Mohammad was the first to leave. He got the call a week before his eighteenth birthday.
“Na’am,” he said, “I will be there.” I heard him say it confidently over the phone when the military recruitment officer called that evening. “October 21st,” he repeated. That night, he said goodbye and boarded a bus to Turkey. It was before the Bab al-Salam gate was permanently closed.
Then only the four of us were left: Abbi my father, Ummi my mother, Bana my sister, and I. I remember how Ummi cried with relief when Mohammad called to tell her he had made it safely to Istanbul.
Because of his gray hair, Abbi was not called in the draft, so we thought we were safe.
It started with throbbing vibrations: like a bass that makes your heart thump up against your rib cage. It was loud like that—loud like at Fatima’s wedding when the whole house shook with the pulsing of the music while we danced. Only this time, no one danced.
I remember the shrill whistling sound.
“Away from the windows—get on the floor!” yelled my father.
We dove flat on the tile and covered our heads under our arms just like we had learned to do in school. My teeth clicked together and my body shook with the ground. I believed that the mortar would fall on us at any moment and we would be trapped beneath the rubble. But in the quiet when I opened my eyes, the ceiling was still solid above me. That’s when I smelled the burning.
Bana picked herself up and ran to the window, “Abbi,” she called to our father, “Uncle Ahmed’s house—it’s gone.”
I rolled up off the floor, legs shaking, and tucked my hair back under my hijab. From behind her, I saw the dark, dusty cloud that spread out from the place where Uncle Ahmed’s house had stood.
“We stayed too long,” my father murmured.
My mother only cried.
The drivers let us out in the woods after an hour’s ride north. Abbi lifted my sister from the back of the pickup and I jumped out behind her. There were sixteen of us total.
We hiked up our backpacks and walked close together to stay warm. The temperature dropped fast as the light faded. We kept to the trees, walking northeast away from the nearest military outpost. In a half hour, we could see the beginnings of the fence up ahead. We walked among the pines for some time before we found a place where the chain link sheet had been pulled down away from the barbed wire.
“Yalla, yalla!” we urged one another forward.
Abbi lifted Bana up through the opening in the fence. I climbed through behind her. It was muddy where I landed and my shoe stuck just as the first shot sliced the night sky. And I ran. I took Bana’s hand and ran without thinking, without my shoe, without waiting to find out if Addi and Ummi were with us.
There were more shots, shots behind us. And we ran, ran, ran until we couldn’t breathe anymore and the night was quiet again.
“Abbi? Ummi?” My sister called.
“Shh, shh” someone shushed her.
“Abbi? Ummi?” My sister called again.
“Here, here,” came my father’s voice. My mother leaned up against him, “We’re all alive.” she breathed, and I know she was crying.
When I dream about that night, I am always running. Running alone. And I call for Abbi and Ummi the way Bana did, and they don’t answer. And all I can hear are the gunshots.
This short story was inspired by the courage and resilience of my refugee friends.