By Roshi Barbara Wegmüller, Spiegel Sangha, Bern, Switzerland
A cold wind was fluttering the rainbow flags inscribed with “Peace- Pace”, carried by the protesters that had gathered to raise their voices for peace, only few days before the second war in Lebanon in 2006 was about to start.
Sami Awad, a peacemaker activist from Bethlehem was a guest at our home in Bern, Switzerland. I was waiting for Sami who was giving an interview to a local radio station just before he was about to address the protestors. Next to me some young children were playing and made me laugh and talk to them. By that I got into a conversation with the mother of one of the young children. In a few French words she explained that she was a Syrian Palestinian who just got accepted Asylum in Switzerland. In an impulse I gave her my business card with my address by saying: “If you learn German we could communicate in German, that would be great.” After that I lost her and the children in the crowd of protestors that started to move on. Ten months later I got a call and a friendly but unknown voice at the other end of the receiver said: “Hi this is Rabia, I have learnt German and would like to talk to you.”
I immediately realized who this was. It was a beginning of a friendship that grew over the years in which the confidence and trust in each other deepened. I am still astonished about the unyielding courage and humour of my friend who had to flee from Syria together with her husband and her two young children because the regime did not like what her journalist husband was writing.
When the war in Syria started Rabia and her family were living in Bern, Switzerland but all the other members of the family were still living in Damascus, Syria. One by one the family members had to flee their homes in Yarmuk, the now hard-fought Palestinian refugee camp at the suburb of Damascus. Since Switzerland allows Syrian refugees to come to Switzerland if they have relatives already living here Rabia’s family members ended up in Switzerland. Living in various asylum centres in Switzerland the family had no possibility to meet all together.
As soon as they could leave the center we invited the whole family to our house for a couple of days. We all took our time and space to settle and adapt to each other’s presence. After a few days grandfather Abdul Aziz started to share his life story. In 1948 his parents and young Abdul Aziz fled the region of Beer Sheva in nowadays Israel to Gaza due to the starting conflict. In Gaza the family lived in a UNRWA refugee camp, built a house and later had to flee again due to new fighting. By boat the family fled Gaza and ended up as refugees in Iraq. On this journey his mother passed away. Now an adult, he married Sara and for the young couple the odyssey went on from one country to another. Most of their five children where born in different countries. From Iraq to Syria, Saudi Arabia, where Rabia was born and finally after a short time in Lebanon the family settled in Syria.
Abdul Aziz worked as a teacher to sustain his family but repeatedly had to uproot because Palestinians families were not be welcomed there. Abdul Aziz spoke of these repeated turmoils in a calm and warm voice that touched me deeply. Sara his wife who sat next to him sometimes dried her tears listening to him. There was no accusation in his voice but only deep understanding for humanity and acceptance for the changes of life.
Abdul Aziz youngest son Yaser, a forty-year-old dentist, was the last member of the family to reach Switzerland in March 2014. His wife and young daughter I had gotten to know some month earlier and we all waited and prayed for him to escape Yarmuk unharmed and safely. When he arrived in Switzerland we all knew that he was sick, famished and at the end of his rope. For two years he held on in Yarmuk to treat wounded and injured people and only left when he couldn’t any more. During the four months before Yaser left Yarmuk there was almost no food, he lost forty kilos off his weight and lived of water and weed.
On the last evening as our guest in our house Yaser started to share his haunting experiences in fluent English. He talked about worse conditions, about torture, hunger and unspeakable hardship. Yaser says what saved his life was the thought about the movie “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg it gave him hope that some people could survive hunger and misery.
It made me shiver to listen to this Palestinian Muslim that survived the war in Syria because he was thinking about the people in “Schindler’s List”.
Since that evening Yaser shared his experiences he made during the war with his family. It helps him to cope with his trauma. He is bearing witness of the sad realities humans had and have to live in. The Peacemakers Switzerland supports the family in practical and financial matters. Until today of the vast kin of Rabias and her husbands family thirteen families with 3-6 family members escaped the war in Syria. They are between 1 and 77 years old and nowadays five families live in Switzerland, the rest is scattered over Germany, Norway and Sweden.
Barbara Salaam Wegmüller has studied with Roshi Bernie Glassman since 1999 and received Dharma Transmission in 2011. She is a Spirit Holder at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness retreat and co-leads Spiegel Sangha in Bern Switzerland with her husband, Sensei Roland Wegmüller. Barbara serves as a board member of Zen Peacemakers International.