As a Syrian-Armenian with family from Aleppo, I have been acutely aware of devastating loss becoming the reality of a people. My great grandparents survived, or didn’t, the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Those that did, slowly rebuilt lives in Aleppo as refugees where their progeny lived for the last century. Since 2002, I have been committed to speaking the truths of that largely untold/denied story in a project called Three Apples fell from Heaven.
In 2012 the current Syrian War once again brought catastrophic change to the landscape of my family’s life. Since then, I have witnessed my aunts, uncles and cousins flee Aleppo as refugees. My grandmother refused to leave. She passed in Aleppo. The convergence of tragedy from a century ago and the one today has been too stark to ignore.
Through my journey with Three Apples fell from Heaven as a storyteller, coming from a lineage of storytellers (my great-great grandfather was a Hakawati , a shadow puppeteer in the Ottoman Empire pre-Genocide), I have personally experienced the power of storytelling to help heal fragmentation. Because storytelling, the unique activity of homo sapiens, enables us to navigate the otherwise seeming darkness that life throws us. It affords us the potential to alchemize it towards light.
Early May of 2016 I was in Berlin for work on Three Apples when I met some artists from the Syrian refugee community newly settled there. We spent an emotional evening in a dilapidated rehearsal space in Kreuzberg: laughing, crying, playing and singing traditional Syrian music together. We created Syria in a corner of Berlin.Then, before heading to NYC to give a speech at a UN event around Three Apples, Trauma and Storytelling, I found myself on a 10 day silent retreat in the woods of Finland with a Burmese monk.
Two and a half years into a painful separation from my husband and a complete deconstruction of my life as I knew it, it was the first time I became deeply still. I found refuge, a safety from the emotional exhaustion of my daily reality. In the midst of this radical self recalibration, the idea for Hakawati arrived softly, sweetly knocking at the doorstep of my soul.
The word refugee often has negative connotations associated with it. Sometimes, as we use the word, there is a subtle condescension in us: a separation we place in the atmosphere of “us” and “them.” They are people to be pitied. We are not like them, thank god, and we should help them.
The reality is, at any moment in this unpredictable universe, circumstances could befall any of us that would plunge us into the same unimaginable position: life as we knew it interrupted, home as we knew it lost, the scaffolding and structure of the world as we knew it dismantled, thus forcing us to meet our new reality in the moment as it exists.
I’ve come to understand the paradox and beauty of life is that in these abysmal moments there can be opportunities for radical healing. In our descent into darkness, we can begin to touch deeper sources of our light. Through presence and compassion, for ourselves and our interconnected human family, we come to recognize the great work of being human: to hold the paradox that expands our hearts. We learn we do that work as much for ourselves as for our brothers and sisters.
I take refuge in how the great Indian sage the Ramana Maharishi responded when asked, “How do we treat the other?”
He simply replied, “There is no other.”