An hour in Syria

Mckenzie Jean-Philippe

Editor’s note: This piece is a first-person account of our reporter’s experience at the “Crisis in Syria Simulation” event Tuesday. For more complete event coverage, refer to Francesca Demming’s piece here. 

At 7 p.m. on Tuesday night, I became Walid.

I’m now a 17-year-old student from Syria who works as a barista to make extra money. I have a twin brother named Samir and two younger sisters named Lilith and Sabeen. My mother, Tira, is a homemaker who loves yoga and my father Karam is a cotton farmer.

I participated in KSU UNICEF’s “Crisis in Syria Simulation” event Tuesday, allowing me a chance to experience what my life might be like if I lived in Syria.

For the next hour, our family will experience five days living in war-torn Syria. To start, we each have a bag of small cotton balls: five red to represent health and two green to represent food.

By the end of the first day, the family’s house next to us has been destroyed by a bomb. They’ve lost half of their food supply and one person has fractured their wrist. The rest of the families can decide whether or not to take them in. Mine is the one who welcomes them in. We’re now a family of 10.

The next day it’s decided that we need more food. With an extra five mouths to feed, it seems like the logical next step. Samir flips a coin three times; if the odds are in his favor he can safely go to the grocery story and get enough supplies for us to each add two green cotton balls to our supply. After the third flip it seems that luck is on our side — for now.

The third day is marked with extreme heat. No one wants to go outside, the electricity is out and food is spoiling in surrounding markets because power isn’t running to refrigerators and freezers. By the next day, a pool is formed and the people of Syria let their guard down for a moment, wading and playing in the cool water after a day of excruciating heat. However, that happiness is fleeting because planes marked with the symbols of Syria have dropped gas onto the people.

I’m the first person in my family to be affected by the gas, and a quick toss of a penny tells me that I’m not able to leave my home for the hospital. Without treatment, two of my red cotton balls are taken away. Rasha, a 16-year-old from the other family, has the same fate. We’re both worse off than we were on day one.

By the last day, one family member has made a safe trip to the grocery store to provide two more green cotton balls to us. Three others have safely made it to the mosque and back in honor of a holiday. However, the fifth day is no ordinary day: It’s when we get to decide if the 10 of us should flee Syria to seek refuge in Germany. We take the chance.

By the end of the journey — and after numerous coin tosses — I’m one of three that have survived the dangerous trip to Europe. As we made stops at the Mediterranean Sea and in Greece, we slowly began losing more family members. I was one of the lucky ones.

When the hour was over I was McKenzie again. McKenzie Jean-Philippe from Maryland, with a younger sister named Baleigh, a mom and dad — Alicia and Ronald — who can rest easy. I’ve never seen war first-hand. I’ve never even been anywhere further than Jamaica for a cruise.

Similar to my character Walid, I am one of the lucky ones. I say similar because people like Walid — even if they make it to refuge — still suffer. They still have terrible memories, they can never go back home and they’ve lost family members forever.

My hour as Walid cannot even begin to compare to reality. I was in a conference room in the Student Center, and the items that represented my health and nourishment were objects used for crafts projects. A penny decided my fate instead of an unpredictable government. I was surrounded by people who, like me, wanted to learn but knew in a matter of minutes their lives wouldn’t even resemble the one that had just been given to them on a slip of paper.

What the experience gave me was a sense of understanding. Those people thousands of miles away in Syria are hurting. Their lives are unpredictable. They go through more than we can even know, more than we can capture in an article.

I can guarantee there is a Walid out there today. I want him to know that I was him for an hour, and that was more than enough to know that he is stronger than I can ever imagine being.

Here’s to Walid.

McKenzie Jean-Philippe is the diversity editor, contact her at [email protected]