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Turning into Butterflies:

A Syrian’s Reflection on Despair and Disgrace

Mike Niconchuk & Mohammad Kheir

Translation by Manar Amro

In society, and even more so in humanitarian work, we rarely give space for despair to be heard. Despair makes us uncomfortable. Think of how we structure our stories, and our films—there is almost always redemption. We rarely let despair have the final word, despite its prevalence and relevance for millions of people who live through war, who live through loss, and who suffer from mental illness.

While hope, meaningful relationships, and innovation remain among our strongest ammunition working in conflict and post-conflict situations, the light doesn’t always come at the end of the tunnel. There is not always a silver lining. And now, seven years in to Syria’s war, it grows harder each day to write articles, to give advice, or share stories that end with hope. Not all is lost, but the world is tragically broken.

About one month ago, a close friend—a Syrian refugee from Damascus—tried to kill himself by taking over a dozen sleeping pills just as his watch hit midnight. He didn’t succeed. A text the next day after this failed attempt read “why live when there is nothing, and no one, to live for?” Despair. Despite a job. Despite the ornaments of integration.

The war in Syria is in its seventh year, and the “story” of Syria’s refugees is diverse. Absolutely, hope is found in stories of love, success, reunification, innovation, and redemption. But so is despair. I do not suggest that the narrative of Syrian refugees is dominated by despair—to suggest so would be unfair, unethical, and disrespectful—but it is nonetheless there, and remains a prominent feature for thousands of displaced individuals inside Syria, in neighboring countries, or across oceans.

As those of us in the psychosocial support or mental health field do our jobs, and as we discuss best practices for global mental health and conflict resolution, despair lurks in a corner, its presence known, but rarely addressed or brought into the light. A program to counteract despair among young refugees would struggle to find funding, and would be a monumental challenge to implement. How to begin? How to avoid harm? How to spend that much time with each person? The loss and pain are cumulative, deeply guarded, and rarely expressed. The expression of despair—and sense of being forgotten by the world—is not likely to be met with any help, and indeed, the recognition, admission, and verbalization of despair is an agonizing process. To force its expression risks a certain voyeurism that falls clearly on the wrong side of humanitarian principle 'Do No Harm.' Furthermore, in many cases despair leads to anger, and anger is not an emotion refugees can afford to show, lest they risk being labeled ungrateful, violent, or radical.

Over the past five years I have had the privilege of developing long-term friendships with many Syrian refugees. The consistency and trust in those relationships has, at times, opened a space for despair to be discussed openly, even if done so difficulty and hurriedly, as if it were risky to speak of it aloud. Mohammad Kheir is one of the friends I have had the privilege of knowing. Brilliant and eloquent, Mohammad lives in Jordan with his family, and despite the presence of his family, there are many days when despair grips tight, pulling him away from family, friends, and the joyful parts of himself.

About two weeks ago Mohammad sent me a message, unsolicited and unrelated to our previous conversations. His message read, “Hey, you sometimes write for that mental health blog [Between Borders] right? Can I write and publish something? Here you go… "

The poem he wrote was a letter to the world around him, written from a dark place he sometimes and necessarily goes to, given the suffocating stagnancy of his position. Out of a camp, but in a relatively inaccessible village. Educated, but limited to specific sectors of work with limited mobility. His words broke my heart—partly sadness, partly guilt, partly frustration. He is not the only one who lives in a space like this, who feels forgotten, and who carries darkness and light, despair and hope, in an exhausting daily balancing act. I marvel at his resilience.

The text below is his, and uniquely so (original in Arabic):

It has been months since I tried writing you [this text].

But you are just too hard to be put into words. And I am just an idiot, one who doesn’t care much about his own words. I mostly despise them.

A thousand texts pass through my mind every day, but I only write down those which burn my heart, shattering it inside, turning me into a volcano wandering between streets and busses.

I search carefully for that fire that burns me inside, and in these past days I have let myself melt intensely.

I realize every time I look into a mirror how old I have become. I have grown into an old person, thinking “oh, my son!” as I talk with people older than I.

The funerals of yesterday look so tempting compared to this empty life. And now, I even forget how to sleep. How can I sleep? What I greatly need is to be taught how to sleep again. Arabic and Math classes seem useless now.

As for me, I disparage this world. How could I ever again trust her? As for me, perhaps the only one who never sleeps before cursing this silly planet. How can I trust life once again?

The true crisis is that we don’t realize that we are no longer humans. We just don't. You may not believe this, but we have no more human qualities left in us anymore. We are insects, no more than insects. And this can be easily proven by any given piece of news broadcasted.

Any child living in this vast, troubled world, can see it. The bars of countless dungeons can also testify to it, and to far worse.

I love those of us insects who keep beating themselves up and blame themselves when they turn into butterflies, unlike those who believe to be with no mistakes. Oh, those ones better wake up, because the era of prophets is over. Now is the time for insects.

Don't try to convince me otherwise. I'm just full of these rotting scripts, and then some.

How can I ever learn to keep a girl, when I’m really just a fool who cannot even live a simple day to day life? I will never stand up for myself, trust me.

