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Starting over in Michigan: Family recalls life before Syrian civil war

Jul 13, 2016

To understand the tragic toll of the civil war in Syria, you need look no further than the city of Homs.

The western Syrian city was held by rebels and under attack by government forces.

Four years ago, on February 22, 2012, American-born reporter Marie Colvin spoke to CNN from Homs, trying to describe her anger at the shelling of civilians in the city:

“There are 28,000 civilians, men, women and children, hiding, being shelled, defenseless.”

“So it’s a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists. There are rockets, shells, tank shells, anti-aircraft being fired in parallel lines into the city. The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”

Shortly after that report, Marie Colvin and a young French photographer were killed when ten rockets blasted into their makeshift media center.

Colvin's family has just filed a lawsuit accusing high-ranking Syrian government officials of assassinating Colvin as she reported on the suffering of civilians, and of intercepting her broadcast signals to get her precise location.

It is the first US case brought against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the five-years-and-running civil war, accusing the Assad regime of war crimes.

That war-torn city of Homs is where 39-year-old Maan and his 30-year-old wife Bayan grew up, met, married, and began to build their life.

The war forced the couple and their three small children to flee.

First, they went to Jordan. Then, after a lengthy vetting process, the family arrived in Michigan just two months ago. They’re starting over in a rented home in Dearborn.

The family has asked us not to use their last names for fear that media attention could mean repercussions for family still in Syria.

They speak virtually no English, but, with the help of translators, Maan and Bayan described life before war came to Homs.

"We were all one people. We were very happy."

“I was born and raised there,” Maan said. “My town. My village. My people. Very simple life. People were happy. There was work, family, friends. We knew all of our neighbors from one end of town to the other end of town.”

Bayan told us they were “lucky” when they were in Syria.

“My husband had a really good job. We had our own home. We were doing pretty good financially," she said.

Americans may have the idea that Christians and Muslims don’t get along in the Middle East. But Maan insists any sectarianism was created by the Assad regime.

“We had the Christians over to our household, they had us at their household. We ate the same food, we spoke the same language,” he said.

“We were all one people. We were very happy.”

Maan told us that was especially true during Ramadan.

“During the holy month of Ramadan, our Christian friends would support us and fast with us to show that we are in this together. The brotherhood. That has all been destroyed.”

"We never in a million years thought that this would happen. And if Homs ever goes back to the state that it was in prior to this, we would love to go back."

The constant threat of death from shells, of being arrested by Syrian troops and never being heard from again, forced the couple into this new life as refugees.

Maan said they never expected it to come to this.

“We never in a million years thought that this would happen. And if Homs ever goes back to the state that it was in prior to this, we would love to go back,” he said.

Bayan told us she still hopes to return to Homs.

“I didn’t take all my stuff with me. I left everything at home in the hope that I would be coming back soon. Even now I am not able to grasp the fact that I will never be going back. There’s this hope in the back of my mind and in my heart that maybe I will be able to return to my home.”

We will continue to bring you the story of this young family as they build their new lives in Michigan. For past installments of Starting over in Michigan, click here.

A special thanks to Reem Akkad and Samer Koujan for help with translation.