As Hummingbird witnessed death and destruction in her homeland of Syria, on the other side of the world her friend and mentor Sarah was mourning the loss of her family members. In each other, they have found healing and a way forward.
"We all have only each other."
It is August, 1962, in southern New Hampshire. A bony-kneed, nine-year-old girl is having a tea party with her two older sisters in the forest, up in a sturdy tree on a splintery wood platform nailed together by their father. Their mother makes dinner at their house down the hill while their father, a Harvard scholar, sequesters himself in his study with what will be lifelong depression. Outwardly, the girl and her siblings will live lives of privilege, but they will always carry a huge sadness.
It is the summer of 1990 in a small village atop a mountain in Syria. Another nine year-old girl with very curly hair sits in a fig tree on her grandfather’s land, watching the sunset and accepting the offerings of sweet figs from the tree mother. The girl strides everywhere, anywhere, just to be away from her troubled home from sunrise to sunset. Though she is punished by her mother every time, the next day she will do it all over again. She is addicted to escape, to wandering, discovering, and dreaming. Her father will soon leave the family forever.
2010, Westchester County, just north of New York City: Sarah, once that bony-kneed girl, is now a middle-aged woman sitting across from one of her sisters at her father’s bedside. They are gently stroking their father’s oddly hot, skeletal hands as he takes his last breath. The week after her father dies, Sarah joins World Pulse as a volunteer mentor to fulfill her community service for Interfaith seminary. She has no idea, yet, how great a source of healing her connection to World Pulse will become.
2011, Dubai: The curly-haired Syrian girl is now a young woman living with helpless anger as violent government crackdowns on peaceful protestors take over a number of cities in her homeland. She knows that she needs to break the silence and speak up. There is no longer any place left for the carefree girl exploring the beauty of the Syrian countryside, eating sweet figs. She begins surfing the Web for a platform where she can cast her voice across the planet like a wide net, speaking out about what is happening. This is how she discovers World Pulse. Six months after the conflict in Syria begins, she becomes a Correspondent in World Pulse’s Voices of Our Future digital empowerment training program. Writing on World Pulse, she starts to unveil her truth. She speaks out under the alias Hummingbird and begins to realize the power of her voice.
In Their Own Words
In September of 2011, World Pulse pairs us together as Correspondent and Mentor. Before meeting online, we are asked to begin our relationship by writing each other letters of love and intent.
How wonderful that we will soon be connected! There’s no doubt that when we extend ourselves to others our own healing begins . . .
I became active in heightening awareness and supporting other women after I’d had breast cancer. Since then I have been called to the work of empowering women. With great admiration and respect for your crucial work as one of the Voices of the Future Correspondents, I will be here to support you in every way…
I was very happy to be chosen as a Voices of Our Future Correspondent, and I am honored to communicate with you. I read your introduction and I felt proud to be connecting with a strong and determined person.
I am sorry to use an alias, but the situation in Syria is very dangerous these days because the ruling gangs are going after anyone they believe is opposing them, whether the person is an activist or not. Even those of us who live outside Syria now have families and friends in danger . . .
We meet for the first time, via Skype, in November of 2011.
Sarah (New York): When I first saw Hummingbird’s lovely face and heard her gentle voice, I loved her instantly. Neither of us have children, but we cemented our connection through our love and respect for animals. I was struck by her dignity and quiet determination in the face of the gross injustices ravaging her people.
She works tirelessly via social media to get the word out that her beloved Syria is being destroyed. But as a Kurdish Syrian, Hummingbird is considered persona non grata, invisible, according to her government. From her, I heard for the first time heartbreaking details of the Syrian conflict. For the first time I had a close connection to a war zone on the other side of the world.
Hummingbird (Dubai): When I first met Sarah on Skype, I found her full of life. Her smiling spirit surrounded me tenderly. I was a little bit shy, but she made me feel welcomed and beloved and secure to open up and release my thoughts. She got me laughing, and our love and respect for earth’s creatures brought us closer together. When Sarah first told me about her dogs I was listening like an eager child to the stories about the two lovely souls. Like Sarah, they are full of fun with kind hearts. I was amazed by Sarah’s career, her dedication to what she believes in, and her strength to survive. I was very lucky to have her as my mentor.
