It’s hard to imagine how much life could change if you woke up one morning and saw an armed insurgent at your doorstep and military tanks rolling down the street. Ask George Tannouz how it felt when civil war invaded his once tranquil neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria, and he’ll tell you that it was the worst day of his life.
In 2012, George was a pharmacy student at the University of Aleppo. Today George is an American Red Cross volunteer in Los Angeles. But back then he was a young man in his early twenties, a shooting guard for a hometown basketball team. He dreamed of transferring to an American university on an athletic scholarship. He spent his time studying, practicing his money shot, hanging out with friends, and looking for the girl of his dreams. With big aspirations and a fine focus on his future, war was the furthest thing from his mind.
That changed quickly. “After the war started, I didn’t want to live in Aleppo anymore,” recalls George. “My dreams, my thoughts [of the future] were gone – I only thought about how to survive.”
As the fighting grew worse, it took a toll on George’s will to continue. Friends and family had fled the neighborhood; some had been killed. The gym where George had played was destroyed by mortar shells and car bombs, and things that he had once taken for granted – like electricity and heat in his home – were no longer part of his daily life. At one point, much of Aleppo had no water for seven days. George felt afraid and alone.
He tried to leave the country, too, but a delay in acquiring an exit visa kept him in harm’s way. He would tell himself that he could not stand it anymore; life now was so different from the life he known before the war. Then one day, after talking to a friend who volunteered as an ambulance driver for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), George decided to sign up, too.
George was assigned to visit elderly residents who could not venture outside their homes. As part of the Psycho-social Team, he also worked with children who – as kids often do – mimicked combatants by wielding make believe rifles and killing their playmates in a make believe war. In a town with so much real death and destruction, George and his fellow volunteers had to remind children of healthier ways to play.
Being a volunteer was therapeutic for George, too. He had new friends to laugh and cry with – but they were more than just friends. They shared a bond of service, helping others while risking their own lives. Since the start of the war, 40 SARC workers have been killed in the line of duty. Despite the dangers, they continue their work, responding to more than 55 emergencies in January 2015 alone. They continue to engage in a wide range of humanitarian activities such as delivering food and supplies, administering first aid, evacuating the wounded, and creating income-earning projects to help people provide for themselves.
George wants us to know that humans can rise above the mayhem by working together. “The crisis brought us together for the sake of humanity,” says George. “Being in a group gave me the power to keep going. Without my family and friends, without the Syrian Arab Red Crescent….” George’s voice trails off as his eyes gaze out into the distance and well up with tears.
Despite his life-altering experiences, George never fully lost his will to live. He refused to surrender to the fatalism that extinguishes dreams. The memories of war and of life’s worst days sometimes haunt him. Not long ago, George learned on Facebook that one of his good friends had been killed by a sniper on her way home from volunteering as a youth basketball coach.
Shortly after receiving his exit visa, George immigrated to the United States to join his uncle, mother, and sister. His father, unable to join the family for unspecified reasons, stayed behind. George now lives with his sister in Southern California and has volunteered with the American Red Cross. He’s taking classes to learn a variety of skills and would like teach people how to best prepare for a disaster. Helping others is now an inextricable part of his life.
At 23, he says he’s too old to play college basketball. He continues to study, however, and hopes to be a pharmacist one day. With the worst day of his life behind him, and with his new appreciation for humanitarian work, George looks forward to a brighter future … and to one day finding the girl of his dreams.
Photo: George (left) hangs out with his friends from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. (Courtesy of George Tannouz)