I do not care how small you [world] see me with your earthy eyes. I could never be smaller than this whole world as seen by the eyes of a little child who lost his precious candy on a bloody night in Aleppo.

Look closely. It is the world and then you, then you, then this world again. Then it's me alone in the corner of earth staring at all of you. Do you like this? I think you do.

I can't deal with you anymore today, I'll try to sleep.

I just can't handle you anymore, I'll try to sleep.

Mohammad Kheir’s words are poetry of his reality. He does have trouble sleeping. His mind is active, even if his aspirations lose their strength. He wants his pain to transform him—as he writes, into a butterfly—though his transformation is hard to measure, hard to motivate. In all of this, he is not alone. And in profound pain, he still has hope. He always has, but hope is not the only player in the battlefield of his mind. Despair occupies a large space in his heart.

Mental health professionals admit that hope is a key to resilience. Since the development of early depression and suicide risk indices, hopelessness has been recognized a major risk indicator for suicide. For those of us in the practitioner space, the question thus becomes, after seven years of conflict, how do we confront hopelessness and despair? While there are scores of good and effective MHPSS programs, neither art therapy nor anti-depressants deliberately confront despair. Even supportive, loyal, and attuned relationships only go so far here, because, in reality, no one in Mohammad’s life has the power to completely change his legal, economic, or social circumstances.

Over the years, Mohammad and I have bonded over books. My life experience is so vastly different from his that our deeper communication is best had through the intermediary of foreign writers like Viktor Frankl, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Amin Maalouf. Where my words fail and my advice rings trite or inarticulate in Arabic, these authors have opened a window for a breeze to flow between Mohammad and I, for personal and risky thoughts to flow through literary filters.

As we finished Fankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning together, I asked Mohammad what were his favorite parts. Among the most memorable for him was a point which perhaps, more than any other point made by any author, has guided my understanding of the universal experience of victimhood—that human suffering of any kind is like gas in a closed chamber. No matter the amount, it will fill the entirety of the space.

Frankl, like many of the authors we have read together, writes of despair as a necessary foe in dealing with trauma, pain, and loss. In later works, he makes it clear that despair is not inherently irredeemable. Quite the opposite, actually; it may be a gateway, a phase, a passage that must be walked through on the road to existential freedom. He writes, “despair is well compatible with success—as compatible as fulfillment of meaning is compatible with dying and suffering.” Frankl’s uncomfortable and frequent juxtaposition of suffering and meaning is plainly evident in the psychological and spiritual journeys of men like Mohammad.

Mohammad’s Facebook page often features quotes from Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, ironic partners in commiseration for a young Sunni from Syria in 2017. In recent months, his frequent posts drove me towards Russian stories, which have a penchant for Jobian depictions of despondency. I can understand why he finds some comfort, or some recognition, in Russian works.

In my exploration, I was moved by one Tolstoy story in particular—one Mohammad hasn’t yet read—The Death of Ivan Ilych. The protagonist, Ivan, is a government employee, accepting but discontent with how life seems to pass him by and opportunities seem to slip away from him. Slowly, Ivan’s experience of an unknown, nagging physical illness sends him on a spiraling journey of self-reflection, depression, loathing, and doubt, all the way to his death. Ivan, much like Mohammad, slowly begins to see how pain, suffering, and self-uncertainty changes, and ages, the sufferer. As I read, I was dumbfounded at the similarity in Mohammad’s and Tolstoy’s description of depression and losing hope.

Tolstoy writes: “Ivan Ilych locked to the door and began to examine himself in the glass, first full face, then in profile. He took up a portrait of himself taken with his wife, and compared it with what he saw in the glass. The change in him was immense.”

Mohammad writes: “I realize every time I look into a mirror how old I have become. I have grown into an old person, thinking ‘oh, my son!’ as I talk with people older than I.”

Seven years ago, when Mohammad looked in the mirror, he saw someone else than what he sees today. The change in him is immense. In a few short years, he has transformed into someone with a different set of dreams, a different set of worries, and in many ways, a different sense of self.

As I read the story of Ivan Ilych, Mohammad Kheir loomed large in my mind. I see Mohammad in his room, and I see Tolstoy at his desk, united by their recognition of suffering, and determined to be on the right side of history, but beating themselves up in the process of transformation. I admit that reading and translating Mohammad’s poem was hard, as his friend. To sit with someone in despair is a necessary and humbling position. I continue to watch my friend change, to demonstrate a resilience that I myself could never have.

Across Syria, in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Germany, and elsewhere, what do we do with hopelessness and with despair? These feelings are to be expected, seven years in to a conflict that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced a significant percentage of an entire country, shattered the aspirations of millions of youth, and, even for the lucky ones, placed them into foreign systems where they have to start again.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, while writing from a Christian perspective, suggests that recognition of despair is a critical component of resilience against its drowning effects. He writes: “On the contrary, one who without affectation says that he is in despair is after all a little bit nearer, a dialectical step nearer to being cured than all those who are not regarded and who do not regard themselves as being in despair.” In this sense, perhaps the onus is on us to give despair a larger stage, to admit our complicity in its propagation, and not let the blunt and dark force of despair scare us from meaningfully engaging with those living it.

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