Syrian Armenian Student at AUA Recounts Personal Ordeal

YEREVAN, Armenia—What Rita Keshishian, a freshman at the American University of Armenia (AUA), misses most about her native city of Aleppo are her local Armenian school and the family piano which was left behind in 2012, when the family escaped to Yerevan. Even the carefully documented story of the piano, which was inscribed on a piece of paper and stored inside the musical instrument itself, was forgotten. Family photo albums were also left behind; and it is not clear whether her family’s home—on the top floor of a residential building and an easy target for bombs—is still standing.

Rita Keshishian with her family

Several months prior to the family’s arrival in Yerevan and in the midst of the worsening situation in Syria, Keshishian’s father was kidnapped by one of the many rebel groups in the country. He was a highly-respected pharmacist who closely collaborated with an Arab Muslim physician and friend to cure the medical ills of the residents of a town in the outskirts of Aleppo.

Following the ordeal, her father returned to his pharmacy and began to quietly liquidate its inventory. The family is now living in Yerevan. Keshishian has put the experience she endured in her native city behind her and is currently working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business at the American University of Armenia (AUA). The 17-year-old student receives financial aid from the university, which covers 90 percent of her expenses. Her sister is a second-year student at Yerevan State Medical University. Her parents are employed, with her dad having resumed his profession as a pharmacist.

Keshishian wrote the following account of her family’s ordeal for Mimi Zarookian’s Freshman English class at AUA:


Three Days of Nightmare


By Rita Keshishian


Boom Boom…

Oh, not again…

I had just gotten back from school, had my lunch, and was trying to solve a math problem, but the usual sound of bombs and war planes seemed extra annoying that day. I lost my focus and curiosity led me to the roof of our building. I gazed into the horizon, where the city of Aleppo was visible. Different warplanes were dropping various types of bombs around the city. The sound of bombs shooting down from the sky on the nearby neighborhood still resonates in my ears. The explosion was great; my building shook, as the smoke and flames got mixed with the awful sounds of people’s shrieks. Quickly looking in another direction, I could see people shooting at each other. My whole body trembled—it was getting late and my father was not yet back from working at the pharmacy.

As we waited, the hours passed by like years. It was already midnight and he wasn’t answering his cellphone. Bad thoughts kept racing in my head; the ugliest and scariest one kept winning! The thought of him being murdered kept me up all night. I would doze off, then wake up shaking and sweaty. I tried to calm myself by thinking about our good memories, but that didn’t help either. It made things worse and I would burst into tears. Three more midnights passed, each a real nightmare for me. Sometimes I would wake up at midnight after hearing his keys jiggling and would open the door, calling out to him, “Daddy are you home?” Then I would realize that it was just a dream. I would curl up and cry again. I cried so much I thought my tears would surely dry up forever!

Finally the phone rang on the fourth day. My mom picked it up; surely it was one of the kidnappers who had my father. My sister and I had never before been this quiet. We had turned into motionless statues. We peeled our ears trying to hear what the kidnapper was telling my mom. Was dad ok? Did they hurt him?

Suddenly mom started to shout, “Where is my husband? Please tell me where he is?” The man assured her, “Don’t worry. He is with us, he is in safe hands. He will return back home soon.” My mom was a wreck. She had a hard time believing the man because no one who had been kidnapped was getting back home alive; the kidnappers would usually send the severed head to the family.

There was no law or reasoning to things—we were in the midst of a dirty war!

Nervously, my mom kept shouting, “Don’t lie, please, he is a good person. Please don’t kill him.” Loudly the man answered, “Madame, believe me we are not hurting him. We just needed his help to treat our wounded soldiers. He is safe.” The man then abruptly hung up the phone.

One more depressing night passed. I spent the night counting the seconds. He might come home at any moment. I wanted to be the first one to see him, hug him tightly, tell him that the whole world is nothing without his presence beside me, to kiss his shabby hands that had worked and grown exhausted over time just to do its best for me, to hold it tightly and never let it go. I kept dreaming the whole night, and created bridges in my mind that led to him. It was almost daylight, and I don’t even remember how and when but I had fallen asleep.

After a few hours the sounds of glee and mirth woke me up. I ran to the balcony to look at the crowd of neighbors outside, and there was my dad hugging someone. Quickly I closed my eyes again, thinking I was still dreaming. I don’t recall how I got myself out of my room onto the streets but I remember my toes being cold. I might have left the house barefoot. Finally, I saw him up close; it was really him, my dad. He immediately rushed toward me, hugging me vigorously. It was really him! My father was finally home. My whole body had turned into clay and I just wanted to stay stuck in his arms forever, where it was comfortable and safe. I gazed into his eyes for what seemed like an eternity; I had never before realized how beautiful my father’s eyes were. I felt his warm tears touching my cheeks. I was crying also. I did not want him to let go of me ever. And I was never going to let him go, either. I was the happiest and luckiest girl on earth that day.

I sat on the carpet next to his feet while he told us what happened. His story was terrifying for me. I imagined how he was taken from the pharmacy, his eyes, feet, and arms bound. It must have been scary when they finally untied him and he found himself locked up in a room that was equipped with medical supplies. I impatiently asked him, “Daddy, you did help them? They must have had a serious injury, they are poor. You helped them, yes?” He replied enthusiastically, “Of course, yes. No matter what they have done before, no matter what kind of human beings they were, I did it with pleasure because I had taken an oath to help the sick. Always remember that humanity and compassion is above everything.”

I imagined him in that room, alone at night, thinking about us, knowing that we would be very worried about him. He told us that he begged his kidnappers to contact us to let us know that he was safe. His stories impressed me so much that I hugged him tightly and said, “I love you, Dad, for your courage and your goodwill.”

I feel that I was just an ignorant teenager before this incident happened. I used to care only about myself, spending most of my free time chatting on the phone with my friends. I never sat down and talked to my father or thought about spending my spare time with him. I cared about my father then too, but it seems that my love is deeper now. I grew as a person, as did all of us in the family. We appreciate each other a bit more now…

I like to think of that as our silver lining.


Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: Syrian Armenian Student at AUA Recounts Personal Ordeal

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