Over the five months of the Voices of Our Future training program, we become bosom friends, often resurfacing from despair to laughter, with the support of our husbands, the adoration of our animal companions, and the solace taken in the messages and strong voices of the other courageous World Pulse Correspondents from around the world.
When there is another massacre in Syria, I immediately reach out to Sarah. Working long hours, weary and discouraged, I email her, “I feel like running outside, naked and screaming.” Sarah, in her eleventh year of parent care and desperately out of fuel despite the help of her sisters, believes that she knows exactly what I mean, albeit on a different level. With nature always as her source of peace, Sarah advises me, “Go outside during your lunch hour and sit, for five minutes–or whatever you can eek out–at that pond with the ducks. Watch them swim, breathe deeply and just let that fleeting, organic serenity engulf you. That’s all you can do at this moment.” So I do.
Sarah: By September 2011, Hummingbird has been chosen as one of three World Pulse Voices of Our Future Correspondents to come to the US for a speaking tour, during which the trio will tell their stories from Portland to Washington, D.C. in person, on radio, television, and live stream.
When her plane lands in New York, I am fifty miles away, visiting family. I’m grieving over my mother’s continued and now alarming diminishment; she has had Parkinson’s disease for twenty-five years and, once so literary and clever, can no longer read or write. Once so warm and loving she is now only relentlessly anxious. She has become a shadow, both physically and psychologically. As Hummingbird loses her country, I am losing my family.
Later that week, Hummingbird and I meet in person at last.
Hummingbird: On the day I met Sarah, I woke up early. I couldn’t stop thinking of the moment we would finally meet. I was on stage rehearsing with the other World Pulse Correspondents when Sarah entered like a force of nature, her energy filling the space. An elegant and kind lady approached me, exactly as I had imagined her. I couldn’t hold in my tears; I was overwhelmed with affection. Her arms surrounded me tenderly and firmly. It was one of the best days in my life. Feeling lucky is an unusual feeling in my life, but on that day, I felt so lucky.
Sarah: I remember what seemed like an interminable escalator ride, and then I was walking into the room and Hummingbird and I were flying into each other’s arms, basking in our mutual joy. I felt proud as I watched her, strikingly beautiful in a formal, white, Syrian Kurdish robe. I saw the audience at NYU melt while listening to her story as they gained a sudden, heightened awareness of Syria and the truth of what is going on there. Her voice joined Neema from Congo and Stella from India in their awe-inspiring determination. As she left the stage, she was immediately surrounded by a small crowd, and I moved protectively to her side, all my motherly instincts at the ready.
Ten days later, the World Pulse Live tour arrived in Atlanta, Georgia and I drove from southwest Florida to connect with them again. We all revel in each other’s company, learning, laughing, respecting, admiring, and listening. Hummingbird and I sit on her bed, talking like two girls at a pajama party. The next morning, we weep as we say goodbye. But I feel that we’ll see each other again before long.
When my mother dies a month later, my sister Lizzie and I are at her bedside, shepherding her with daughter-mother love from this life to whatever reward comes next. When she takes her last breath, I hear myself wailing from that primal place, some part of me wanting to go with her. My mother! My mother! From across the world, Hummingbird sends deep love and comfort. This we have in common, too: we are well acquainted with grief.
Hummingbird: As Sarah mourns the loss of her mother, I enter into deep grief each time I hear that another soul in my country has flown up and away. With each soul I feel part of myself ebbing away, never to return. Innocent people are being killed in horrifying ways and I am overwhelmed by the relentless injustices and sorrows plaguing Syria. Worst of all are the tragic deaths of children. That is when I feel my heart being ripped out. I am worried all the time for my family. Two massacres have taken place in the area where they live. By some miracle my family has survived, each time moving to another area, in hiding to avoid death. Death has become a subject that all Syrians now know intimately, including me. I tell Sarah that many Syrians no longer want to live.
Out on the street I find another cat and soon I bring him home. We call him Mocha, and I email his picture to Sarah to lift her spirits.
