The news of my high school national exam came in 2014, announcing that I was awarded a scholarship to leave Yemen and study in the United States. The timing was perfect because Yemen’s war was reaching an unprecedented peak. Amidst this positive news and as a fresh high school graduate, people were killed for their beliefs or for declaring the wrong statements. Yemen became a nation of mobs where killing occurs at a rapid speed.
Most people who witness war die in it and the few who survive rarely write about it. We are also simply overwhelmed with an overload of information with hollow language and surface statistics. We become desensitized to human suffering and pain. We no longer can empathize and sympathize with those whose lives have been marred by a crisis. We read the news but it barely resonates.
What about the people who lived through war and then escaped it? What about their trauma? What is war? When does it begin? And when does it end? These questions might lack a sense of urgency for most people but they are the guiding principles for my life. Not a day passes by without my thinking about war because my life has been defined by it. My experience of war is neither unique nor different. It applies to all of those who hailed from traumatic environments. We as a group need to tell the world, loudly and clearly, that war begins when it ends.
I was attending high school when the Arab Spring protests took place in 2011. We were forced to leave our classes and participate in the revolution, to protest against a corrupted government. We were naïve to make informed decisions. We were charmed by the chaos because stability never produced fruitful results for us. We were on the verge of war, though we did not know it at the time. We witnessed simultaneous and numerous traumas, though we were not aware of that at the time. We were driving the country to become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, though that did not matter much at the time. We were in the middle of a war.
Like most students in my school, I participated in the protests, for no other reason than to fight a corrupt government. We were fed up with inequality and we wanted to take agency over our lives. But during those presumably innocent protests, some of my friends were shot by the police. We were witnessing death in front of our eyes. We were traumatized but did not feel the trauma. It is similar to those who get into car accidents and never remember the pain at the moment, and those who get raped but only later experience its painful and often unforgettable repercussions. Our brains were traumatized and our feelings were numbed.
I was lucky to receive a scholarship to leave Yemen and study in the U.S. When I arrived at the University of Miami in 2016, I was relieved because finally, I was away from the chaos. I thought that my experience with Yemen's war was over. I am now in Miami, Florida, surrounded by nice beaches and warm weather. But my body and brain, as well as my mind, never forgot about the war. It has been imprinted in my DNA. I would go to class, and my imagination would wander to contemplate any possibility that the class would be interrupted by protestors, similar to what happened in Yemen. I realized that the war in Yemen was still haunting me in my new environment. Although I was physically away from Yemen’s war, I became mentally paralyzed by it.
The effects of the war often manifest in how I relate to people. Since the war in Yemen is a war between people, I had a challenging time navigating intrapersonal relationships with my new connections in the United States. The war left a scar on my ability to connect with people because growing up in a traumatic environment alters the healthy configurations of my brain. Growing up in the middle of a war altered my sensibilities and how I resonate with the experiences of people whose lives were not exposed to war. I was alienated by my experience because few people understood my predicament. I was having war in my body and mind and soul.
Although I have been away from Yemen for seven years now, I have been living the war vicariously and virtually. I will wake up reading messages on WhatsApp and Facebook, announcing the death of friends and family members, who have been affected and lost in the war. After receiving horrifying news, I will then have to walk into my classroom and pretend as if nothing has happened and as if I am living a happy and healthy life. Those contradictions result in pain that words fail to explain. Those of us who have experienced war do not often understand our experiences. Nor could we communicate our predicaments with others. The experience of war changes the psychology and biology of the human brain.
I have attempted to distance myself from the war and to close all social media accounts, but whenever I talk to my family, who are still living in Yemen, they will update me. Our conversations are full of sad news. All I learned from those conversations is the number of people who have died or who were injured in the war. I almost always need a therapy session after I speak with someone from home. My family still lives in Yemen, a universe that has a mind of its own. The war became a normalized routine they grew accustomed to. I have not seen my family since I left Yemen. But when I contemplate visiting them, I fear going back to the country in which I was born and raised. I no longer feel at home in my original home, and I struggle to belong in my newfound home. I exist in the in-between, alone. That is the reality of the immigrant and the refugee.
When I attended the University of Pennsylvania to pursue my master’s degree, I could not think of studying any subject but the war in Yemen. It was my daily reality yet I was physically living in Philadelphia. I had to regulate my attention so that it could not be preoccupied with anything else but the war and its tantamount calamities. Even in the Ivy League space, I was negatively impacted by my experience with the war. It is the sad reality I had to endure. While my colleagues were excited to find the next groundbreaking idea, I was trying to understand the breathtaking experiences of war in Yemen. We were in the same class but our minds were operating in different universes.
In my moments of optimism, I often think about the end of the war. After seeing horrifying images in the news, is there an end to this mess? Are we heading toward destruction or can we hope for a bright future? When does a war end? I soon realized that, when I left Yemen, I technically was no longer in the war. However, the moment I entered the U.S., my experience with the war truly began. I was confused by my experience because I expected to have a positive experience free of war. My war with the collective war in Yemen began when my physical involvement with it ended.
Being in a safe and secure classroom evoked my memories of war. When I'm hanging out with my friends, I experience a high degree of trauma. When I try to connect with people, I feel paralyzed by pain. When I try to engage with the world and actualize my full potential, I feel pulled back by war. The most important lesson I learned in my life is: War begins when it ends.