Refugee relives flight to NYC
- Last Updated: 9:17 AM, June 10, 2012
- Posted: 12:48 AM, June 10, 2012
She survived when bullets were fired into her bedroom as she slept, and she stepped on the gas when Syrian troops shot at her car. She escaped street protests as soldiers gunned down her friends.
But Alma knew it was time to flee Syria when she was trapped for 27 days in a friend’s house in the rebellious city of Homs, unsure if she’d survive, as bombs exploded all around her.
“I was just hoping I wouldn’t die in this place,” said Alma, 36, a pharmacist. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to die under the rubble.’ I wanted to go out, to help people, to do something else.”
Now safe in New York with friends, Alma — who didn’t want to give her full name because she’d someday like to return to her homeland — told The Post why she left behind her parents, friends and Homs, her beloved hometown.
Syria is on the brink of civil war as President Bashar al-Assad lashes back ever more violently at opponents of his regime, massacring and mutilating civilians and relentlessly shelling rebel cities.
Activists estimate that more than 13,500 people have died since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. Homs has been one of the biggest targets of his forces.
“It’s not safe anywhere in Homs, even if you’re inside your home,” Alma said.
One day in February, Alma was visiting a friend for lunch when the barrage began. Shelling from army tanks trapped her in the house for a month without electricity or a telephone.
When it was over, Syrian soldiers said she couldn’t return to the home in another Homs neighborhood where she lived with her elderly parents.
But the soldiers eventually let her visit the house long enough to grab some money and her passport.
Left with nowhere to go, Alma headed to New York.
She and her friend zig-zagged through side streets as they fled Homs.
“We didn’t know what streets we should take to leave Homs,” she said. “Military checkpoints were everywhere.”
When she finally reached the border crossing to Jordan, Syrian guards weren’t letting people through. But one soldier spotted her tennis racket and asked if she was from a Syrian team.
Even then, the soldier spewed his hatred for her, barking, “I hate people from Homs.”
It took all her strength not to lash out. Alma has lost 15 friends since the revolt began. Some bled to death in front of her because there were no medical supplies.
“I want to challenge them. I want to fight them till the end,” Alma said of the Syrian regime.
As the country disintegrates, the New York area’s Syrian community has united to demand help from the international community.
On Friday, Alma reunited with longtime friends Sami, 66, and Sara, 53, in Washington Heights.
The couple arrived in New York in November to visit their son. As the violence back home escalated, they knew they could not go back.
“Life has stopped,” said Sami, an engineer. “Nobody goes to work. There’s no school, no banks. We have nothing.”
Sami and Sara say their home is unscathed. But the Syrian army ransacked their daughter’s house and obliterated her husband’s pharmacy. Their daughter and son-in-law will soon join them in Manhattan.
Sara said news from family still in Syria grows worse each day.
“What is killing us is the arrested people, because we never know what happens to them,” she said. “We see dead bodies in the street, with all the signs of torture on their bodies.”
The military arrested a friend’s son after finding a microphone in his car and assuming he was an opposition fighter. Sara said his body — tortured nearly beyond recognition — was dumped at his mother’s door three days later.
There’s a constant threat of snipers and secret field hospitals set up in people’s homes, are being bombed by the regime.
Most Syrians are pleading for the US government to intervene, Sara said.
In the beginning, before the streets turned deadly, she would protest with opposition activists.
“For the first time, I had my dignity,” Sara said. “We want our freedom, just like the American people have. We’re not asking for anything more.”