Less than two weeks after this humanitarian worker arrived in Washington, D.C., President Trump proposed his first travel ban. ‘We all freaked out.’

By Hira Hsiao

Abeer Pamuk fled Aleppo, Syria, in October 2012, as violence escalated in the country and forced her to leave her hometown.

“My mom walked into my room one day and said, ‘you need to pack and go,’ Pamuk said. The jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra had occupied the street behind her house. Her mother didn’t feel it was safe for a young girl.

“I was so angry that I had to put my life on hold for these people,” Pamuk said. “As I packed, I could see from my balcony the sniper they had set up over the mosque, Ar-Rahman, they just took hold of.”

Abeer Pamuk is a fellow at the nonprofit Atlas Corps. (Photo by: Nedal-Al-Abdallah, provided by Abeer Pamuk)

Pamuk, then 19, almost missed her flight. On their way to the airport, she and her driver had to take shelter behind the car to avoid a military tank shooting. For the rest of the 45-minute ride, she had to lay low in the car to minimize exposure to snipers along the way.

Pamuk said she took one of the last departure flights from Aleppo that day to Lebanon to stay with her aunt. By December of that year, all flights would be  suspended, and the entire airport shut down by January 2013.

Pamuk was born and raised in Syria. Before she fled, she lived in Aleppo with her mother and younger brother, Abed.

Five years ago she was in school at the University of Aleppo, but the war interrupted her studies.

She had planned to go back after things calm down to finish her bachelor’s degree in English literature, but instead she returned to Syria six months later to a devastating reality.

“I received a call” in Lebanon saying “there was an explosion at the University of Aleppo … I lost friends on that day, and I almost lost my brother and mother,” Pamuk said. Pamuk’s brother was on campus on the day of the attack and her mother was at a nearby hospital.

Pamuk lost two friends that day and four more later as the war goes on. She recalls the loss of friends who were not lucky enough to have left Syria, as she did.

When she left, she had hoped the war will be over soon, she said.

Five years later, she still hopes for that.

From civil uprising to civil war

Pamuk, now 24, returned to Syria, where she finished her degree and committed herself to humanitarian work for 3 1/2 years before deciding to apply for the Atlas Corps fellowship program in the United States.

Living amid the constant unrest was not easy. Sometimes she even ran for her life.

“I don’t miss taking showers from a bottle of water, or studying with a candle light in a super cold house or going to exams with purple fingers,” Pamuk said. “I miss beautiful Syria of my childhood and I want that back.”

Abeer Pamuk in Latakia, Syria, with 9-year-old boy Wael. (Photo by: Abdulkader Al-Fayad, provided by Abeer Pamuk)

She worked with SOS Children’s Villages, an international nonprofit focused on the comprehensive care of vulnerable children. The work took her to Madaya, one of the areas most affected by war. BBC News called the Syrian town a place “where children resort to suicide.” There, Pamuk said she witnessed “misery” and “people starving to death.”

The Syrian conflict — which began as a civil uprising against Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in 2011 — is now in its seventh year. According to the United Nations, the war has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives and has left millions injured, CNN reported.

The majority of the displaced are taking refuge in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. From there, many move to Europe or the United States, hoping for better life.

As of March this year, “more than five million Syrians have fled the country and 6.3 million people are displaced internally,” CNN reported.

Pamuk’s mother and brother are still in Aleppo. They plan to depart as soon as her brother manages to find a scholarship. Pamuk is grateful that “they are alive — that’s the best you can get there,” she said.

From disaster to uncertainty

Pamuk recently joined Atlas Service Corps. The organization brings international nonprofit professionals to the U.S. and helps them develop leadership skills.

Within two weeks after Pamuk arrived in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump introduced a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Iran and Iraq. The travel ban was later revised in March to exclude Iraq.

“We all freaked out. It was scary and not clear. We didn’t know who is included, who is not,” Pamuk said of the international fellows at Atlas Corps.  Her mother even called her, asking if she would get deported.  

Abeer Pamuk on an SOS Children’s Villages mission at Yarmouk camp in Damascus. (Photo by: Abdulkader Al-Fayad, provided by Abeer Pamuk)

“As a humanitarian worker, you get exhausted sooner or later,” Pamuk said about working in war-torn Syria. Throw in travel restrictions and “you are pushing us in the smallest corner and sucking the air from us.”

This professional exchange program is a chance for Pamuk and many like her to meet world leaders in the humanitarian sector and bring expertise back to where they are much needed.

But, with the new administration, the program feels “restricted and limited in its ability to recruit,” said Abby Robinson, chief development and engagement officer at Atlas Corps.

While the proposed ban is currently held up in court, Pamuk is wondering what it would mean for her, and others like her, if it goes into effect.

Pamuk is on the J-1 visa, a nonimmigrant visa for work and study-based exchange that lasts eight months. Exchange visitors on this type of visas are expected to return to their home country to share their acquired experiences back home.

So is Pamuk.

She is determined to continue her humanitarian efforts in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria. As the war continues, working from an international office is the best available option.

“I am capable of working as part of international efforts to solve what’s happening in Syria,” she said. “But now I am not certain what future holds for me and all of us under new administration.”

Pamuk said she believes that there is a big disconnect between what’s happening in Syria and what’s been decided at the international level.

“Someone has to reach that table and share their first-hand experience,” said Pamuk. She said that whenever international policy makers go to peace conferences, their actions “include weapons, and weapons never bring peace — chemical weapons or missiles, people die either way.”

Featured photo provided by Abeer Pamuk