Syria. Here I am,

staring out at red earth dotted with green trees, an azure sky, the sun shining

on a tiny border town. How did I get

here?, I ask myself, gazing

out at this vast expanse, mere miles from a gruesome conflict zone that has

captured world headlines for more than two years.

As a human rights

journalist, I wanted to visit the Syrian border to gain a firsthand perspective

of the revolution, the conflict, and the refugees living along the country's

borders. While I didn't originally have a single contact along the border, a

bizarre twist of circumstances led me to follow a link from Twitter to an

article on NUVO, which led me to a Facebook page for the Syrian American

Council of Indianapolis.

My up-close,

firsthand experience came to life thanks to the efforts of Kenan Rahmani, a law

student at Notre Dame and board member at Syrian American Council, who helped

me plan an adventure I will never forget.

A disclaimer before

I relate my experiences:

Syria is

controversial.

I'm telling my

story here with the full knowledge that most Americans do not support

intervention in Syria. I wasn't sure what I thought about intervention before I

went. I wanted to go there with an open mind. I wanted to learn about the

people, share in their struggle, understand in whatever ways I could.

What I saw smashed

my heart into a million pieces.

I do not know what

you will think, or feel, based on my account. But I hope you will see it as a

starting place, a beginning of dialogue. And I hope, if possible, you can find

a way to put yourself in the situation of the courageous people I met along the

way.

What I saw on the border

I'm walking out of

Hatay Airport near Turkey's southern border with Syria. I can feel the sun

blazing through my white headscarf, and I'm fumbling with my iPhone, trying to

find the number for the contact Rahmani gave me.

In a moment, Esmat

Rastan arrives to pick me up. Rastan is a volunteer with Watan Syria,

the border-based NGO I'm here to visit. I throw my backpack in his car and jump

in beside him. Then we're off in a cloud of dust tearing down the road toward

Reyhanli, the Turkish border town where Watan Syria is located.

"So that's Syria," he says,

pointing to the right.

I'm staring out at red earth, beautiful

mountains dotted with greenery, soaring blue skies. It all seems so tranquil.

But that tranquility is an illusion. Since

Syria's peaceful revolution began in March of 2011, more than 90,000 people

have been killed as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad massacres, brutalizes, exterminates his own people.

Refugees

in Reyhanli

An hour later, I'm sitting across from

Mulham Al-Jundi, who operates the Watan Syria office in Reyhanli. He's telling

me about the border town he now calls home.

Reyhanli used to be a town of about 50,000 people, he explains. But today, with

Syrian refugees arriving nearly every day, the town's population has doubled —

now past 100,000. There are no jobs, little infrastructure, and just the other

day, explosions could be heard only a few miles away. It's a flawed refuge,

Reyhanli, with its crumbling buildings, dusty streets, and impoverished

economy.

Early one morning I

accompany Rastan and a few others to deliver Watan Syria's aid boxes throughout

Reyhanli. We load up a van with heavy boxes containing macaroni, rice, cheese,

salt, corn, tuna, sugar, and oil —staples that thousands of refugee

families can't afford to purchase for themselves. We carry the boxes into

makeshift "homes" all over the city. Crumbling brick structures,

tarps held down with rocks, tents pitched on rooftops.

That morning I

begin to get to know some of the Syrian refugees of Reyhanli, the beautiful

children I see running through muddy streets, the women making homes out of

shacks and tents.

[image-4}

I visit a family of

five living in a small windowless shack. The father accepts their aid box with

gratitude. He is still wearing a suit. They fled Syria only 15 days ago —

with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Everyone I visit

talks about freedom, a future in Syria beyond this horror. I see so much

suffering, but in the suffering there is a unity that catches me by surprise.

People who come as refugees, with nothing, are doing everything they can to

help other refugees.

Hospital visit

The next afternoon,

I join Yisser Bittar of the Syrian American Council and another Watan Syria

staffer for a visit to a hospital in Reyhanli. A wall surrounds the dilapidated

structure that is the hospital, and guards stand at the entrance gate.

Inside, it doesn't

look like a hospital. Bare wires hang from the ceiling, and paint is peeling

off the walls. The halls are eerie and silent. We wind around a corner and

enter the first room, where I'm surprised to see a set of bunk beds. On the

lower bunk, a small girl lies underneath a white blanket. She smiles, a little.

I can't use her

name or take her picture, but this is her story.

She is just turning

15 years old and comes from a suburb of Idlib in northwestern Syria. One sunny

day she took a walk to her sister's house. She couldn't have known it would be

for the last time.

One bullet from a

sniper went through her spine and her life changed forever.

