I was stuck in an elevator in Barrows for 88 minutes — and then there was a fireball on campus.
It wasn’t as scary as it sounds, except for those two seconds in the elevator when I misunderstood the student worker who was helping us and thought she was informing us of the possibility that we may plummet to our deaths. Someone finally came to help us, and I acquired the skill of knowing how to open an out-of-order elevator door. I jumped onto the fourth floor, finally leaving that box that constituted our world for 88 minutes (not to be dramatic or anything), and soon after I left the building, I got a call from a friend telling me to get as far away from campus as possible, right away, because there had just been an explosion near California Hall.
You know this by now. The news is all over the Internet. Within hours, a page popped up on my Facebook suggesting I buy a shirt that said, “I Survived Explosive Midterms — Cal 2013.” There are memes and pictures showing how studious we Berkeley students are; my favorite is the image of a sea of students’ faces in a dark classroom, half illuminated by their iPhone screens, scribbling away, completely unaware of the chaos that was about to break out around them.
I was heading down Bancroft when I got the call, and the panic in his voice made me turn to my right. The big gray cloud that from afar I thought was fog turned out to be smoke from the fire that had just erupted. I got to Telegraph and Durant and watched the masses of students anxiously walking or sprinting across the street, everyone glancing back at the disarray behind. The sirens occupied the surrounding air with their shrieks as the campus blinked with the fire trucks’ lights. A general sense of panic seemed to be spreading throughout Sproul Plaza.
My friends came out, and we stared at the smoky sky, wondering whether we would have class tomorrow (of course we did) and whether this meant any deadlines we had would be pushed (of course they weren’t). As I looked up at the Berkeley sky, I had a flashback: It’s July, and I’m standing right outside the Syrian border, staring up at the half-Turkish, half-Syrian sky. I am listening to a man tell me about the rumor going around that said that the camp we worked at will be bombed soon. “So keep looking up at the sky like you do, and run away from explosions, OK?”
I nod yes and keep my eyes glued on my beloved country’s clear blue sky, decorated with wispy white streaks. I wondered what my reaction would be if I saw a plane approaching: Would I freeze, or would I shout and start running? And then I thought, would running even help me? A feeling of helplessness slowly trickled throughout my body and gradually took over. My brain seemed to place me in someone else’s shoes, subjected me to someone else’s emotions, someone who is watching a bomb fall down on her country, her city, her house, herself.
It is painful, knowing thousands have had to answer the question of whether running is beneficial. It is even more painful knowing those people and I shared the same nationality, the same land.
I stood on that corner of Bancroft and Telegraph, watching students rush toward my side of the street, and thought, this is a small glimpse of what it must be like to be in my country. My friend, commenting on the excitement of the day and explaining why he so desperately needed a drink, said, “An explosion. That doesn’t happen every day.”
But it does. It is happening every day. And it’s not because wiring was stolen but because people are purposefully dropping bombs on others. And it really is horrible that some of our fellow Berkeley students were hurt, and all of our prayers are going out to them. But I want to point out that my fellow citizens are not only hurt but are dying, on a daily basis. In their homes, their schools, everywhere.
The explosion in Berkeley reminded me — not that I needed a reminder — of what drives me to be here, the reason I listen to professors talk about human rights and conflict-management strategies. Everyday life in Berkeley, whether it’s another normal day or a huge-fireball-on-campus kind of day, speaks of Syria to me.
It’s as Walt Whitman said,
“I was looking a long while for Intentions,
For a clew to the history of the past for myself, and for these
chants — and now I have found it,
It is not in those paged fables in the libraries, (them I neither
accept nor reject,)
It is no more in the legends than in all else,
It is in the present — it is this earth to-day.”