Home from Syria: Watching and fearing the end is not going to work out
WILLMAR — Their connection to friends in Syria is becoming more tenuous by the day, but they know this much: Their friends live in Syria’s second largest city of Aleppo, and have no more than two hours of electricity each day.
They tell them there’s no bread in the city. Fuel for heating and cooking is in short supply.
Their friends don’t dare talk about the fighting between the Free Syria rebel groups and the government of Bashar al-Assad that is the cause of it all.
Teachers Barb and Dan Leritz of Willmar can only watch the news and suffer the pain of knowing.
“These aren’t people in another country. These are people we knew. These are people who are genuinely … ’’ said Barb, her thought finished by her husband, “very friendly, very hospitable.’’
“These are the same people who said I was their sister. And their world is being shattered,’’ Barb added.
Barb is an English Language Learner instructor with Willmar Public Schools. Dan is a social studies teacher with Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg Public Schools.
In August 2011 they landed in Aleppo with their two young children — now ages 5 and 2 — ready to begin a two-year assignment as teachers in a school operated by the International Center for Agriculture Research in Dry Areas. Their students were mainly the children of Syrians who could afford the school’s tuition, as well as those of the scientists working with the United Nations-sponsored research facility.
The new teachers were advised not to draw attention to themselves by taking photos. They were provided a school car and free rein within the city of nearly 3 million, but told not to drive outside of it.
They got used to the presence of armed men in plain clothes at checkpoints around the city.
The school was so supportive you could not fail, Dan said. They lived in a comfortable apartment, had the services of a nanny and could venture to the Souk al-Madina, a world heritage site. There, they could barter with vendors in hundreds of individual shops.
The city of Aleppo has been a pro-government stronghold. When the Leritzes first arrived in Aleppo, news of the civil strife in Syria came only from places elsewhere. “Truly, the only thing we were afraid of there was the traffic,’’ Barb said.
Until a Friday morning in mid-February, when the quiet of a day of rest and prayer was shattered by a car bomb explosion just six or seven blocks from their apartment.
At midnight of the following day they were in a caravan on the way to the airport. This time, the men carrying assault rifles at checkpoints in the city were pointing their weapons at them. “I’m sheltering my little guy like this,’’ said Barb, holding her arms like an ‘X.’ “But what good are my arms going to do.’’
They left the country, but Dan returned to teach a few more weeks before the school closed early due to the civil strife.
“The town had a feeling like you find out a relative has a terminal disease and has six months to live,’’ said Dan of his return. “It was no longer vibrant. It was no longer this fun place to be. It was under the shroud, the shadow of military occupation. You don’t know what is going to happen.’’
One vendor had pleaded with him to leave for his safety. “Go home. No good. Syria no good. Please, please, go,’’ Dan said he was told.
U.N.-imposed sanctions had begun in November 2011, three months after they first arrived. That’s when the American teachers first began to experience the changes coming. Fuel shortages and rolling power outages became part of life.
Still, there was no fear. They responded to expressions of concern from family in America watching news of Syria’s strife with the message: “It’s not our reality. It may be happening in another part of the county, but it was just not happening in Aleppo,’’ Barb said.
The car bomb in February rocked the city to awareness, and the unraveling of Syrian society suddenly became as obvious as it was painful to see.
People in Aleppo are falling victim to desperate conditions, Dan said. In the weeks before he left, a couple of students in the school escaped kidnapping attempts. Someone broke into the home of another student and demanded money from the mother.
The nanny that had watched their children now wanted their personal belongings.
The Leritzes left many belongings behind in their hurried departure.
Since they are the parents of two young children, the director of the school bluntly told them not to return.
They took this as a sign and when they returned to Minnesota, the jobs from which they had taken leaves of absence for two years were still open. They returned to them one year early.
They harbor no illusions of returning to Syria any time soon. Since they left, rebel fighters have overtaken the U.N. research station where the scientist-parents of the school’s students had worked. It is located about 10 miles outside of Aleppo.
The Souk al-Madina has been torched, and other sites in the city, sacred and otherwise, have also become targets of war. The Syrian Army has taken up defensive positions in the parts of the city they knew best.
Aleppo is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world.
The Leritzes said they think often of a news video they saw recently showing the people of Aleppo continuing to shop in the burned remains of the shops in the souk.
“There is an admirable stubbornness to the people of Aleppo, where they will try to withstand, persevere almost everything even though the end is not going to work out,’’ Dan said.