As we struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to lapse into self-pity and to forget about other human tragedies, many of which have been made worse by the crisis. One of these is the fact that more than 13 million Syrians have been displaced because of civil war, nearly half of whom have left the country. Everyone knows the names Assad and Putin, Erdoğan and Trump. But the stories of everyday people killed or torn from their homes and setting off in search of a better life for themselves and their children are largely unknown.
To be honest, sitting in my comfy house in Chicago, streaming The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it is hard to relate. After all, I’m a privileged, white, rich American, which is about as good as it gets, even in times like these.
And yet the only reason I am here living this life is because of a Syrian woman who set out against all odds 100 years ago in circumstances not unlike those facing Syrian refugees today. Her name was Warde Abi-Habib Salameh, and she was my great-grandmother. In 1919, she was 33, living in Roumieh, a small village in the mountains east of Beirut in what is now Lebanon. The Salamehs were Maronites, a sect of Christians that were tolerated by their Ottoman masters in Constantinople. But then, as now, war and a global pandemic changed everything.
The Ottoman Empire, dubbed the “sick man of Europe,” was already in decline before the “great powers”—England, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary—brought their war to Syria. World War I ended the centuries of Ottoman rule, and, in turn, brought incalculable suffering to innocents. In the three years before Warde left for America, half the population in what is now Lebanon—some 200,000 people—starved to death. The Spanish flu of 1918-20 killed countless more. The horrors of surviving those times reverberated through the hollers of West Virginia, some six decades later. I remember sitting on the laps of old women speaking Arabic and drinking arak, listening to them wail in remembrance of the lost.
Perhaps one of the victims of the Great Famine or the Spanish flu was my great-grandfather. Or perhaps he was killed by a Russian bullet. Or maybe he died from a heart attack in an olive orchard. I’ve heard all these possibilities. But, whatever the cause, he left Warde alone with three young children: Camille (15), Emil (9), and Jacob (6). (Her oldest daughter, Amalia, was married and stayed behind.) They must have been without hope. The Armistice of Mudros that ended the war in the Middle East changed nothing for them. It didn’t bring them food or work or opportunity. Syria was in limbo. (The San Remo Resolution of 1920, which gave the French control over Syria, was in the future.) As the great powers jockeyed for position and power, Roumieh was not high on anyone’s list of priorities.