Student travels to Syria amid war

As many across the country — and the world — debate intervening in the crisis in Syria, one USF student saw the side effects of war first-hand.

Traveling to a refugee camp to help deliver humanitarian aid, Noor Shakfeh, a senior majoring in microbiology and economics, spent her spring break this year in Idlib, a small town in a northern Syria war zone.

In the most recent events of a civil war which has been escalating for years, U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking support for a series of targeted-missile strikes against Syria in retaliation of President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.

As the United Nations waits to confirm these allegations, reports estimate more than 2 million refugees are displaced in Syria.

Shakfeh said living in a refugee camp, like she did, was like living on the run.

“You would hear missiles and gun shots… Everyone had a gun,” Shakfeh said. “When you are there, you don’t realize it, but you are always ready to run.”

At all times, she said, one had to be prepared to leave at any moment.

This meant Shakfeh, along with her comrades from the humanitarian group Syrian American Council, always carried their passports and cell phones on them — while working, eating or even while sleeping.

While overseas, Shakfeh and her three-person team helped collect and deliver $37,000 worth of humanitarian aid including medical supplies, clothing and helped open a school, install a sewage system and open a kitchen in the refugee camp, which she said was only able to ration the equivalent of a hamburger roll to each person per day.

Living conditions in the refugee camp, besides the lack of air conditioning, electricity and running water, included extreme weather conditions which ranged from long hot days to freezing nights.

At night, Shakfeh said she slept in a sleeping bag which was supposed to keep her warm in even 30-degree weather, but said she was still freezing inside.

“At night, you would just wait for the day because it was so cold,” she said. “During the day, it was so hot you would just wait for night. You could never get comfortable.”

Shakfeh said the purpose of her trip was to make the refugee camp better, and every day she said she would listen to the stories of children and adults.

Remarkably, she said, a strong characteristic of the refugees was their hospitality.

Despite their severe lack of food and supplies, Shakfeh said the refugees

continuously offered whatever food was available to her and her group. To this day, she said she still feels guilty eating a bowl of cereal knowing what the refugees are going through.

“They were so concerned for our health,” she said. “They were so hospitable even though they left their own homes with just the clothes on their backs.”

After leaving Syria, Shakfeh said she didn’t realize the effects the environment had on her.

For weeks after, she would have nightmares about her friends having their legs blown off or being trapped in a building while bombs were falling around her.

She said she remembers two children she met.

Both lost their legs during the war, one to a bombing and the other after a house collapsed. She wishes to give these children prosthetic limbs.

“I still think about them every day,” she said.

Even after her trip abroad, Shakfeh said she hasn’t changed her position in the debate to intervene in Syria.

“My views have never changed: These people need their freedom,” she said. “The Syrian people want intervention.”

Born in America, with a direct Syrian heritage, Shakfeh said Syrians are a religiously, culturally and politically moderate people with an infrastructure and education system that has been destroyed by corruption and dictatorship over the past 40 years.

“I’m a Syrian, but I am also American and I don’t want the country to be involved in another war,” she said. “I am for limited intervention that will prevent (Assad’s) army from storing and using chemical weapons and not allowing his army to kill, torture, and murder citizens — no more, no less.”12