“How is school? Are you learning new things?” my grandfather asked, motioning for me to sit next to him. “They’re good,” I replied as my head darted around, watching as my cousins all dashed to the door to play outside. “Good, good. You should study hard. A cup can’t overflow until it is full.” I nodded and hopped down, unable to contain my excitement any longer. I raced to the door, pulled on my shoes, and sprinted down the stairs, hoping to catch up to my cousins and enjoy the last few hours of the day.
Those few months of the summer each year in Syria defined my childhood. Stepping out of the airport terminal to be greeted by my uncle’s wide-open arms. Late nights at my aunt’s house playing Mario Party with my cousins. Tearfully packing up our house once again and wishing goodbye to our neighbors. And, through it all, maintaining a sense of self and identity by reconciling my Syrian roots with my upbringing in America.
Year after year, my family’s tradition continued until I was in 8th grade. That spring, my parents sat me down and discussed the protests and worsening instability in Syria. There would be no excited packing, no late nights with family members, no sleepovers with cousins this year. That summer, I found myself fixated and compulsively watching the news; a kind of fearful hope mixed with anxiety compelling me each day to turn on the TV. But as the protests got worse, it became clear to me that there wouldn’t be a quick resolution. I watched with horror as the first bullets were shot and the first bombs exploded, reducing the streets I used to run on to rubble with clouds of noxious gas billowing out of the ruins.
As the landmarks of my childhood were erased one by one, I felt hopeless. I had been uprooted and left adrift, losing a half of my life I had always taken for granted. Looming over this loss was a constant fear. I had seen the devastating loss of life and the toll the war was taking on my country. I lost track of some of my closest friends and watched as others fled, becoming refugees in Jordan, Turkey and all over the world. That fear and despair paralyzed me- until my parents helped to host their first fundraiser.
Seeing the impact and hope that fundraiser produced, I frenetically threw myself into volunteering. The fall of my freshman year, I helped run several clothes drives across St. Louis, hoping to warm at least some of those left destitute by the war. That spring, I ran a bake sale to raise money for Syrian orphans. It was through this volunteering that I found a way to combat the despair and fear the war had induced within me. Over the next few years, I cycled between fundraisers and food collections, bake sales and clothes drives. With each new event I felt a sense of satisfaction, knowing my contributions helped better the lives of those around me.
The crisis only worsened. As I watched the plight of the refugees headlined on the news, my frustration built. Even with the work I had done, there were too many people and too many complex issues to address. Day in and day out death tolls from complications of disease and inadequate access to healthcare resources rose within the camps. Complications of diseases like diabetes, hypertension, preventable infections, etc. killed thousands of individuals yet could have been managed with adequate access to care. And when St. Louis began to welcome refugees, the limitations of my volunteering became painfully clear. I watched the fear written across a mother’s face when her child developed a sudden, painful rash. I watched children rushed to the emergency room with asthma attacks due to inadequate counseling on trigger avoidance and proper inhaler use. And yet, for all my volunteering, I could not help them in those moments of primal, instinctual fear.
Then my parents sat me down again. A bomb had fallen on my grandma’s house, crumbling the hallways that I had run through, destroying beds that I had gleefully jumped on. With it, the enormity of the Syrian war crashed down on me once again, and my own current limitations loomed. In the face of all the traumas, all the destruction the war had and continues to wreak, it wasn’t and couldn’t be enough to simply run bake sales, to collect clothes and goods for refugees.
The bomb provided me with a newfound conviction: while furthering my education and pursuing medicine had long been a dream of mine, I’d never viewed it as a necessity for those I served. My grandfather’s words echoed back to me, “A cup can’t overflow until it fills.” Only by maximizing my capacity for benefit could I affect the greatest change.
This conviction has held with me, now more than ever, as I move forward into my first year in medical school. I’ve continued to help settle the refugees in St. Louis and still volunteer with various drives. These experiences provide the impetus for my dedication to my education. The Syrian civil war taught me resilience, and my volunteering taught me how to focus my energies where they are most beneficial. My grandfather’s words hold true for me and, through them, I’ve come to understand that, at times, the greatest act of selflessness is investing in oneself.