Illustration by Ahmed Bilal.

An Identity Lost to War

Having endured the feelings of helplessness, despair and guilt, Leila Al Dzheref, a senior at NYUAD, explains how it feels to be both the victim and the oppressor at once.

Mar 7, 2022

I come from a country that has been bombed and a country that is ordering the bombing. I come from humiliation and oppression. From 15 minutes of interrogation at customs and stares that burn with anger and unwelcoming. I come from Syria and Russia. The latter is trapped between the lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Can I say it out loud?
The first time I experienced war, I was 11. But not through bombs, explosions and shootings. Through abrupt phone calls, tears and nightmares. Through the fear of losing loved ones. Despite that, I was safe, while my family and friends were in danger. I felt guilty and hopeless.
Saying that I am Syrian implies immediately some experience of being the victim of war — Syria became synonymous with the definition of misery and tragedy and I am the small element that was left somewhere in between. Between empathy for those who stayed and the privilege of those who left, never to come back.
Saying that I am Russian now implies the experience of bringing the war to others — Russia now stands next to “oppression” and “crimes against humanity”. My country represents the violence I was lucky to escape several years ago. As if I am just changing roles in this loop of global misery.
I escaped the civil war in Syria right before it started. I moved to Saint Petersburg not knowing what this new home might bring me. However, after ten years of living there, I am grateful for the memorable moments, for the amazing people. I love coming back there and being welcomed. Before, every year at the end of the semester I was looking forward to going back, but now I am trying to stay away, keeping as much distance as I can. The notion of home is soiled with politics and it smells badly. None of this is what I wished to be associated with, but we do not choose where we come from. In the countries that I come from, we don’t even choose who governs us. We don’t choose, we just bear the consequences. Of constant regret, guilt, and shame.
Given two homes by birth, I am left with none.
I am the “uncivilized” and the “occupant”. Two labels that do not represent who I am, but will remain part of my life as much as I would like to get rid of them. Born into two amazing cultures, I will have to pay the price of bearing the political implications of both countries.
This Thursday I woke up to a message from my Ukrainian friend: “They are bombing Kyiv.” I knew immediately, it was war again. Another war knocking on the walls of my nerve cells— and I am privileged to say nerve cells and not the cells of my home. This time, as a half-Russian, I feel ashamed, embarrassed, and guilty for everything happening right now.
I am ashamed to look into the eyes of my Ukrainian friend, whose family had to flee their home. I am ashamed when I see all Ukrainians gathered reading the latest horrifying news, the terrible things they are going through because of the Russian government that controls my country and that invaded their homeland against all international law. I am ashamed. I sit with them while they discuss all possible ways on how to evacuate their families; I don’t talk, I listen.
It is déjà vu. A sort of which I hoped I would never encounter again. The same feelings of concern, anxiety and anger at the entire world are taking over me again: when I was seeing missles bombing my Damascus, talking with my relatives and hearing the sound of shooting and my cousins crying. I wasn’t there, but I felt it. And I can only guess what the Ukrainian students are feeling now. And as before, I can’t do anything. I am useless.
I contemplate whether I should be saying this out loud. My feelings can not be in any way compared with what the Ukrainians are experiencing now. Being away from home, trying to get in touch with their families, collecting donations — they stay strong and united, meanwhile, I cry and break. And yet, they embrace me as a friend and not an enemy.
To all Ukrainians on campus and outside: you are an example of bravery, courage and unity. Sometimes, when I come to visit them, they sit in a circle either playing the guitar or card games to distract themselves from all the horror they go through from morning till night. And when I see them like this — emotionally exhausted and sleep-deprived— I just pray for one thing: never seeing them like this ever again.
To the wider NYU community, thank you for standing with Ukraine. Thank you for trying to help the people that the government of my country is hurting. I would never and will never call it “my” government. Because after so many decades of misery brought upon neighboring nations, this government has never been mine.
I don’t deserve to be consoled. When people come up to me to ask how I am doing, I feel ashamed to answer. My sorrow is a drop in the ocean of feelings and worries that the Ukrainian students are experiencing on campus. Nevertheless, I thank each and every one of you for the support you have shown me. I appreciate your love and compassion on my behalf, and on the behalf of the people I know who are protesting now in Russia and beyond. I thank you for standing with Ukraine.
Leila Al Dzheref is a contributing writer. Email her at
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