Woman leaves Saudi Arabia for U.S. freedoms

I was born in Syria. My parents, sisters and brothers still live there. I miss them. I will never be able to go back home. We lived in mountains where sometimes it snows like here in Connecticut. Damascus is a beautiful city. It is the oldest capital city in the world. The first alphabet was from Damascus. It is a gift from Syria to the world.
These are the words of Thanaa, a 33-year-old mother of three young children who has lived in Milford for the past year and a half. She is studying English in Woodmont, with a volunteer tutor at the Literacy Volunteers of Southern Connecticut.

“I went to Damascus University,” she wrote in an essay that was highlighted at a recent literacy event. “I received my degree in journalism. When I went to the university it was safe to walk on the street, even at night. No one would stop you. It is different now. Police arrested my younger sister for two hours as she was walking to the university to take an exam. There were people fighting in the street; my sister and her friend hid in a vault in a cemetery until it was safe to come out.”

Thanaa has a son, age 7, and two daughters, ages 6 and 1. When she came to the United States, Thanaa didn’t really know anyone, except a friend who was a dentist in Saudi Arabia. Thanaa came here on a tourist visa, and she hopes to stay here: She has a lawyer, and she said the legal process is daunting, but her goal is to live and raise her children in Milford, in a country where they can enjoy freedoms.

She thinks of her family often, back in Syria, and she doubts she will ever be able to return.

“My older sister is a teacher,” her essay continues. “Her school was bombed. A boy was injured. He told her that he did not want to go to the hospital because he did not want to lose his leg. One young girl died last week. She was shot by a gun through a window. She had also been a sick child because she had breathed in chemical weapons. My sister tells her students to keep coming to school. She sees them on the street selling candy and cookies to get money for food. She will buy it to try to help them get back to school. Going to school can help them learn so they will be able to be free. Education used to be important in Syria. Many children now cannot even go to school for the elementary grades. We face a big problem in Syria because children can no longer read and write.”

Here in Milford, her two older children attend elementary school, and in their short time here they have almost perfectly mastered the English language. Her son can read any chapter book they set before him, and his teacher contacted Thanaa recently to share that the boy is very inquisitive and asks questions that mark him beyond his years.

Thanaa said it is a challenge and it was scary to come to a new country, a new city, where she had to learn the language and find a way to survive. She said an uncle from Saudi Arabia is helping her financially as she makes her way here. It is unsettling and uncertain, she said, but she is happy and can look away from the fear when she sees her children are happy.

“Everyone used to have good relationships with each other in Syria,” Thanaa’s essay continues. “I had friends, and celebrated holidays, with people of many religions. We do not know what happened. We don’t know who can be trusted. The government isn’t good and the terrorists kill innocent children every day. The terrorists are a danger to Islam first and then to the rest of the world. It is so sad. There are so many thoughts in my head but I don’t have the words to describe the feelings. It is like we have a lost generation. The holy book I know does not ask for killing. God asks for people to be good. Terrorists change the meaning for bad. Violence and terrorism are bad things for Muslims and for all people. I want God to bless all people.”

Here in Milford, Thanaa works with volunteer English tutor Sarah Galullo.They have been working together since November, and Galullo said Thanaa is a quick learner.

“She’s amazing,” Galullo said. “I’m new doing this, and I expected her English would be so horrible. I was amazed at how well she does.”

Galullo worked with Thanaa as she wrote her essay, helping to make sure the English grammar and word choices were correct.

The essay continues, “I left Syria a couple of months before the Syrian revolution started. I went to Saudi Arabia with my husband. He is a dentist there. He did not want to come to America because he would have to give up his profession here and start all over. I did not want to stay in Saudi Arabia because I would not be able to work or drive there; women have few rights. I wanted a better life for my children and myself. My husband told the children, ‘If your mother wants to go to America she can.’ I came here one year ago with my two young children; my baby was born here.”

Thanaa said she lived in Saudi Arabia four years, and she just couldn’t live in a land that robbed women of their rights. It was a hard decision to leave her husband, from whom she is now separated and working toward divorcing. When she arrived she had no car: She had to walk, and that was when Milford and the region was ravaged by snow. She had money in Saudi Arabia, and it is that savings that her uncle delivers to her so she can pay rent at her Milford apartment. Her mother, still in Syria, worries about her.

Her youngest child is an American citizen because she was born here. And the children are growing up American: They take karate and piano lessons. Their mother is busy overseeing their homework and driving them to their various classes.

“Milford is now our home,” Thanaa’s essay concludes. “I love America, and the people in Milford are very nice. I am working hard at learning English so that I can get a job. I would one day like to be able to work in the journalism field. I want to help people change their minds about Syria. I want to be an inspiration for my children. I want to say thank you.”