What It’s Really Like In Syria Right Now


my world, my words

Being half Syrian while growing up in Los Angeles, California, was never something I thought much about. That is, until 2004, when I visited my dad, stepmom, and grandparents in Damascus, Syria for the very first time.

I was born in Northridge, California and raised as an only child. My mother and father divorced when I was two, and my father subsequently moved back to Syria. I then lived in a number of affluent suburban neighborhoods throughout the U.S. with my mom and stepdad. When I was 13, my mother suddenly passed away, and I spent the remainder of my teenage years divided between living with my aunt in Sweden and my maternal grandparents in Arcadia, California. It was during my fourth and final year as an undergrad at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that I finally met my father and his family in Damascus.

I arrived in July of 2004 when Syria was considered one of the safest countries in the Middle East. My father and stepmother reflected on the complicated fabric of cultures and classes within Syrian society. My father had grown up with five siblings in a wealthy part of Damascus with an educated background. My grandfather, Ibrahim Hamzawi, was a minister of justice as well as mayor of Damascus in the 1960s, and my grandmother, Hayat Malas Hamzawi, was a teacher, author, and a prominent feminist activist. The two of them lived in a nice apartment building that stood next to one of President Bashar al-Assad's homes. My father’s side of the family was from the ruling Shia Alawite minority, but they were mostly atheists.

My stepmother, on the other hand, grew up in Dummar al Balad, one of the poor areas where most of her family worked in construction and were practicing Sunni Muslims. Her brother, sister, and their children lived together in small quarters nearby, and I remember them being so sweet, loving, close-knit, and such a pleasure to meet and spend time with. Each day was spent with either my stepmother’s family or with my paternal grandmother who had a chauffeur and drove us around to see the various parts of Damascus: the open air markets, the shared spaces, the mountains, and the mosque minarets. We saw the beautiful city at night and in the day enjoyed picnicking in the parks with family friends. While the two sides of the family lived radically different lives, they were both very kind and lived side by side in peace.

The city seemed peaceful to me, however, there was palpable underlying tension and unease. Family members on both sides spoke a great deal about Assad's regime and criticized his authoritarian way of governing. One of Assad’s soldiers stood at almost every city street corner holding a machine gun. My grandmother’s driver was stopped frequently at checkpoints where we all had to show identification. My father explained that the government had lists of people they targeted for arrest—their crime was government opposition. Assad's photo was posted throughout the city. I remember seeing his image on billboards as well as on the front covers of my younger half-brother's and sister's notebooks, which they told me were required at school. One day while my half-brother and I were on the street, I pointed at one of Assad’s pictures and he quickly pushed my hand down, explaining that any suspicion of mockery could have me arrested. 

In 2007, my father moved his wife, my half-brother, and two of my half-sisters to Indiana, as he wanted his kids to have an American education. A few years later my father's parents passed away and the rest of his family moved out of Syria. My stepmother's family, on the other hand, remained there, as they could not afford to leave. 

In March of 2011, Syria began to capture the world's attention when pro-democracy protests erupted and security forces opened fire on the demonstrators. As a result, thousands took to the streets across the country to protest and demand Assad's resignation. The country eventually descended into civil war as rebel brigades were formed to fight Assad's forces. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, it is estimated that around 220,000 have died and more than five million have left the country seeking refuge elsewhere.

My stepmother’s entire family is a victim of this war. Some of her relatives have been able to escape, walking more than 150 miles to Turkey and traveling an additional 2,000 miles to Germany where they have sought refuge. But her sister and nine children cannot afford to leave, so they remain in Syria and live near a military unit to be safe from air raids. My stepmother is able to talk to them daily via Skype. She says they live in constant fear and have minimal access to food, water, and health services. One of the nine children, my stepmother’s 18-year-old nephew, ran away when he was 14 to hide with the rebels. He has minimal conversation via texts with her as his phone can be traced.

This year my stepmother received the news that her brother and her three nephews were tortured and killed by Assad's regime. There is not a day that goes by that she doesn’t cry now. When I heard the news, I was devastated. I remember meeting the four of them and being greeted by their friendly smiles. Photos had apparently surfaced of the nephews participating in anti-government protests three years prior. They were therefore hunted down, jailed, and tortured to death.  My stepmother was sent a photo of her brother with his eyes gouged out. 

My step-aunt’s neighbor's daughters have been raped and their father was set on fire for hiding from authorities in his house. Yesterday, my father sent the news that one of his former students was tortured and killed for posting a cartoon about Assad on Facebook.

My father and his remaining family can only communicate from afar and there is a sense of hopelessness and loss—not only for their family but also for the country that they called home. While we are here worrying about our safety, there are millions of Syrians, like my family, that are living in fear every day. If they do not support Assad's regime or run away to join the rebels, they are left with only one option: join the Islamic State (ISIS), which continues to grow out of the instability from the country's civil war. The other half of Syria has been displaced and is seeking refuge anywhere it can find it.

I am terribly saddened by the harsh rhetoric against accepting Syrian refugees that is in vogue among many candidates in this presidential election. The majority of Syrians are living in terror and just want a safe place for their families to be able to live in peace, send their children to school, and watch them grow up without the fear of torture, bombs, death, and destruction. I want so much to help my family come to the U.S. or to a safe democratic country, and I plead with anyone reading this to consider the desperation of my family and so many others attempting to escape the horrors of everyday life in Syria. 

Photos by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

This photo proves that they are the chillest onscreen family

Sophie Turner just posted a photo of herself, Maisie Williams, and Isaac Hempstead Wright—aka the Stark siblings—to her Instagram, showing just what the three used to get up to when the Game of Thrones cameras weren't rolling.

