Syrian Armenian Student at AUA Recounts Personal Ordeal

Rita Keshishian with the rest of her family.
Rita Keshishian with the rest of her family.

Rita Keshishian with the rest of her family.

YEREVAN – What Rita Keshishian, a freshman at the American University of Armenia (AUA), misses most from her native city of Aleppo are her local Armenian school and the family piano, both 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.

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.

The kidnappers, who were not aware of the clout that the pharmacist enjoyed among his clients, finally released him, but not before demanding that he treat their wounded, some of whom were highly placed figures in the group. Prior to his release, they even offered him payment to make up for any “monetary damages” they might have caused, which he refused.

Following the ordeal, her father returned to his pharmacy, but this time to quietly liquidate its inventory. His clients, concerned that what the pharmacist had endured might lead him to leave their town, streamed into the pharmacy in an attempt to restore his confidence, regain his goodwill, and, as it became increasingly clear that he would leave, dissuade him from doing so.

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 AUA. As an Akian Foundation scholarship recipient, Keshishian receives financial assistance from the university which covers 90% of her expenses. Her sister is a second-year student at Yerevan State Medical University. Her parents are employed, with her father having resumed his profession as a pharmacist.

Keshishian wrote an account of her family’s ordeal for Mimi Zarookian’s Freshman English class at AUA, which is presented below:

“Three Days of Nightmare”

I had just gotten back from school, had my lunch and I was trying to solve a math problem, while the usual daily sound of the bombs and war planes sounded 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 clearly visible. Different war planes were dropping various types of bombs around the city. The sound of bombs shooting down from the sky on the close by neighborhood still resonates in my ears. The explosion was great, my building shook. Then my whole body trembled as it was getting late and my father was not back from work yet.

My father had not come back from his pharmacy yet, and as we waited, the hours passed by like years. It was midnight already and nobody was answering his cellphone. The 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 and I would dose off then wake up shaking and sweaty. I tried to calm myself by thinking about our good memories. That didn’t help either. It made things worse and I would burst in tears. Three more midnights passed, each a real nightmare for me, Sometimes I woke up at midnight after  hearing his keys jiggling to open the door, I would  call him “ Daddy are you home?” , then realize it was just a dream, I would curl up and cry again. I cried so much I thought my tears would surly dry forever!

Finally a phone rang on the fourth day. My mom picked up; surely it was one of the kidnappers who had my father. My sister and I had never 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 my Where is he?” 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 hard time believing the man because no one was getting back home after being kidnapped. There was no law or reasoning to things, we are 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 people.  He is safe.” He then abruptly hung up the phone.

One more depressing night passed, I spent the night by insanely counting the seconds. He might come at any moment, I wanted to be the first one to see him, hug him tightly, to tell him that the whole world is nothing without his presence beside me, to kiss his shabby hands which worked and exhausted over time just to do its best for me, 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, when I don’t even remember how and when I had fallen asleep. After a few hours the sounds of glee and mirth woke me up. I ran to the balcony, looked at the crowd of neighbors outside, there was my dad hugging someone, quickly I closed my eyes again thinking I’m still dreaming. I don’t recall how I got myself out of my room onto the streets, I remember my toes being cold, I might’ve left the house barefoot. Finally, I saw him up-close; it was really him, my dad. He immediately rushed toward me hugged 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. It was very comfortable and safe in there. I gazed into his eyes as it seems for eternity; I had never realized how beautiful my father’s eyes were. I felt his warm tears touching my cheeks and I was also crying. 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.

My father’s story was terrifying for me, as I sat beside him while he was telling us what happened. I imagined how he was taken from the pharmacy and his eyes closed. It must’ve been scary when they took him to unknown place where he found himself locked up in a room that was equipped with medical supplies. He told us that even though he was asked to treat the wounds of the enemy, he did it with pleasure, because he has taken an oath to help the sick. His humanity and his conscious was above anything. 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 he is safe. I love my dad for his courage and his values.

My whole life had changed after that incident. I became completely another person. I feel that I was just an ignorant teenager before and I have never realized the importance of having him beside me. It seems that my love is deeper now. I grew as a person, so did all of us in the family. We appreciate each other a bit more now. I’d like to refer to that as our silver lining.

Founded in 1991, the American University of Armenia (AUA) is a private, independent university located in Yerevan, Armenia and affiliated with the University of California. AUA provides a global education in Armenia and the region, offering high-quality, graduate and undergraduate studies, encouraging civic engagement, and promoting public service and democratic values.

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