"Just when and how do people decide to flee so abruptly and suddenly, leaving everything behind?" asks Reem Alsalem in The Decision to Leave Syria (4/26/13). Reem begins by recalling how her father fled Palestine with his family during the first Arab–Israeli war in 1948:
They left in such a hurry that he did not have time to put on any shoes. Not quite able to grasp the complexity of the whole issue, I remember thinking to myself, But how was he able to run quickly enough without shoes?As a child, Reem often wondered what caused the moment of flight for her father. Now working with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, she has found that people at first try everything they can to stay:
Remaining is what thousands of Syrians say they have tried so hard to do, even if it has meant shuttling between cities and villages back and forth over several months, taking advantage of a lull in the fighting, or a promise of a roof and some food by a distant relative.Reem estimated in April that more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees had fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. (The number today is two million.) Reem says that most people flee their country only after they can no longer deny their desperate situation. She reports three "defining moments" which cause the refugees' flight: they see or hear of someone close to them who disappears or is killed, often brutally; they fear being kidnapped for a ransom; and/or there is an immediate threat to their lives.
The story of Mona, a computer teacher, illustrates two of these defining moments. First, the car in which she and other teachers were going to work was stopped by an armed group, and two of her colleagues were dragged away, never to be seen again. A few days later, Mona saw the driver of a car in front of her shot and killed by a sniper. Still, she and her husband and young son did not leave until her husband was threatened that he had to join an armed group or die. Trying to stay out of the conflict, the little family finally fled to another country. Mona can see no light at the end of the tunnel, and as Reem reports, that is a realization "more painful than all that she has experienced so far."
Reem concludes her article by referring again to her Palestinian father, who died in 1993 when Reem was sixteen.
To return home was perhaps the single greatest wish my father had. It became his life’s mission to realize that goal. Unfortunately he never made it back alive, though we did manage to at least bury him in his country. I hope that Mona and millions of other Syrian refugees will be more fortunate, and that their wait in exile will be shorter.