My Mom Fled War Too: Finding Compassion for Syrian Refugees

Like refugees everywhere, my mom gave her children the gift of a better life—and an understanding of what it means to risk everything for it.
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Sonia Orellana gets lost in her thoughts as she struggles to find the words to explain her journey to the United States. All photos by Yessenia Funes.

Sonia Orellana stepped into the musty van, unsure of what awaited her. The then-17-year-old, a mere cipota, Salvadoran slang for little girl, had heard stories of what happens to young Salvadoreñas during their nearly 3,000-mile trek to the United States: kidnappings, rape, death. She had already crossed over from El Salvador to Guatemala unscathed, but the road to Mexico was the one to fear. Luckily for her, Orellana wasn’t traveling alone. She was joined by two others, Evangelina Funes and Efrain Funes, who would eventually become her in-laws—and my aunt and uncle.

Refugees aren’t the ones to fear. They are afraid too. 

This cipota is my mother. Now 45, she lives in Uniondale, New York, the same town where her American life began 28 years ago and where I grew up. It’s my home, and my mother has made it her home too.

“I didn’t want to come,” my mom told me in Spanish. “I came for my mother. She wanted me to have a better life, to live better; many things that one’s mother wants for them, just like I want for you guys.”

My mother’s story reminds me of those in Syria. Most immigrants and refugees flee to find a better life. Syrians are no different. Their opportunity, however, is being attacked. When the image of the drowned 3-year-old child circulated around the Web in September, everyone rose up in solidarity. Now, following the Paris attacks, many are cowering in fear. The House passed a bill yesterday to limit refugee entrance to the United States.

We need more people like the governors in Utah and Connecticut, who have pledged to welcome refugees, because the refugees aren’t the ones to fear. They are afraid too. They are escaping the very terror that wreaked havoc in Paris last week. And this fear toward outsiders? This fear that they can hurt us? It reminds me of the xenophobic rhetoric that targets Latin immigrants like my mother.

The truth is that like Syrian refugees, many of whom have chosen to risk death at sea rather than facing constant threat at home, my mother would have preferred to stay in El Salvador. Twenty-eight years later, she still feels that way. “Perhaps I should have lived my life there,” she tells me. “I miss those little moments when I lived there. I was happy.”

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Sonia Orellana flips through an old photo album, pointing to a picture of herself and her sisters taken in El Salvador when they were children.

My mother fled in November 1987, arriving in New York just in time for the holidays, her first away from home. She longed to return, even with all the madness taking the country over. Just seven years earlier, people in the United States had heard about mutilated bodies appearing on roadsides. The murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero followed just a month after. A bomb and machine gun killed between 27 to 40 people and wounded another 200 at his funeral.

The Civil War was at full throttle.

My mother and grandmother remember all too clearly the gruesome sights of decapitated bodies.

The Salvadoran Civil War, which lasted from 1980 to 1991, left more than 75,000 Salvadorans, primarily civilians, dead. The United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador in 1992-93 attributed 85 percent of these deaths to state agents. Only 5 percent of the deaths were attributed to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the guerilla group rebelling against the military-led government.

My mother and grandmother remember all too clearly the gruesome sight of decapitated bodies. “They’d leave the heads stuck, hanging on the fences, the hogs eating the people,” my abuelita went on to tell me. The bodies belonged to people from elsewhere. San Pedro Nonualco, where my mother lived and my grandmother still does, was merely a drop-off spot, a display of terror. Once, my mother says she saw a little boy kicking around a head, playing with it.

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Rosa Adaluz Orellana sits in the backyard of her daughter's home, listening to her tale.

This sort of scene is not too different than what many have described in Syria’s current civil war. Theirs started four years ago. In these four short years, more than 200,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a nonpartisan organization documenting the situation. That’s almost three times more than El Salvador’s 10-year war.

Even after experiencing such trauma, these survivors come to the United States with little welcome. My mother says she felt strange when she got here. She had never met her aunt, with whom she stayed. She would go to church and beg for food and clothes. “I suffered when I came,” she told me with a pained expression. “I suffered.”

She remembers picking up shifts as a mall janitor and receiving strange looks from people when she couldn’t communicate her thoughts. She experienced hints of racism then, but she felt it most with her meager pay. “You’ve got to accept the work they give.”

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Sonia and Rosa share laughs as they reminisce about their time together in El Salvador. 

I try to imagine what my life would be like if my mother hadn’t hid in the brisk brush of the midnight desert, risking her safety for a fresh start—and I can’t. My home is here. I can’t imagine being somewhere else.

I imagine that Syrian refugees can. Their minds must be filled with dreams of homes where they’re safe. Maybe they first dreamed of a Syria without war, but now they’re forced to wake up and realize a safe home means a new home.

Eventually, these Syrian refugees will have children. They will be born in Sweden or Greece. Maybe even in Washington if President Obama’s veto of the House bill succeeds. They’ll learn the tongues of their grandparents and parents, but they’ll also speak the language of their native country: Swedish, Greek, English. They’ll be products of two worlds, human beings with compassion because they understand both sides. They’ll be, well, sort of like me.

Their minds must be filled with dreams of homes where they’re safe.

These children will have a better chance to survive and succeed than in Syria’s current state. And like El Salvador, which still feels the ill effects of a civil war that ended more than 20 years ago, Syria won’t recover easily. El Salvador isn’t a war zone anymore, but gangs have taken over. My grandma says it’s worse now than before. We don’t know how Syria will end up. We will have to wait and see. What we do know is the possibilities that await these families if they are allowed peace.

As my mother and I sit in our cluttered backyard, I ask her how she feels about my siblings and me being born here. “I give thanks to God because if I would have made my life over there, I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe I wouldn’t have all of you with me. Maybe you’d all be in gangs or involved in something. You wouldn’t be what you are: prepared, alive, and with me.”

I scribble what she’s said and then pause. I realize she’s right.