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KILIS, Turkey – This is how 14 year-old Aya learned her sister was dead.
“I took Aya to a park and I told her,” her mother Ibtesam says. “At first she was shocked and did not believe me. After that, she cried and cried and cried.” Aya’s 12-year-old sister Iman was killed when a bomb struck their house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria in March. The family fled for Turkey shortly after, and now live here in Kilis, just across the border.
“I thought my sister was very sick and that’s why she was not with us or could not speak to me.” Aya says. “Then momma told me.”
Now, says her mother, “we cry together.” But they comfort one another, too. “Sometimes Aya says, ‘don’t cry mom’ and sometimes the opposite -- she is crying and I tell her ‘enough Aya, that is life.’”
Aya didn’t know about her sister immediately after the bombing because she herself was so badly injured she lost her memory. Doctors suggested the family let Aya recover before breaking the news to her. When we last visited the family five months ago, Aya still did not know.
Aya says her last memories of Iman are of her riding a bike on a busy street – she was worrying her little sister might be in an accident. Today, Aya sleeps with her sister’s favorite doll, rescued from the rubble.
“Iman was my friend. And my brother’s friend,” Aya says. “I remember her kindness. She did everything for me. She never said no. I used to send Iman to the shops to buy sweets. I dream about her bringing me sweets.”
Aya doesn’t remember the night the bomb landed, but her memory is improving. She can now count in English, and recite the days of the week and months of the year. She is able to draw – her best pictures are of cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. But she has lost the ability to read and tires easily, making it difficult for her to keep up at school.
Her mother says, “At first when she couldn’t remember anything, we felt hopeless, but now she is slowly getting better. I hope she will recover her ability to read, then she can continue to study and go to university. She loves math.
The family recently moved to a smaller apartment to save money. The rent is half of what it was for their first place in Turkey. It’s tight, but in the past six months the family has begun to face the reality that it may be years before they can go home.
One bright spot: Aya’s parents have managed to find work. Ibtesam teaches in a local school, but she says it cannot pay her. Her father Mohamed edits a magazine for one hundred dollars a month. He says his family’s despair is driving him toward more extreme views.
“I was one of those who was holding up signs during the Syrian revolution telling people to stay moderate and be careful not to turn to extremism”, Mohamed says. But now he says he is sympathizing with Syrian rebel groups that the U.S. views as terrorists.
“They are not terrorists”, he says. “They are protecting us.”