Today she spends

her days in this bed, her body paralyzed but her spirit somehow unbroken. She

is convinced there is a surgery that will help her, if she can only find the

right doctor. Her family has no money and no resources. So for now, they are

waiting.

As long as they are

waiting they still have hope. They don't know, and in the unknown lies their last fragment of comfort.

"I think you're

very brave," I say to her, leaning in to kiss her cheek, feeling with

every second the stark inadequacy of my words. "I'm so sorry."

Bittar and I walk

down the hallway. A heavy silence hangs in the air.

In the next room, a

woman, 25 years old, lies in a bed. Her father is there with her, and as she

relates her story, he interjects, explaining more about the one horrific day that

changed their lives forever.

They were living as

IDPs, internally displaced people, in a small village.

One day she was

inside the house where they were staying when she heard the sound of a

helicopter overhead. The next moment, shrapnel was flying in all directions as

a TNT barrel packed with metal scraps fell from the sky, exploding in the

village. She felt a sharp pain as a piece of metal sliced through her leg.

There were screams,

flames. Smoke billowed into the clear sky overhead.

Then silence.

When she woke up,

she stumbled, blood flowing from both of her legs. Around her, pieces of the

bodies of her mother, her sister, and her five nephews lay on the ground.

Twenty-four people

were killed that day, mostly children.

The next day, her

father explains, Assad's regime announced that they had defeated the terrorists

in that village, that the 24 people they had killed were terrorists.

But they were all

women and children, almost his entire family.

He tried to bury

the bodies. There wasn't time. Helicopters kept returning, swooping low and

dropping more barrels. He knew his daughter would die if she didn't receive

help. They fled.

So here they are.

They arrived five days ago.

Her father is

describing those last hours they spent in the village. "The regime does

not differentiate between civilians and the Free Syria Army," he's saying.

After a few minutes

he quiets, tears coming to his eyes.

"I want the

world to come and see what's going on. I want everyone to know."

I'm sitting near

his daughter's bedside, and she pulls up the blanket to show me what happened

to her that day. One leg is gone, the other one has a series of gashes, huge

chunks of her leg are missing, carved out by the flying shrapnel of the TNT

barrel.

She reaches for a

piece of cardboard beside her. It's covered in school photos, held together

with children's stickers. "My nephews," she says, pointing to each one.

"This one was

cut in half. This one was beheaded ... ."

I feel hot tears

streaming down my face. I'm feeling something different now, something beyond

the sadness, something that clutches the pit of my stomach with a wrenching,

sickening grip.

Rage.

Rage at this

inhuman monster that is Assad and his regime.

But it does not

take very long, sitting here in this hospital, staring into the eyes of this

woman who has lost so much, to begin to grapple with something else, something

beyond the rage: responsibility.

The time to act is now

These atrocities

have gone on for more than two years amid a hesitant U.S. response, largely

consisting of a lot of discussion and little action. And today, while children

run for their lives as TNT barrels explode in their neighborhoods, sending

shrapnel through tiny bodies — wrecking, breaking, destroying, shattering

lives — we're still debating.

Everything I have

seen on the Syrian border culminates in a realization at that moment: There is

not going to be another time to act. The time to act is now.

We have to stop

Assad from murdering his own people. We have to intervene.

I'm grateful for

the administration's recent decision to aid Syrian rebel forces, and I'm thankful

that the U.S. has authorized another $100 million in humanitarian aid. It's so

important, with millions displaced and thousands horrifically injured.

But at this point,

two years into a brutal regime ravaging Syria's civilian population, it's not

enough. Assad must be stopped from waging his campaign of terror against the

people of Syria. Instead of attempting to put a Band-Aid on the problem, we need

to stop him in his tracks.

A no-fly zone —

now gaining increasing bipartisan support — would prevent Assad's regime

from dropping his weapons of terror from the skies, limiting his ability to

ruthlessly slaughter Syrian civilians. No more families terrorized by the sound

of a helicopter nearing their home. No more TNT barrels falling into neighborhoods

where children are playing.

That single,

practical action will save lives by taking one murderous tactic out of Assad's

hands.

We can stop Assad

from murdering his own people. We can and we must.

I left Hatay

Airport on another sunny day much like the one on which I arrived. I felt the

warmth of the sun through my headscarf, scanned through my iPhone to upload

another image of the border, prepared for my return trip to Indianapolis.

But in my mind all

I could see were images of the people I met, the long-suffering people of Syria

who dream of a chance not just at life, but at freedom.

I hope we can find

a way to help them make that beautiful dream a reality.

Kristin Wright is

the director of development at Exodus Refugee Immigration, and a writer

covering human rights issues. She can be reached at kristin@kristinwright.net.

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