Between Aleppo (Syria) and the Silicon Valley

Disclaimer: The events in this post still feel surreal for the author and this post is the author’s attempt to accept a world he doesn’t understand.

Three years ago, after the violence started in my hometown Aleppo (Halab), I found myself waking up, sleeping on the sound of MiG fighters jet, and the explosions; I didn’t know what to do with my life. I didn’t know if there was any hope left for me, or the place I’m living in. But I continued what I did best, and that was ‘Fixing iPhones’.*

I used to be the guy you call when your iPhone breaks, or when you get a new iPhone, I meet you in the street, you give me your device, I go to an internet café, restore its software, install Apps on it, and return it to you you in 4 hours for a 500 Syrian Pounds (≈$8 at that time) in return. I used to save some of that money and spend the rest on buying books in English. Books provided hope that there is another world, that is kinda better, you know. I continued watching the news hoping that a miracle would happen and change everything.

A Miracle didn’t happen, and the violence continued…

The war sucks my friend and politicians don’t give a shit. But one day while I was scrolling through Facebook, I read about a scholarship to study in the U.S and I felt like heck yeah, let’s apply, since there is nothing to lose anymore. Fast forward, I got an email telling me that I got the scholarship!

I was surprised and happy. I still remember vividly myself running in the empty streets of Aleppo in that hot dry night of July to tell my mom that I got it. There was a fighter jet flying over me, but it didn’t matter, and I selfishly felt like that I don’t care, I’m leaving the whole place soon– many emails followed, and I realized I had to be in Chicago, IL in 3 weeks.

Just the last photo I took from Syria, not an endorsement (Bab Al-Salameh (باب السلامة), the borders checkpoint between Syria and Turkey)

YES or نعم

On my way out, I saw destroyed tanks, buildings, and spirits. I didn’t know where I was going, or how this is going to work out, and after a miraculous journey to Istanbul, I took my first international flight. I realized that I’m an adult, though I just turned 19– I felt that there is no chance for doing things that don’t fascinate me. I felt the crazy realization that I got the chance to live again. No time for saying “yes” anymore.

Since I grew up under authoritarian government, the word “YES” or “ نَعَم ” was everywhere in the streets; it was always bold, painted with bright colors, a very overwhelming image to make people conform to the protocols they intended for them.

I arrived to Chicago on September 1st, 2012. I felt happy that I was studying Computer Science– this has been my passion all along, and now I’m doing something about it. I started to build Apps, learn what a RESTful API is. Websites became my source of knowledge (i.e. YouTube, Github, developer.$TECHNOLOGY_NAME.com) and after a lot of code, internships, teaching, and classes, I found myself in …


1 infinite loop, Cupertino, CA (by me)

The Valley

So Last summer (May 2015), I finally made it to the Valley, and that was great. I was a software engineering intern at the company that basically makes the iPhones I used to fix, and that made me very happy. It was probably one of the greatest things that happened in my life.

I was working with the most intelligent, creative, and kindest people on the planet. It made me very happy, I felt my opinions were valued (Something very significant and strange for a person who lived in place where people can only say… Yes)

It also made me feel that my code and opinions were actually changing the world, and that was a crazy thing, that I didn’t realize instantly.

The Valley is beautiful place, It’s full of intelligent people, working very hard to make the world that we live in today. I felt ecstatic most of the time to be there. But I also felt guilty; guilty of living a life that was very far from what my friends and family in Syria lived.

This guilt was overwhelming sometimes. Because I stayed in touch with my dad in Aleppo, my brother on his way out (like other Syrian refugees) to Europe. I couldn’t tell anyone from my old friends about how good my life is, because most of my friends back home are posting about the tragedies they were going through everyday; the snipers, the checkpoints, the mourning, the lack of water, food, electricity and communication (the stories you don’t read in the NY Times or CNN), and all of that while I was hanging out in Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Francisco. It just didn’t make me feel comfortable with myself.

These feelings reached their apex while I was on a boat cruise to see the Golden Gate bridge with the other interns, and my brother was on a rubber boat in the middle of the night on his way to some Greek Island named Kos, and in the midst of all of that a sentence echoed in my mind.

What did I do to deserve this?!

What did I deserve to be here, away from all that unjustifiable bullshit people I lived with all my life are going through, I knew deep in my heart I could have been with my brother on that same rubber boat, running for a better life.

I was following the news of the Valley too. It was interesting to observe the geographically distant, emotionally close places to me. I was reading about Tesla’s Powerwall, and wondering if that thing existed in Syria, how could it help people there. Because at that time I couldn’t call my dad, since he didn’t have electricity to charge his cell phone. I was also reading about California’s draught, and thinking about how the draught in Syria was a factor in the instability that followed.

Sexism, xenophobia, racism, climate change, and diversity in the valley, all these issues concerned me. I felt the amount of immense injustices around the world. I realized that there is no such thing as first world problems and third world problems and such divisions were only created by us so we can feel less guilty about humans away from us, and basically conceal the auwful complexity of the world, and the fact that essentially

Problems know no borders

But so is the human ingenuity! I felt that we should think in a more diverse, global way. Because everything is connected, and any problem at any point can move, change, and spread, or manifest itself differently. It’s similar to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; you can’t determine the domain and the influence of a certain problem at a certain point and the same time precisely, and we should all strive to solve all sort of problems for people everywhere. That sounds like a ‘crazy’, utopian idea, but that’s how I feel, so yeah…[Sorry for letting you down, but accept the fact that some ideas have no conclusions.]

Modern Alchemy

What actually made me overcome that feeling of guilt was the work I was doing. It made me very happy that the code I was writing was probably going to be used by people at some point, and that no matter what you do, and weather you code, work on a technology. You’re essentially solving a problem! which is just awesome. I realized that even though I haven’t been helping people enough directly. It’s that code is going to live, or be built upon, or realizing that it was a bad idea, and we should do something better next time, and someday someone somewhere is going to use this code (or something better) to help someone, so that was my impact.

Because, if someone didn’t sit and write a web browser, I wouldn’t have read about the entire scholarship to the U.S thing, and that basically changed my life. It feels that software and technology in general is transforming lives everywhere, It’s like alchemy in its promise; It’s cheap in contrast to the impact it’s capable of making in one’s life. I’m thankful for all the amazing people write code, create technologies, and solve problems to enable people in their lives, and at the end, the refugee crisis would have been way worse if not for the programmer writing code anywhere in the world, or in The Valley. So yeah. Thank you! You’re awesome!


** Restoring Software and installing apps isn’t that easy in Syria, there is so much Tor involved and error code 1009.

† That’s what happens when most of what you read is about programming, and you decide to write lol (I only love protocols in programming sense).

Jamal

Computer Science Student, Passionate Programmer & Earl Grey Lover

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