams have started and this week is going to be the busiest, the gloomiest and probably the most painful week ever. I only have 7 more days until I start the real new journey, so I’m good-buying everything in my current life in Syria, which I can’t take with me. Only my heart can keep all the feelings and hopes…

June 6th, 2013                                                                                                  Longview, Tx

The journey has officially started. I hope it’s worth all the sacrifices I’ve made. They keep telling me about how lucky I am to have this opportunity that people are killing for, but I still haven’t seen the lucky part… I’m pretty sure that this summer is gonna be life changing, but I want it to be for the best. This is going to take a lot of courage, a lot of work and a lot of time. I’m finally here but I’m still so confused and sad. They’re forcing me to choose between my heart and my mind, which I definitely cannot and do not even know how to do. I have two completely different, yet both important options and I’m supposed to make a decision that will be the new first step for a whole new life. I need prayers… lots of prayers… Just wish me luck and good choice! This needs wisdom. My wisdom teeth are not even out yet.

March 26th, 2015                                                                                                        Longview, Tx

Although I eat the same lunch every day at school, lunch was a little extra tastier today. I ate with Mrs. Childers in her classroom, which became a habit that I’ve enjoyed for the past 3 weeks after each English class period. She is wonderfully passionate about her job, humble, and open. Despite the difference in age, political views, life story, and career interests, 30 minutes still passes with each of us just starting her meal as we prioritize our conversations over our food. Today, we somehow ended up talking about the effect of distance on relationships, as we have both had experiences with long distance relationships, considering she fled New Orleans due to hurricane Katrina in 2005 just like I fled home. Because she listens, I don’t hesitate opening up to her about my sufferings. I confessed that my relationships with my close ones in Syria all faded with no exception. They all lost their spark because I lost interest. I did not lose interest because I now prefer my American life but because I was and am still trying to avoid the pain of missing people and places. When I told Mrs. Childers that I am afraid of feeling guilty if something happens to dad because I avoid talking to him, she asked why I did so and her question seemed like one of those US history questions that I would fail responding to. I truly did not have an answer but she found one for me. I know who I am and how I think. I over-analyze psychology in general and interpret human thoughts very deliberately. Yet, I could not find a reason why I’ve always hated skyping with dad but I now do. Avoiding him was avoiding the pain of missing him more when interacting again with him. Yes, I know that it is completely selfish but humans are naturally selfish and I did not intentionally force myself to feel this way. Though, what I find more interesting is that although I always find psychological backgrounds for different actions and behaviors, I could not interpret this avoidance until today. While I avoid him because missing him hurts, my brain has avoided this explanation because acknowledging it hurts even more. In case you’re wondering, writing this hurts too.

February 1st, 2016

They said “write about your hometown”. I remembered again that I had that life. Now which hometown should I write about? Which do I really claim? Well, does the one I claim even claim me anymore?

I dug deep to bring back the dark, old memories that I thought I was able to erase. I hated to re-live that sadness but it was the only way I could show people who their label “refugee” really describes.

Here’s what I said:

As a freshman, I am always typically asked where is home. My answer in the beginning of the year was Syria/Texas. However, I now consider Emory home. Emory is where an international student from Paris held my candle while I spoke about my experience during a candle light vigil that was held for world peace, a week after a Syrian terrorist was blamed for the Paris attacks. Emory is where I have already formed lifelong friends. Emory is where I accompanied a classmate to a Shabbat service and attended a Buddhist mediation after I finished my usual catholic mass in the Cannon chapel. Emory is where I was given an opportunity to research about refugees in Atlanta, Ga. Emory is where I am not afraid of my identity as a Syrian refugee in a state that is trying to vanish my existence within. Emory is where I brought the photos from the one out of nearly fifty photo albums that I was allowed to pack in my personal suitcase when I left Syria. Emory is where I keep my favorite memories and where my new ones are to be made. Emory is where I am living my version of Hannah Montana’s Best of Both Worlds, the Syriamerican style.

For fifteen years in Syria, my life was perfect.

During my two years in Texas, life stripped me of my view of perfection.

After four months at Emory, I learned how perfectly imperfect my life is.


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