When a former Syrian student of mine, Walid, announced that he’d resolved to pay smugglers to get him to Europe, I thought of his classmates and so many youths I hear from, now scattered across the globe. I’d known them in Damascus where I’d been teaching workshops in media. I stayed until 2012 well after the conflict had begun so I witnessed these youths’ dilemmas as the earliest stage.
Faras, after completing his studies in theater, delayed plans to travel to Egypt because his mother needed him with her. To support himself meanwhile he was tutoring foreigners in Arabic. Initially Faras seemed unconcerned about the demonstrations erupting across the capital. One afternoon this abruptly changed when while innocently riding a bus, he was picked up by security agents. He spent 40 days in an underground jail, emerging as a fearless anti-government activist. Using contacts from prison, he joined clandestine planning meetings and street protests very much like young men did in the city of Homs (https://www.idfa.nl/industry/daily/2013/interviews/return-to-homs.aspx ). Where Faras is today, I don’t know.
Others– Karim and Walid, Hazem and Samir, Homa and Rana [i]— somehow keep in touch with each other and with me. Most are now outside Syria, alone. Rana who managed to continue doctoral studies in English literature in Syria is leaving soon. In 2009 she considered graduate work at an American university but because of U.S. policy towards her country, she shifted her focus eastward, to India and Thailand. Last week she wrote me that’s she’s received a scholarship for India. It’s good news. Rana knows the high level of English there and I’m happy she made that choice.
I’ve recently lost track of Karim who decided to join the opposition after the first protests erupted in the south of Syria. Joining a network of equally committed youths he offered his services in media to the Syrian Free Army. Initially foreign journalists ventured into FSA and other rebel camps and that’s where they picked up Karim. Although poorly paid, he seemed to thrive in that risky job. Within a year Karim was in Europe and the USA giving testimony at human rights meetings there. I think he really believed that these international bodies could change the direction of U.S. policy in favor of intervention; anyway there was no going back. It was on one of his human rights junkets in NY in 2013 that we last met; I was astonished at Karim’s facility with his laptop and phones as he tracked his network of informants and kept in touch with family in four countries simultaneously. He was to return as a guest of the U.S. State Department but never arrived. From his base in south Turkey he continued his forays into increasingly dangerous rebel areas of Syria, again on behalf of journalists for whom entering Syria had become too risky.
Karim always kept in touch with us so his silence over the past six months is worrying. Friends suspect he’s been captured by ISIS. If he’s not dead, he is in deep trouble, they fear.
Then there’s Samir, alone and despairing in Jordan. Although when I last met him he was upbeat, gratified that, passport in hand, he’d escaped his homeland by a circuitous route. No U.N. refugee camp for Samir, he was working at two jobs and saving for his marriage. His college sweetheart, to whom he was engaged before he fled, was still in Syria. (They kept in touch daily by WhatsApp.) Certain she’d arrive within weeks he invited me to the wedding. That was 18 months ago and she’s still not with him.
Hazem chose another course. Even with a degree in economics he hadn’t found work and was sharing an apartment with four students, friends from his hometown in south Syria. Inexplicably Hazem decided to join the army; with his degree he’d become an officer, he expected. Before he completed his training in 2012 the crisis had worsened, so during a week’s home leave he decided to slip across the border. With no passport or any papers at all, he’s having a hard time. At one point he asked: should I join the rebels? (I don’t know which group he was contemplating.) His friends report that he too is missing.
Homa is in Turkey unable to decide whether or not to return home; she’s Turkmen Syrian and in the early months of the conflict she supported Turkey’s opposition to Assad. She hasn’t found work there and didn’t get the sympathy from Turkish people that she’d expected. Her parents are urging her to return home although the apartment where they lived has been bombed.
There are five more I can add to this account–and a hundred more from Iraq—among millions. Not everyone’s dead; not everyone’s against their government. But all are hungry, and all have family ‘back home’ making very hard choices. Any good days they recall are far, far behind them.
[i] Names have been changed, but the details of their lives are as reported.