“I have a lot of memories in Syria. I think my favorite [thing was] going to the old city in Damascus … where you can walk around by yourself yet never be alone, because there are so many people no matter what time you’re walking,” Mais Yacoub reminisces while sipping her coffee on the corner of a strip mall on a sunny afternoon in Mountain View. Yacoub, like millions of other Syrians living in the United States, has been watching her home country devolve into civil war from a distance, waiting for some form of hope as the life she once knew is reduced to rubble.
Yacoub, who left Syria for the United States in 2011 to pursue a pediatric residency, came alone, but her story is shared by millions of Syrians who have had to uproot their entire lives in search of safety. While the Syrian conflict continues to be analyzed in Western media, the perspective of regular Syrian people like Yacoub often goes overlooked.
“We just want the violence to be over with and want life to come back to what it used to be, although so many people didn’t like it,” Yacoub says. “Given the alternative, I think that’s what most of us want right now.”
Life before the war
Though Yacoub could easily pass for a California native at first glance, small details give her away as a recent immigrant. There’s her Syrian accent, for one, and the way she stumbles over phrases like “between a rock and a hard place.” When she speaks about her family’s life in Syria, she does not say “they” but “we.”
Yacoub grew up in a tiny village on the coast of Syria, where she attended a single school until she turned 18.
“Life in Syria was good,” Yacoub says, “at least until the war started. Growing up in the village, where everyone knew everyone, life was a lot simpler … [People] cared about each other a lot.”
After graduating from high school, Yacoub left her small village for medical school in Damascus. This transition from a small town to Syria’s bustling capital, she says, dramatically changed her worldview.
“[Medical] school was an eye-opener for me,” Yacoub says. “I started to … become friends with more people that are different from me, and open my eyes to how many different things were in Syria.”
Though she left Syria shortly before the civil war, Yacoub says that it was difficult to predict the scale of the conflict that would soon engulf the entire nation.
“What started as a peaceful demonstration [against the government] that included people from… all aspects of society … [grew to include] groups that were more religion-based, more extremist,” Yacoub says.
Syria to stateside
When Yacoub left for the U.S., she did not intend to be away for long.
“When I first came here,” Yacoub says, “my goal was … to do a pediatrics residency … and go back to Syria.” Yacoub was motivated by her career goals, not by fear of the growing unrest in her country, when she moved to the New York-New Jersey area to take her clinical skills test, a necessary step in becoming a doctor that was not available to her in Syria. After completing her residency in Arizona, she settled in Palo Alto.
With a laugh, Yacoub recalls the culture shock that greeted her upon her arrival in the United States. “Life here is a lot more complex [than it is in Syria],” Yaocub says. “You guys are more high-tech — I had to learn a lot to be able to manage here.”
Though tensions surrounding immigration from majority-Muslim countries have made Yacoub’s very presence in the United States a controversial political issue, she says that she has not experienced any discrimination due to her nationality.
“I think I owe that to working at Stanford, which has a zero tolerance policy,” Yacoub says.
But despite her overall positive experience, Yacoub has not been isolated from the growing hostility. President Trump’s executive orders suspending and then limiting immigration from Syria, in particular, have deeply affected her perception of the United States.
“I … had this dream of America being the place for people from all over the world,” Yacoub says. “I thought that I’m coming to a place where the majority of society will have a little bit more empathy toward refugees … no matter what your politics are, there is a humanitarian part in people that should never be affected.”
Half a world away
Though Yacoub has been spared the violence of the past several years, she is tied inseparably to the conflict: most of her family still lives in the small village she left behind. Because coastal Syria, where her family lives, has remained largely supportive of Bashar al-Assad’s government, she says, the region is not as dangerous as others.
“We are lucky,” Yacoub says. “What we’re experiencing in my area is just the economic backlash of the war … [None would] compare this to what has happened to a lot of people I know, where … they lost their family members, [or] were forced to leave the country.”
Still, fear and uncertainty pervade her family’s daily life. Yacoub stays in contact with her parents as much as she can, though long hours at Stanford hospital and a nine-hour time difference make communication difficult.
“They try not to tell me sad things,” Yacoub says. “It’s always scary, because my sisters work in Damascus, so there are the random bombings … it’s always worrisome.”
Still, despite the constant danger and turmoil in Syria, Yacoub says her family is unlikely to leave. Her parents do not speak English, and leaving their extended family for a foreign country seems a fate worse than anything that may await them in Syria.
“I know my father would always say, ‘I would never leave. I would rather die in my house than leave,’” Yacoub says.
An uncertain future
As the civil war in Syria drags on and the death toll mounts, Yacoub’s dream of returning to Syria with her medical degree seems farther and farther away.
“Right now … I am too scared to go back,” Yacoub says. “I was at the site of one bombing in Damascus … seeing all the chaos, just for one day, was the most frightening day of my life. So I [can’t] imagine having to go there and live that every day.”
When asked what she thinks lies ahead for her country, Yacoub hesitates. The conflict, she says, is unlikely to end anytime soon, and the sheer number of players on the ground makes Syria’s future yet more uncertain.
“People are not the same,” Yacoub says. “I don’t think people are going to be able to forget what [happened] and move on, just be friendly to each other again.”
Still, she holds out hope for her country to find peace and return to some semblance of normalcy. Above all, Yacoub wants to someday be able to recognize Syria as the welcoming and friendly place she once knew.
“I just want the country to be the same way it used to be,” Yacoub says, “where any person … was able to travel anywhere in Syria and not be asked, ‘What’s your name? What religion? Where do you come from?’ and be treated based on this information.” She recalls the apartment building where she lived in Damascus, and the way the residents there would cook meals for their neighbors and spend time together. This type of friendly interaction, she says, “doesn’t happen these days. People are scared; people are not talking to their neighbors anymore.”
Turning back to the United States, Yacoub urges her countrymen to have compassion for Syrian refugees.
“Nobody … would want to leave their country and come to a place where they will be treated as … fourth- or fifth-degree citizens,” Yacoub says.
“[Focus on] … not making it a regular thing to look at dead people every day and say … ‘It’s not my issue,’” Yacoub says. “It is really sad to see countries saying, ‘We’re not taking any more refugees.’ Where do you want these people to go?”