You hear about dangerous love affairs, but falling in love with Syria could be the most dangerous affair of all.
“Everyone told me it was crazy to travel to the Middle East at that time; it was going to be dangerous,” Daniel Demeter said. “I kind of ignored all those warnings and trusted my instincts that it would be all right.”
In 2003, Demeter embarked on a journey around the Middle East that turned into three years of photographing Syria. His end product is “Lens on Syria,” a photography book that documents his trip to each of the four cardinal directions of the country.
Demeter got a chance to present his work at Pale Fire Brewing Company on Saturday. He was joined by Gabe Huck, a retired publisher and one-time monk, and Theresa Kubasak, a former teacher. Kubasak and Huck co-wrote “Never Can I Write of Damascus,” a work that encapsulates their time working with Iraqi refugees in Syria from 2005-2012.
“I was teaching second grade at the time and I told my principal I’m going to go and live in Syria and try to learn Arabic,” Kubasak said. “We ended up staying seven years because we loved it so much.”
Once there, the duo realized that the best thing they could offer displaced Iraqis was education. They designed a year-long program of college preparation classes using materials from University of Oxford. Their goal was to reach out to colleges in the hopes that they’d offer scholarships to these students.
“We sang songs, learned about Woody Guthrie,” Kubasak said. “I wish that the Woody Guthrie folks could’ve seen [these] Iraqis singing [his] songs.”
Although the three of them were in the Middle East during a turbulent period, they found Syrian locals to be accommodating and welcoming toward them.
Demeter was in Amman, Jordan, when the war with Iraq began and he decided to join an anti-war demonstration in Damascus. He said he felt welcome despite being from the opposing country, which was in stark contrast to the fear mongering and stereotypes that Americans perpetuate.
“People were just so hospitable and welcoming everywhere I went,” Demeter said. “People would invite me in for tea. I think they were very proud of their heritage and wanted to give the best impression of their country to everyone that visited. So I ended up staying in Syria for longer than I anticipated.”
Huck and Kubasak experienced this same hospitality, especially since they were older and elders are highly respected in Syrian culture.
“We tried to become bilingual in Arabic and English,” Kubasak said. “It was really hard. It was easier for me to become bicultural because I loved the Syrian culture.”
Two Syrian immigrants who attended the presentations attest to these claims and were grateful that Syria was presented in a different light.
“They spoke generally of what the situation is, more than just to focus on what the media is saying,” Yasmine Ali, an Eastern Mennonite University student, said. “You know, so how the conflict started, how Syria, how this was a shock to everyone, nobody expected it. We have all religions and we all live there, like you can take so many other countries and they all live in groups, but in Syria we all live together.”
After coming back to the U.S., Kubasak and Huck eventually decided to move to Harrisonburg after visiting one of their former Iraqi students while he was studying at EMU.
“We just picked up on this ambiance in Harrisonburg that people were very knowledgeable about the Middle East and they were tolerant about faith,” Kubasak said. “We thought, ‘OK, we’re moving here,’ and we’ve been here for six weeks.”
Now, thanks in part to their work, Harrisonburg passed legislation to welcome refugees. But their work here has only just begun.
“We’re working with a pool of six students who are taking exams for English, they’re doing the Common Application, and we need some colleges to be on board with us so they can say, ‘OK, we’re giving a Syrian a tuition waiver and we’ll find a host family in Harrisonburg and we’ll find them a support system.’ I want to say it’s that simple. But it’s that complex.”
Although they’ve returned to the states, the three won’t soon forget their time in Syria, a country that has since erupted into civil war. But despite its current strife, the presenters hope that the general takeaway is that the majority of Syria is peaceful.
“People get the idea that all of Syria’s been destroyed, but it hasn’t and we should keep it that way,” Demeter said. “And it’s important to end the conflict in Syria as soon as possible to maintain the country’s diversity and history and heritage.”
Contact Emmy Freedman and Matthew Callahan at email@example.com.