Below is my interview with LeaderStories talking about how I was able to balance myself living and working in Syria:
What does self care mean to you, personally and professionally? And what does it look like?
As a person who comes from Syria, especially after I lived through the war in 2016, self-care to me became simple things that I used to do before the war that I can still do now. When there is war in your country, you will have no control over anything.Even when there is water or electricity in your house, you are constantly petrified of losing things like your home, your stuff, or in the worst case,losing your family and friends.I lost six of my friends since the war started in Syria. Some were killed by sniper bullets, stray bullets, rockets and explosions. A lot of my friends fled Syria within a night and now live all over the world today. I don’t know if I will ever see them again. I myself have not seen my family in three years. People wonder how I can continue living with all the stories that I have in my background.Here are some examples of how I practice self care:
The last time I was in Aleppo, I went to a café that my friends and I used to stop at on our way back from university to take my regular drink, mocha coffee. It was in the winter and by no means did the place look the same as it did before the war, but just the fact that I could stand there and drink my coffee brought back a lot of positive memories to my mind. I could almost feel the place filled with the bunch of us joking and laughing out loud.
Other simple examples are things I do at my home that remind me of my home before the war like rolling the towels in a specific way or making things smell similar to what my home smelled like: dried lavender leaves. I know for a fact that I will never be able to live at my home again, but making things look and smell like my home helps.
What was a moment or experience you had that made you realize you needed to be practicing some form(s) of self care?
I was on a field mission in Yarmouk Camp near Damascus where I was working with an international organization called SOS Children’s Villages. Throughout my career with the organization, I had the chance to document family’s stories across Syria. Sometimes I find it hard to convey how brutal life is for millions of people in that part of the world to Americans. There was this family I visited many times. Every time I visited, one of its members was no longer with us. They were poor and simple yet generous. The grandmother cooked for everyone including me and my colleague.
We were sitting in the middle of nowhere very close to the frontline so we could hear the battle very clearly. The grandfather took a heavy breath in and just before he started to eat, he said, “We used to be twenty people sitting around this table. Half of my children are now only pictures on the walls of this room.” I burst into tears before I could take my first bite as I looked around at the pictures surrounding us, and it kept getting worse until I had to leave the house. My colleague followed me outside and told me words that I can’t forget: “You are a humanitarian! You can’t come here to give people strength and hope, andthen collapse. I think your job has started to become overwhelming and you need to do something about it. In order to take care of others, you have to take care of yourself first.”
Advocate and activist burnout is very real, and sometimes hard to avoid. How do you personally find balance in your life when you don’t have the option to press pause?
It is not necessary to fall short on your work tasks to take care of yourself. Sometimes taking a 10 minutes break to walk outside can make a huge difference in your day. Just remember that you are a human and not a machine and if you burn out, getting back from that point is really hard. Sometimes we beat ourselves up too hard about even taking the couple of weeks of vacation we have per year. These are your right so please don’t feel guilty about taking the opportunity to balance yourself. If you don’t do it, your productivity will for sure drop down and you will find yourself physically in the office without being able to actually get work done.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about self care from someone whose life or identity is different than yours?
Different people have different personalities. Some people find self-care in an extreme sport or trying something completely new, while others will find self-care in things that keep them grounded and connects them to certain phases of their life. It all depends on your background, where you grew up and the type of job you have.
If you could give any advice to younger advocates, activists, or organizers who are just starting out in the social good space, what would it be?
Social change is not an easy road to take for a career. Always remember that you are there to solve big problems. You will come across things that seem inhumane, unjust and sometimes brutal. On a lot of days you will feel you are way smaller than the problem and you will start being desperate about it. As your energy starts going down, connect with people who do similar work in order to recharge yourself and reassure yourself that you are not alone. Social change does not have to be doom and gloom. You have the right to smile and have fun even if your field of work cannot be described as “fun.” Having the opportunity to serve others and make other people’s lives better is a privilege and you should be happy and proud of doing what you do.