Sarah: In July of 2013, Hummingbird comes to the United States to attend a workshop for Women in Public Service at Bryn Mawr College, Alma Mater of my mother and sisters. Hummingbird texts me photos of herself walking through the same, magnificent, stone archway I’ve seen in 70-year-old old pictures of my mother’s graduation in 1942. When the workshop is over, Hummingbird comes to Florida for three days to stay with me, and to meet my husband and our two dogs, at last. I can hardly fathom the privilege of having her under our roof.
Hummingbird: I am full of joy! When Sarah and I drive into her driveway I see two big beautiful Kurdish and American flags fluttering in the breeze together, and then two big, beautiful dogs! Sarah’s husband welcomes me with a big hug and the dogs try to hug me too. I find a warm, artistic house, each corner reflecting positive energy. There is harmony here, and it rejuvenates my soul. It feels like my home-away-from-home.
Sarah: It’s September of 2013. I will be a Voices of Our Future Vision Mentor for the third year. Hummingbird is applying for a year-long residency at Harvard. Will she walk under trees that my father might have walked under all those decades ago, when the world looked so different? We do not know yet. But we know that she and I walk under the same sky.
Hummingbird: In Syria, the wheel of death is still rolling, faster and faster and even more violent than before. On the 21st of August, 2013, I was devastated to learn that regime forces had used chemical weapons in the Damascus countryside, killing fourteen hundred people according to minimum estimations, including hundreds of children. Though it was not the first genocide to happen in this relentless conflict, it was the most vicious and brutal. Again, my people thought the world would do something, but it seems that we are a subject for regional and international bargains, turning our quest for freedom and dignity into a proxy war. Still, even as they face starvation, many Syrians are fighting back against the evil hands destroying our future. Those who just want to be allowed to live their lives in peace have only each other. We all have only each other. The fight of innocent Syrians is giving me power to fight my own battles. Their shining souls are lighting my way.
Sarah: On September 8 2013, my sister Annie suddenly dies. She has been an indelible influence creatively, intellectually, as a mother, wife and sister, with an outrageous sense of humor punctuated by hellish depression. She is too young to be taken from us, but her heart has had enough and just stops. Her instantaneous departure leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of my life and the lives of all who loved her. My husband holds me and cries with me as I howl at the Heavens, My sister! My sister!
How does one heal? I ask Hummingbird.
Hummingbird: I believe every being has a unique way to heal. My way is to keep on fighting with my voice, always reaching out in new ways to be heard, and to love as much as I can. To listen to the stories of other women all over the world who share our deepest desires for an end to cruelty. And animals heal us, as you told me. My cats soothe me every day. And what about you, my dear friend?
Sarah: I’ll shout my sorrow to the sky and whisper the names of my lost loved ones into the velvet ears of my dogs. I’ll listen and read on World Pulse as more and more women raise their strong voices, determined to make a positive difference in the world. I’ll go to our humane society and give the lonesome dogs love and engagement and connection, and take them outside to let them run free so that we can heal together. And let’s write the story of our friendship, my sweet friend. That will be a great comfort.
And so we do.
About Sarah Whitten-Grigsby
By early adulthood Sarah Whitten-Grigsby realized she'd been put on this earth to follow her own path. As a result of experiencing breast cancer, Sarah created and performed a one-woman show to provide information, humor, support and comfort to women with cancer. This led to keynote, and motivational speaking. In 2005 she graduated from the Empowerment Institute and has since led numerous empowerment workshops for young women. Her current works, both written and spoken, focus on leadership through empowerment. After attending The New Seminary in New York City, she was ordained as an Interfaith minister in order to pursue both crisis and search & rescue ministry. In addition to being a nominee for the Lance Armstrong Spirit of Survivorship Award, she has received awards from the National Council on Family Relations, the National Educational Media Association, the Long Island Film Festival, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Florida and others. She has been a United Nations delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women. Having remained standing in the face of some very strong winds, she now considers it a privilege to guide others to empowerment.
As her country sinks into violence, Hummingbird has broken through fear to find her voice. A member of Syria's Kurdish minority, she calls for an end to the horrors of a war where children are massacred in the streets by government forces. Her dream is to use digital media to transform Syria by unleashing women's concealed aspirations and wisdom to awaken the world to alternate paths to the nightmare unfolding across her country.