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In Damascus, A Mother Torn From Her Family

There are many victims in the civil war in Syria. One woman in the capital, whose husband and children have managed to flee to Egpyt, suffers a particular kind of fear and solitude.

“I am a prisoner in my own home"
“I am a prisoner in my own home"
Ali Safar

DAMASCUS — Samar reaches for her phone and dials the number she has now memorized by heart. She waits, then gets the voice mail asking her to leave a message. She sighs and hangs up, clearly frustrated. She decides to go personally to the Egyptian Embassy in the Damascus neighborhood of Kfar Souseh.

Her journey, which she makes on foot, takes two hours, during which she must pass several regime checkpoints. Previously, soldiers did not pay much attention to women passing through, but these days, they take extra care examining ID cards, especially those of veiled women. Overt religious expression is more likely these days to translate to sympathy with the increasingly Islamist revolt, and Sunni women are more commonly veiled than Alawites. But since Samar was not wearing the hijab, the soldier manning the checkpoint let her go through quickly.

When she arrives at the embassy, one of the security guards stops her and asks that she wait while he makes a call. Two minutes later, she gets her answer. She has been denied entry to Egypt.

Samar says nothing and walks away.

She has been separated from her husband and two children since the end of the summer, when they fled the bloody conflict on a flight to Cairo. The Egyptian authorities allowed in her Palestinian husband and children, who carry the father’s nationality. Samar was rejected because of her Syrian passport and was instead deported to Beirut International Airport.

Under the now-deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Syrian nationals were allowed into Egypt visa-free, one among many measures of solidarity. But after the June 30 military coup of Morsi’s presidency, mounting unrest, compounded by rising anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment, led to a reversal of the visa regulations.

At the time, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman said that Syrians would be welcome with entry visas, which are normally available at the Cairo International Airport. But in effect, many have been barred from entry. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are currently more than 125,000 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt.

“At the end of August, after I was deported, I applied for a visa at the Egyptian Embassy here in Damascus,” Samar said. “They said I should come back in 21 days. They were a month late to get back to me, and then my application was rejected. I was advised to reapply and I did so. After a month, another rejection.”

“They don’t grant the visa to anyone,” she added.

Samar’s husband tried to apply for her through the Tahrir Administrative Complex in Cairo, but that application was also rejected.

“I’m back here to try my luck once again, like the tens and hundreds of other Syrians whose families live in Egypt,” she said. “One day, dozens of us gathered in front of the embassy. An employee stepped out to say that there is no need to come personally to know if our applications were successful or not. That we could call them … but they never pick up the phone.

“In the end, I tried to appeal to the ambassador as a mother’s plea for being away from her children for months. But they refused, saying they don’t have such a thing. According to them, the matter is in the hands of the Egyptian security.”

When asked what she would do after her latest application was rejected, Samar answered, “Nothing. I will spend my time waiting!”

Alone in an war-torn city

The journey to the embassy nowadays is no simple matter. Samar, like so many others, goes each time on foot. With security on lockdown, the roads are all either blocked or partially restricted for vehicles.

Samar returns to her home in the al-Shughur neighborhood of Damascus and calls her husband to fill him in. Despite her best efforts, she cannot stop herself from crying. Her husband, who has been exhibiting symptoms of depression, tries to comfort her.

Samar speaks of her days spent alone in Damascus.

“I am a prisoner in my own home," she says, noting the shelling that has arrived in the capital. "I never leave unless it’s absolutely necessary."

As soon as it gets dark, she closes all the doors and spends all her time talking to her husband and children over the Internet. When the power goes off, any means of contacting them is no longer available, even on the landline because to the damage to the infrastructure. "I often sleep waiting for the power to come back, hoping to get back in touch with the children,” she says.

Samar’s neighborhood is relatively safe. There are no clashes there, but the area is often shelled. The opposition accuses the regime forces of the attacks, while state media accuses “the terrorists” of launching them. The warring sides point fingers, while the lives of residents descend into hell.

Civilians like Samar try to flee, usually to neighboring countries, in search of a safe place to pull themselves together and find opportunities to move forward. There, they will either wait for the end of the war or seek asylum, whether legally or illegally via smugglers who provide them with routes into European countries.

Once Samar is able to reunite with her husband and children, the plan is for the family to follow the latter route. “My husband has decided that we will go by sea,” she said. When we point out that travelling by sea could mean death by drowning, as has happened to hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians recently, Samar is despondent.

“To die with some hope of surviving our current reality is better than to live with despair filling our hearts because of what’s happening in Syria, or to die of a mortar shell launched by our own people.”

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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