The photo shows Wright looking quite pleased with himself while sitting on a makeshift throne, wearing no pants. As he should be, seeing as (spoiler) his character, Bran, won the Iron Throne this weekend. Williams, meanwhile, is looking way too cool to be involved in the shenanigans, wearing a pair of black sunglasses and staring absently off-camera. As for Turner, she's looking away from her onscreen brother, too, nervously smoking a Juul.

"The pack survived," Turner captioned the photo.

This photo just goes to prove that the Stark siblings are the chillest onscreen family. (It also proves, yet again, that Turner's social media is an absolute delight.)

We're actually a little sad that this footage didn't make it into the final season, considering how many modern-day objects have been spotted in the show's last few episodes.

Photo via @mileycyrus on Twitter

Meet Ashley

Miley Cyrus shared the trailer for her forthcoming Black Mirror episode, and it's basically Hannah Montana set in a dystopian future. Cyrus is a pink wig-wearing pop star named Ashley who is rolling out an in-home virtual assistant, named Ashley Too, that looks like her and shares her voice. But, as is the case with every Black Mirror episode, this technology is not as cute and fun as it's advertised to be.

In the trailer, we get the idea that Ashley is all about wanting fans to "believe" in themselves—but underneath that pink wig, maybe she doesn't feel that same self-love. After Ashley Too introduces herself to fan and new owner Rachel, promising to be her friend, we get a look at Ashley's darker side. She's depressed and tired of the pop star life. A record label executive says to several people in the room, "She doesn't understand how fragile all this is." As they consider upping her dose of medication, Ashley's life is on a downward slope. "It's getting so hard to keep doing this," she voices over glimpses of a police car chase, performances, and breakdowns backstage.

But back to the technology: Does Ashley's breakdown also mean the breakdown of Ashley Too? Looks like it. We see Rachel's virtual assistant screaming, "Get that cable out of my ass! Holy shit! Pull it out," breathing a sigh of relief as soon as they pull it out. A title card then reveals the episode name, "Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too."

Watch the full trailer and get a full view of Cyrus' cyborg-esque pop star look, below. Black Mirror returns to Netflix on June 5.


Photo by Paras Griffin / Stringer / Getty Images.

Several actresses allegedly had "issues" with him

Lena Waithe's Showtime series, The Chi, just lost one of its main characters. Jason Mitchell, who was also set to appear in the Netflix film Desperados, has been dropped from both projects following multiple allegations of misconduct. He has also been dropped by his agent and manager.

Hollywood Reporter heard from a source "with knowledge" of The Chi, who says that Tiffany Boone, the actress who plays Mitchell's girlfriend on the show, is just one of several actresses who had "issues" with him. She eventually told producers at Fox21 that she could no longer work with him after filing several sexual harassment complaints. Apparently, her fiancé, Dear White People co-star Marque Richardson, would join her on set when she would shoot with Mitchell.

While news of Mitchell's alleged misconduct is just now beginning to surface, it looks like the ball started rolling on the fallout weeks ago. He was dropped from Desperados and replaced by Lamorne Morris before filming began. A source from the production team said that the producers received "specific information" that they reviewed and acted on quickly. Similarly, a source familiar with Mitchell's former agent, UTA, said the decision to drop him a few weeks ago was very quick following the allegations.

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Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images

Prior to the college admissions scandal, she said she doesn't "care about school"

Apparently, Olivia Jade wants to go back to school despite all those YouTube videos that suggested otherwise. Back in March, it was revealed that her mom, Fuller House actress Lori Loughlin, and dad, Mossimo Giannulli, had scammed Jade's way into the University of Southern California. Now, Loughlin faces jail time, and Jade lost out on plenty of lucrative ad partnerships.

According to Us Weekly, "Olivia Jade wants to go back to USC," per a source. "She didn't get officially kicked out and she is begging the school to let her back in." Another source though ousted Jade's real motivation to the publication. "She knows they won't let her in, so she's hoping this info gets out," they shared. "She wants to come out looking like she's changed, learned life lessons and is growing as a person, so she for sure wants people to think she is interested in her education."

Jade previously shared in a YouTube video she's in college for the "experience of like game days, partying" rather than the education. She also said, "I don't know how much of school I'm going to attend... I don't really care about school, as you guys all know." Though these statements were made prior to the scandal coming to light, her brand partnerships didn't come into question until her parents were indicted.

Right now, despite previous reports that Jade and her sister would both be dropping out of USC, Jade's enrollment has been placed on hold—meaning she cannot register for classes, or even withdraw from the school—until her parents' court case comes to a close. Then, the school will make its own decision as to how Jade will be affected. I think, either way, she should have to pay off a few of her classmates' loans for all the BS she pulled.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

He'd previously said he wanted to punch Jackson's 'Leaving Neverland' accusers in the face

Aaron Carter has been one of Michael Jackson's fiercest celebrity advocates in the aftermath of the Leaving Neverland documentary in which two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, alleged that Jackson sexually abused them when they were children. In a new clip from People, however, he seems to walk back his defense.

People reveals that Carter will be joining the upcoming season of reality TV show Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars Family Edition with his mother. It's noted that he will be revealing more thoughts regarding Jackson following the documentary and the sneak peek specifically sees him alluding to a negative experience with the singer.

Carter, who has previously said that Jackson was never inappropriate toward him, says that Jackson "was a really good guy," though he does note that this is only true "as far as I know." "He never did anything that was inappropriate," he continues before stopping himself, as though remembering something. "Except for one time. There was one thing that he did that was a little bit inappropriate."

Carter does not provide any more detail after this statement. He has previously said that he would stay at Jackson's Neverland estate and sleep in the same bed as the much older star when he was 15 years old, though he hasn't seemed to understand then just how creepy that is. He also said earlier this year, in a clip from TMZ, that he would be telling a story of something that happened between them in an upcoming book about his life.