The small Middle Eastern country of Lebanon boasts breathtaking scenery, cedar forests up in the mountains, and beautiful ski resorts and beaches. It was also home to one of the world's ugliest civil wars, and remains surrounded by sporadic and violent conflicts today.
At age nine, Hilda's family was forced to flee the conflict in Lebanon and go to Aleppo, Syria to live as refugees. As a child, she witnessed crossfire, torture, and murder in a nation torn apart by violent conflict. Just this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov to work toward hosting an international peace conference to address Syria's continuously worsening conflict.
For Hilda, this conflict was a reality. Currently, she is a resident of Chicago, but she is still in touch with relatives living in Syria. Here is her story.
On Sunday, April 13, 1975, the civil war erupted in Lebanon between the Christians and PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization). On Monday, we woke up to sounds of faraway explosions and machine gun shots. At the time my sister went to a different school than the rest of my siblings, located in West Beirut, and she used to catch an early bus, much earlier than my two brothers and me. I was almost eight at the time.
That day, her bus didn't show up. She told us there were army troops in the streets, and something strange was going on. However, our bus did come, and we went to school. My parents didn't think there was anything dangerous. They thought, like most people, that the army was able to contain it, as they had been for the previous several months. However, just as we got close to our school, machine guns opened fire on us—a school bus full of children. The bus driver screamed and told us to duck down. Of course, we did.
When we came back home, my dad said not to worry, that the conflict would last a few days and soon the government and the army would handle the situation, returning things to normal.
It lasted 15 years.
I have a long list of friends and relatives who were killed, kidnapped, and tortured, and some were never even found. Children are not supposed to witness bodies dragged savagely behind cars, but that was the norm. In a country of only 3 million people, the war took 250,000 lives. One million were severely injured. Thousands were kidnapped and never found, and hundreds of thousands were displaced and forced to live in grave conditions.
Shortly after the war erupted, our attitudes changed from fear and anticipation to a survival mode. Our school year was interrupted, and our hobbies became collecting empty bullets from the streets after each round of fighting. Some we found on our own balcony.
We had no electricity for months at a time. Water, bread, and life essentials were scarce most of the time. My brothers and I used to get up at 5 a.m. to carry our empty buckets and stand in a long line near a small faucet that somebody installed on one of the main water lines in the street. We just wanted to get some water for the bathroom and daily usage, hoping and praying the bombing wouldn't start until we got home.
A lot of times we would be at school, work, or somewhere when all of sudden a fight would break out. Sometimes we stayed days in a row in basements of buildings waiting for the firing to stop. We always carried our essential toiletries with us. Amazingly, the next day we would always go back to school or work. Walls would be fixed, and windows repaired.
We had fun. We laughed. We had Christmas and Easter. People got married and had kids. Despite the war and the daily shelling, bombing, and death, we maintained, to some extent, a normal life. I was able to finish school and get a college degree and a good job.
'Fish out of water'
The first time I came to the USA was in 1996 on a training mission through my work. It was my first time out of Lebanon. I was a fish out of water! It made me uncomfortable to be surrounded by people who had never experienced war. There was a huge gap between my life experiences and theirs. I loved my job and my country, and I wanted to go back to Lebanon as soon as my training was finished. After my first visit, I started visiting the U.S. sometimes twice a year, either on vacation to see my family (some of whom had gradually moved) or on work-related trips. Each time I couldn't wait to return to Lebanon.
In 2003, I was engaged to an Egyptian Christian man who was living in Virginia, and he wanted me to make a decision. After a lot of prayer and planning, I left everything and came to the States to join him.
Unfortunately, we broke up a few weeks after my arrival. I was stuck. I had given up my beloved job. My office back in Lebanon said that at present they didn't have any vacancies. I wanted to go back regardless, but God had totally different plans.
After few weeks, I met Dave. He was smart and fun to be with. I loved his honesty and integrity, and most importantly, we both valued our faith in God. We got married in 2005 and moved to Illinois. I found another good job, and shortly after our wedding, we found out we were expecting. Life couldn't get any better.
Mind under fire
However, something had been simmering inside of me. The first of these strange feelings emerged when my husband told me about the assassination of Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon. I felt like the air had been taken out of the room.
Though I tried to put my feelings behind me, it was a daily struggle. Dreams of Beirut and the details of the war started to come, details I thought I had forgotten. It seemed the war had a new grip on my emotions, and it became obvious at the most unexpected times.
I would cry during conversations about my past, and gradually, I began to have dreams that turned into nightmares and woke me up. I kept up my usual bubbly, extroverted personality, but the turmoil inside me controlled my thoughts.
In June 2006, during my 25th week of pregnancy, I woke up to a news flash on CNN. Hezbollah was in full blown war with Israel. Roads were blocked, and the city that was once my home was a chaotic war zone yet again. My parents were there, only few miles away from the center of the conflict.
CNN was broadcasting live non-stop from Beirut all day. I was glued to the TV. By noon, I had a complete meltdown.
For the next month, my sister and I spent our nights calling Beirut and trying to get my parents out of Lebanon. At last, my parents were able to leave. They took a 12-hour car ride to Syria-Aleppo, where we have a lot of relatives. Then they flew from Damascus to London, and on to the U. S.
This is my story. I realize it is not everyone's, and God has gradually showed me that each person has his or her own wars. I have made a conscious decision to thank God daily for his blessings in my life, and I choose to stay focused on the future. Though I still struggle, I feel remarkably blessed by my family and life in the U. S.
Still, when I hear news about the conflict in Lebanon (or especially with the recent conflict in Syria, where I also have roots), I am often overcome by grief. I am hit by a tsunami of painful feelings. I am back to sleepless nights. Day and night, I surrender this battle to the Lord, and offer prayers for those suffering back home. My nightmares may still come, but they are only dreams. When I open my eyes, I have a beautiful reality: a wonderful family, good friends, and faith community.