Two years ago today I started my yearlong quest for spiritual enlightenment, a sense of belonging and to find “the thread of humanity that binds us together.” I found it, it’s there. No question—we are more alike than we are different. People are wonderful, people are compassionate, people are good people.
I shared that first year with you earnestly, sometimes desperately and self-indulgently and always with a bit of slapstick comedy thrown in. This last year, I’ve stayed away, processing and observing and reeling. As promised, I moved to Istanbul. As expected, I kidnapped a kitten off the street and made it live with me. I write, I edit, I dabble in yoga and Turkish suffixes. I make new friends and try to hold on to the ones I left in New York. All in all I’m doing great— confident as I strut around Istanbul in my skinny jeans, last night’s sock bulging out around my calf. I haven’t changed much. I promise I’ll tell you all about it, but first I want to introduce you to someone really special and really hungry.
This is Farhan. He is my friend and like most of my friends in Istanbul he is Syrian. And like most Syrians, he had to leave his country. He is fantastic, also like most Syrians I’ve met in Istanbul. He is warm, sincere, creative and fluent in absolutely fake French. He makes movies; he gives the best hugs, and will make you laugh about one second after you meet him. He makes jokes about the time the Security Forces arrested him and his father, and that other time he was kidnapped and beaten by the opposition in a case of mistaken identity. “I can’t win!” If he’d had a chance to finish his studies, he would have been an archeologist by now.
This winter was really hard for him. The love of his life, also Syrian, also a shining example of a human, was given residency in France and had no choice but to leave him, for now. Their separation was unbearable to watch. He felt, “like I’m in a cage,” and at first, he rattled the bars, jumping from one impossible option, to another—“I’ll go by boat, I’ll go through Bulgaria, I’ll go back to Syria.” And then, he was defeated. For several months work and home were the only places he could be found. Dragging him out for tea or dinner was nearly impossible.
A few weeks ago something changed—Farhan became inspired. He’s traveling to Gaziantep to make a short film there, he’s reaching out to people, he’s asking for help and he’s on a hunger strike. That last detail is scary. He has now not eaten for two weeks. At the same time he is still going to work, still making jokes and still giving great hugs, though there’s noticeably less of him to embrace.
The reason for Farhan’s hunger strike is multilayered. The ambitious and immediate reason is to bring attention to and stop the seige in Syria , in areas like Daraya, Douma, East Harasta and Moadamiyah. Without access to medical supplies or food, the people in those areas are dying. If you follow the news, you know that today aid was set to be delivered to besieged areas, but without the support of Assad’s government the international community got scared off. The last time humanitarian aid got close enough to Daraya government Air Forces shelled the area where civilians had gathered in anticipation of the convoy.
Farhan knows that if the starvation of more than a million people won’t move the world to act, his own hunger doesn’t stand a chance at convincing any government. What Farhan really wants is to get people to acknowledge what is happening in the besieged areas in Syria. “I just want people to know.”
Farhan’s hunger strike has had a different effect on me. It showed me a tangible, inescapable consequence of my own inaction. He had told me about his strike just two days after he started, almost two weeks ago.I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t do the little that he asked me to “maybe you can share it on social media, something, just to let people know.” I thought about him every day. I talked about it with our mutual friends and my mom but I didn’t do anything because I thought I couldn’t. I’ve been hibernating. I don’t even remember my Instagram password, and is Twitter still a thing? I’ve hardly been on social media let alone built an engaged audience that could have any impact. SoI did nothing, while Farhan’s already slight frame became slighter.
Two days ago, my friend Claire was over for a visit when Farhan dropped by. He looked so small but still bright-eyed. I offered him juice as as Claire and I sipped wine. The last time Farhan had been over he had wanted a glass of wine, but the only bottle I had at home had a measly few sips left ad I was too embarrassed to offer so little. So we both drank beer, which neither of us really wanted. And here he was again, in my living room nursing an orange juice while Claire and I drank from our full glasses. I don’t like to think of myself as an asshole, but I really felt like one in that moment.
To not offer Farhan that half (quarter?) glass of wine because it was less than what I wanted to offer is similar to me not doing anything to help my friend because I felt my power was equally miniscule. Neither time did I confer with Farhan to find out if he thought it was enough.
I know Syria seems too far away to ever really reach you, but if it happened to me, it can happen to you. I hope it happens to you. My Syrian friends, including Farhan and his accident-prone, bubbly baby sister are as close to my heart as the ones I’ve met in New York, Paris or London. They’re the kind of people that make me look good by association. I need them, I love them and I wince anytime someone in the news discounts their worth, denies their right to seek refuge and education or treats them with disdain and suspicion. And I worry for their families, their future, and their ability to just live.
Today I remembered one of my favorite sayings—the law of floatation wasn’t discovered by contemplating the sinking of things. I realized that I have you guys, I have this sacred space and this amazing community that I know will listen. I can tell you about this person who is so dear to me and I can ask you to do what I couldn’t do until today—whatever you can, no matter how big or small you think it is.
Can I ask you to do one small, tiny thing right now? Can you leave a comment for Farhan here, or on the Unlikely Pilgrim FB page? It can even be an emoji, a small token acknowledging that you know that you are more alike than you are different. Maybe you have a question for him about Syria, about his hugging technique or archeology. Ask away, and I will pass it along.
Maybe you can take some time, like I did and find your own way to support the friends you didn’t know you had halfway around the world.
If you want to do more, here’s a note from Farhan:
“In solidarity with the besieged areas and to highlight the suffering of the people inside Syria, we, a group of Syrian youth are on a hunger strike until the siege is lifted in all regions in Syria. This protest may be without any result if it is not accompanied by media and civil support from people in all countries who can put pressure on their governments and help the Syrian people who have survived through 5 years of war. The hunger strike is one of the means of solidarity with the besieged areas. There are many other ways in which you can show you support for the Syrian people. Spread the word through social media, by publishing articles that show what is happening in Syria, making videos that show your solidarity or by organizing demonstrations and sit-ins to put pressure on governments to help break the siege in Syria. “