‘Like cutting off a piece of your body’: a refugee reflects on fleeing Syria for Milwaukee
For a while, I knew I wanted to share a story about the refugee community here in Milwaukee. In July, I attended an event organized by Tables Across Borders, a global food collaboration highlighting the cuisines of refugee chefs in Milwaukee. The intended audio story was meant to center around community and food — until I met Tahani.
A Syrian refugee and mother, Tahani spoke to me over WhatsApp and, after a few exchanges, agreed to an interview. All of our interactions were in Arabic, so for the final audio product, I translated and transcribed our conversation, turning it into a monologue voiced by me.
However, this is not a fabricated story. This is Tahani’s story.
You can get a feel for our conversation in the following transcribed portions. Then listen to the full story below, which also features a conversation with Ali Aleiou, a Syrian American who shared his personal experiences and perspective.
Please be advised that this episode of “Uniquely Milwaukee” contains content involving war themes, dead bodies and military violence.
Tahani, how would you introduce yourself?
My name is Tahani, and I am from Syria, specifically the Daraa district. I am now living here in Milwaukee due to the circumstances in Syria, which is the war. I left Syria in the first month of 2013. My family and I first went to Jordan.
Where did you go in Jordan?
I was in a refugee camp, Za'atari, based in the desert. They were taking in the Syrian families in tents and then — if you stayed long enough — in caravans, and now I am living here in America because the United States of America called upon the families to bring asylum seekers to America. And I was one of the families chosen.
For the people that don’t know much about Syria and the war, how would you describe it?
The war in Syria was very scary and terrifying — not only for the parents, but for the kids. No peace comes with war. In general, I want everyone to experience peace, for kids to live in peace. Our kids are the future generation. I want a bright future for them and for them to evolve into a better generation.
What was life like before the war?
We had a simple life. My husband was a laborer. I am a mother to seven children. It was a simple life, but we were happy, Alhamdulillah (“Praise be to God”).
Did you escape Syria with your children?
Who else came with you?
Just myself, my husband and kids.
How old were your kids when you left Syria?
My eldest is now 22 years old, and when we left Syria he was 12 years old.
Did you leave anyone behind back in Syria?
Of course. I left my parents and my siblings. Eventually, my mother and a few of my siblings came to the refugee camp in Jordan. But our entire family is broken and displaced. We have family in Syria and Jordan. Some have died, and I am here.
How did it feel to leave your family behind?
It was very difficult. It’s like cutting off a piece of your body and abandoning it. One of these days, you’re going to need that body part, and it’s no longer with you. You need family. There’s a lot of distance between us. My mom is currently sick, and I long to be near her.
Why did you ultimately decide to leave?
Daraa was getting dangerous, where there was no peace and safety. When we were sleeping, they would attack at night. As a mom, I can’t see my kids suffer. I found the only solution is to leave Syria. The nation I loved no longer had security. That was the reason: to give our kids safety, so I wouldn’t bury any one of my children.
What do you remember of the night you escaped Syria?
It was a chilling night. My youngest was a toddler at the time. I remember one of the volunteers that helped us escape told me that if my baby cried, then I would have to put rocks in its mouth so that the noise from the crying wouldn’t reveal our location.
What did you bring with you?
I brought a bit of food — labneh and olive oil — some clothes and our house key.
Did you bring with you any photos?
That’s a good question. When we left Syria, we said we would leave for four months and return when the war ended. It’s been 10 years.
You first arrived in Milwaukee in 2016. What was that like?
I found it hard to transition. The moment you open the door, you’re in another world. It’s a country that has a different language, culture and lifestyle different than my own. The hardest part was communicating. Because of the language barrier, I felt that even though I was talking, I was forced to be silent and mute.
Where did you first go in Milwaukee?
The organizers placed us on the North Side. The apartment was pretty run down. The house was filled with insects, so that was a difficult thing to go through. At the time, I wished I would go back to the plane and go back. It felt impossible, and I felt alone. My children were all young. My eldest was 15 years old at the time, and school was difficult. Their education was interrupted, not only because of the war, but because of the discrimination we faced in Jordan as refugees. Within a year, they began to understand the language, and things started to get easier. We started to know the neighborhood, and the people were kind. We also saw other Arabs here, and the first time I heard “ assalamu alaikum,” I was filled with joy. Life started to bloom again. It means that they found safety and community here, which means I would find safety and community here.
What is the greatest joy for you and your family?
That we are safe. That every day, when we leave in the morning, we reunite together under one roof. You put your head on the pillow, and you sleep safely.
What do you wish for your family?
I wish that they respect this country that saved them from war. I want them to focus on their education so they are not a burden to this city. It welcomed them. The Syrian community suffered; Syria didn’t protect its people. Syrians found safety by leaving.