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JALAL "JAY" ALHAMZAWI
The Places Life Can Take You
 
Have you ever thought about traveling to a foreign country, a place you're not familiar with? Have you ever imagined moving to a country where they speak a different language? The mere thought of living overseas was overwhelming and terrifying, yet somehow I embraced that uncertainty and embarked on an exhilarating journey that changed the course of my life. And who knew that this place would actually become my home country?

Out of all my friends, I was the only child who never settled down in one place. Moving around the United States was like a vicious cycle that seamlessly had no ending. I was never able to stay in the same school for more than one year throughout my childhood and adolescent years. Losing what was dearest to me was commonplace in my life. These unpredictable hitches in my life were hard to prepare for. Deserting my home, friends, and family caused a great deal of pain and emotional strain; however, I learned how to adapt to these sudden and erratic changes in my life. I would comfort myself by saying "It is fine, things come and go, but the things that are meant to stay will stay." How did I become so heartless, so emotionally detached from the world and its inhabitants? With a shrug of the shoulders, I buried my feelings in the depths of my heart, nowhere to be seen. Right when I thought I had a choice between closing the book or turning the page for a new chapter in my life, my parents brought me what I liked to call "toxic news." I did not like this turn of events, but I had to accept these upcoming changes if I wanted to escape this dispirited state of mind.

I was in the sixth grade and living in Tamarac, Broward County, Florida when my parents told me, "Son (pause), we are moving to Syria." Shocked and unable to grasp the words that just spewed out of their mouths, I did what I knew best and left my feelings at the mercy of this black hole where nothing escaped. My life had become an emotional rollercoaster. I was exhausted. Call me arrogant but I certainly did not believe that an everyday boy could have handled the news that left me, the Olympic mover, speechless. Even I, an experienced mover at six, scarcely fathomed the idea of leaving the country unexpectedly. However, a sensible explanation for why we were moving and my parents' empathy quickly became my tonic for coping with the stress and emotional overload.

Our parents sat us down and gave my siblings and me a heartfelt explanation for why we were moving. They told us that our grandpa's crippling health condition was far from improving. Our 93-year-old grandfather, Abdul, desperately needed his family with him due to the solitude and sadness he was buried in. Aiding and comforting my grandpa in the Middle East while experiencing the Arabic culture was like hitting two birds with one stone. Born and raised in Lebanon and Syria, both my parents were fortunate enough to be surrounded by the Arabic culture. So they took it upon themselves to open the doors to their children's heritage by giving us a chance to authentically experience the Arabic culture, language, and religion.

I was reluctant at first but gradually began to accept this presumably far-fetched idea that my parents proposed. Moving abroad would have certainly been a thrill, at least that is what I thought. Some of my gravest fears were adapting to the cultural differences of language and customs. To make matters even worse, I foolishly pictured myself being that American-born Syrian, that hybrid, that Americanized boy trying to speak with his fellow Syrians who embarrassingly fails. Would I be the new laughingstock at school? Well, I did grow up learning the Arabic language, but I was certainly not fluent enough to express myself with others. Moving overseas would be life changing, but I was willing to undertake the challenges and changes in my life.

The moment we boarded the plane my cheeks were flushed with excitement and a surge of energy flooded my body as we impatiently waited to depart. After traveling for a whopping one day and nineteen hours, sadly enough, all of my preconceived fantasies and thoughts about Syria came spiraling down upon our arrival. Through the airplane's small window, I quickly glanced at the gusts of wind and sand in the air as the plane landed at the Damascus International Airport. I was desperate to leave and jet to the plane's exit door until I took my first step on Syrian soil when I was convinced otherwise. The sun's searing heat and thrash were like a smack in the face. I was left with an uneasy dryness in my throat while the desert's sand drifted along the landing strip. The congested air made me cough like an old hag who had been smoking cigarettes her entire life. Lord knows, maybe I needed an oxygen tank. Without a moment of hesitation I blurted out, "what brought us to this hell hole of a desert?" Sure, I was loud about it, but I knew that we were days away from America, so my complaints no longer mattered. We strapped our bags and off we went to the great old city, Damascus.

Once we arrived in Damascus, my enthusiasm and energy for life were revitalized. I stood there near our apartment and watched the taxis flood the streets. I saw Syrians shopping in traditional markets open to the public. The country's vibrant culture came alive in the markets and spread through the streets and alleyways where shopkeepers would sell anything from handicraft items to Persian carpets. I could not help but notice how the coffee shops were filled with people drinking Turkish coffee, smoking hookah, listening to Arabic music, and playing backgammon. Everything seemed within walking distance! Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Everything about this city seemed old and traditional. Even the Adhan, a call to prayer, was an old tradition that dated back to when the religion of Islam began in the 7th century.

The sound of the Islamic call to prayer resonated throughout the streets of Damascus at the time of dawn, and every man, woman, and child headed for the mosque. The mosque was more than a place of worship, but a center for the Muslim community. It was a place for prayer, religious education, political discussion, services, and a school. The mosque was the heart of our tightly knitted communities of brothers and sisters. It was then when I realized that Islam was not just a religion but a way of life. It provided guidance and a system of laws that brought happiness and peace to all its members. Syria was rich in culture and tradition. Of that I was sure. Without a doubt, Damascus was a city full of life and happiness.

Soon enough, I started school and began to speak and write the Arabic language. A daunting task it was, but my determination allowed me to flourish. I feared that I would fail at keeping up with the class, but I was strongly mistaken. I was able to learn Arabic quickly and was on top of my class. I learned to adapt to changes, and with time I embraced them. Moving abroad shaped the person I am today. It exposed me to my culture, language, and family that I never knew existed. I am now driven to despair as Syria reaches its 30th year of dictatorship under the reign of the Al-Assad regime. The heartrending photos and videos of my country falling apart fills my heart with grief. With that being said, it is an honor and a pleasure to say that I am an Arab, a Muslim, and a Syrian who is thankful for having been given the chance to experience the Islamic culture with my fellow brothers and sisters before Syria fell to ruin. On any given day if I had the chance, I would move back to my hometown, Damascus. Yes, change can be scary, but I learned that one should take chances because you never know how perfect something might turn out to be. Do not pity yourself. Instead, go, fly, roam, travel, explore, discover, live, grow, and find yourself no matter where life takes you.

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