“How are things?” I asked my sister Mimi on the phone last week. She is stuck in Damascus after her visa to this country was denied – twice.
“We are doing OK. It is awful here, but thank God we are still alive,” she said.
When staying alive is your main concern, your priorities align a bit differently. You might have seen the carnage on television, thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.
The Arab Spring, which started four years ago and toppled dictators like Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, has proved to be more like an Arab winter. Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and other Arabic countries have tried to embrace democracy and freedom. It looked promising for a minute.
Then reality hit.
Democracy and freedom cannot thrive where power and pride exist. Arabs could not acquiesce to a true sense of democracy, to free and fair elections, and to rule for the people and by the people.
Which brings me to this: I live in a country that is truly for the people and by the people. We take this democracy and freedom for granted daily. We take many facts for granted: That our votes count toward electing a president. That those who are elected work for us. That government officials want good things for their constituents. That we have free elections, a fair court system, branches of governments, prayers hoped for and dreams set as high as the stars.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Mimi said.
I have been here for 30 years, and I thank the heavens every day for the fact that I am truly free. Republicans and Democrats may have ideological differences, but the fact that they can solve them around a table and not from a bunker is a good thing.
In this country, you can call your congressman or senator, and they listen. Two years ago, my then-state representative, Paul DeMarco, connected me to then-Congressman Spencer Bachus, who wrote a letter to the Lebanese Embassy on behalf of my sister. They still denied the visa, but I was in shock. Thirty years in this country and I still do not realize that elected officials are not untouchable.
“Is it bad near where you live?” I asked.
“It’s bad everywhere,” Mimi said. “Yesterday, a neighbor’s son took shrapnel in his leg. He is 10.”
This week, I have a meeting in U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby’s office. I hope they can make an entry visa for my sister a possibility. The fact I am merely meeting with my senator’s people is a reality check. Growing up in Syria, that was not even an option. It is all about who you know, and how much of a bribe you are willing to offer in Syria.
“Are people going places?” I asked.
“Life can be normal. We went to a wedding yesterday. But things can break loose any minute. It’s insane,” Mimi said.
Last week, David Blumenthal, who owns DRPco – a rubber manufacturing plant in Birmingham – called me and offered a job for my sister. A visa is attainable when a company requests you. Then something unexpected surfaced.
The man is Jewish, and he wants to help my Muslim sister.
Dwell on that for a second.
A Jew wants to help a Muslim. In a country that offers beautiful things like freedom of religion and thought, civility and mercy, and compassion, there is respect for other human beings regardless of their background.
I wanted to cry.
I wanted to meet him and hug him and tell him that I wished all Jews, Muslims and Christians thought like he did. I wanted to broadcast his intentions to the Israeli and Palestinian leadership fighting for decades: This is how you should behave.
Humanity is a beautiful thing.
Autocracy, corruption and all things disingenuous will eventually lose to the beautiful humanity that we are.
Just keep hoping and smile.
My sister does.