A Syrian in Ireland: At night, I see the grey faces, hear the cries. I picture my child trapped under the ruins of our new warm house

The word earthquake shakes my heart. Images and videos of people standing in front of collapsed buildings calling out to their loved ones before they run out of oxygen and hope

The digital wellbeing widget on my mobile tells me I am spending too much time looking at the screen and that I have only a few more minutes to waste. I dismiss the notification with my shaking finger and keep scrolling, keep falling.

Rubble, stones, ashy faces, shouts of terror and sobs echoed over and over. Is this really happening? It’s not the first time my social media feed has turned into a disaster zone, but why does this one feel different?

Lists of names, survivors and dead, separated families, items needed, phone numbers of people who own heavy equipment and excavators, locations of desperate voices under the ground. The word earthquake shakes my heart. Images and videos of people standing in front of collapsed buildings calling out to their loved ones before they run out of oxygen and hope. Others knew their families didn’t make it but refused to leave without a corpse.

Many didn’t have the luxury of being on the scene to scream for their loved ones or dig the ground with their bare hands looking for them. They were exiled outside Syria and not allowed to return, whether afraid of the Syrian regime’s arbitrary persecution or because of asylum-seeking laws that prevent refugees from returning to the country from which they escaped in the first place. Instead, those stranded people were screaming on social media, posting details about their loved ones’ locations, with their pictures, when they looked happy and normal and not under a collapsed building, helplessly pleading for anyone to go to look and help.


The sanctions on Syria seem to be only against the people, not the criminals who are living their best lives

My inbox is flooding with reporters asking me to go live on their media channels to comment on the situation. They are fast and sharp and professional. Not one asks if my people are dead or wish to be. I am a news source, again. My Syria is back in the headlines after I accepted how the world had let us down and moved on despite our ongoing tragedy, which has been going on for 12 years. We are trending one more time in the hashtags, and our miserable faces are in fundraising campaigns. This is not déjà vu.

My phone abruptly shuts down the stream of death with the power I gave to the wellbeing widget a few months back. I reached the daily limit I set for myself when I was trying to be normal and productive. I change the settings, add an hour to the limits, and go back to the death zone. I need to know what’s going to happen to all those people. This is not a movie cliffhanger, and those are not actors.

The antidepressants pills are failing me. My cheeks are wet, and my mind has frozen in shock. I spend hours and hours watching more dead bodies pulled out, and alive little ones announced orphaned on the scene, hugged by the corpses of their parents. I donate and watch the number of donations grow with every page refresh. Friends text me asking where to donate, and I wonder if money will manage to get people out of this misery in time. Someone posts a screenshot from the Syrian TV channel with a comedy show. There was a little black diagonal line in the top left corner. No state of emergency was announced. No media coverage. Nothing.

I can’t move my body from the couch. The crisis paralyses me. My kid’s voice as he returns from school seems to be the only thing able to reach me in my void world. I hug him tightly and don’t let him see my tears. He hugs me back, and I want to stay in his embrace forever. I get up for him. I do normal daily activities for him, and as soon as he sleeps safely in his bed, I collapse into mine.

At night, I see the grey faces. I hear the cries. I picture my kid and I trapped under the ruins of our new warm house in Ireland. I whisper to him that everything will be fine as I hold tight to his little fingers. I open my eyes and see the ceiling above me is still there. I turn my head to the left, and I see my husband sleeping peacefully. I reach out for his hand from under the blankets, and he squeezes my hand back without opening his eyes. We don’t say a word.

The next couple of days is filled with more videos and more trauma. A wall in a city in Syria is filled with death notes by the dozen. Whole families have gone together, massive graveyards are being dug, and those who managed to survive are spread in the streets with no place to go. Syrian volunteers are doing heroic work trying to save what is left to be saved. They weep on cameras as they describe the horrific situation on the ground. Their feeds alternate between darkness and the tiny rays of hope that shine whenever they manage to save a soul. They are alone in this, untrained, unequipped and already carrying years of trauma, but they can’t stop.

What do we tell that newborn girl who was found alive under the ruins, still bound by her dead mother’s umbilical cord?

I force myself to put the phone down and do something. I keep moving between the rooms, not sure what I am doing. I leave the house, but I don’t know where I am going. I walk and walk and walk. My smart watch tells me I’ve done more steps than usual. My stomach tells me I need to eat but I feel sick. I sit on a bench and fall again into the black hole on my phone. A call interrupts my death scroll. It’s my husband, “are you still watching the news?” He’s been begging me to stop this. He even hid my phone for a couple of hours. He has been avoiding the earthquake coverage. And when I describe some scenes, he doesn’t reply. He chooses to keep busy with work, to live in denial to stay sane. Denial seems healthier than this madness I am in, but it’s too late for me now.

By the end of day three, I block all social media apps on my phone. The icons’ colours disappearas they go grey like they were under the rubble. I know what I will see if I open them. Seventy-two hours underground can’t be good. I watch tons of episodes of American comedy shows. I let them play one after the other but I don’t react. I listen to first-world problems and jokes.

I am Syrian. I am a first-world problem. I am the universe’s joke.

On day five, I told myself naively this would be the final chapter of this tragedy. I opened the news again. It wasn’t. People were still hearing voices coming from underground. The Syrian president decided to finally visit the disaster area with his wife, smiling at the cameras and the crowds around them. Some Arab countries have sent aid and Syrians have shown a powerful image of solidarity from all other cities, but stories of stolen goods and donations were already circulating like fire. Other official channels of aid were delayed and blocked due to inhumane people being in charge.

The politicians exchange blame and argue over responsibility for opening borders while Syrians take their last breath. A Syrian-Turkish border crossing opened for bodies of displaced Syrians to be buried back home. The home that only allows them to go back in plastic bags.

The UN has failed once again to be there on time, to provide an emergency response equal to the size of the disaster, to overcome the political complications with the Syrian war. With sparse supplies a few days after the earthquake, the UN seems to be still questioning whether we are a nation worth saving. The sanctions on Syria seem to be only against the people, not the criminals who are living their best lives. Words of blame spread on social media mentioning the United States and Europe, Erdogan and Putin, the Syrian regime and the Syrian revolution, and God and the sinners who brought all this chaos on us.

How big is the Syrian sin? What could we possibly have committed to deserve to be trapped in those circles of hell? And where do we go now with all that anger and pain? What do we tell that newborn girl who was found alive under the ruins, still bound by her dead mother’s umbilical cord?

By the time this is published, the people under the rubble will have died. Their voices will be quiet forever after days of waiting to be rescued while everyone watched. It will take us Syrians decades to trust this world again, if we ever do. To trust the sky won’t rain bombs and explosive barrels, to trust the sea won’t swallow us, the snow won’t freeze us to death, and the earth won’t bury us alive.

It will take us decades to heal from those thousand wounds and find normality again. In the meantime, donate hope if you can. We are out of it.

Suad Aldarra is a Syrian storyteller and data scientist based in Dublin. Her memoir I Don’t Want to Talk About Home was published by Penguin and shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards 2022.