Coming of Age in the Syrian Conflict

“In 2011, I was going out with my friends, studying finance, going to work in a bank. But then, shit.”
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Syrian refugees walk at the Quru Gusik refugee camp on the outskirts of Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters) 

AMMAN, Jordan — I met Abdullah al-Mazouni in early September, a few weeks after moving to Jordan. The first time I ran into him, he was standing before a crowded classroom of Sudanese refugees in East Amman, teaching them English and explaining the silent “E” in flawless colloquial Arabic. He looked young and I assumed he was like me, fresh out of university, volunteering with refugees to improve his Arabic and learn about the Middle East. “Your accent is amazing!” I said, impressed. Abdullah laughed. “Yeah. I’m Syrian.”

Later, as we took the bus together, he told me his story. Abdullah (some names in this article have been changed to protect people’s identities) is 22 years old, born and raised in Damascus, where he was studying finance when the Syrian uprising began in 2011. He used to work part time at an Italian menswear store, sweet-talking rich Syrians into buying expensive suits. “I have a lot of charm in Arabic,” he says, smiling.

Then the revolution broke out. Abdullah fled with his parents and sisters in August 2012 to Jordan, where he works for a news site focused on the Syrian crisis. He has family abroad but can’t leave for school there, because his transcripts are in Damascus. So he stays here, writing reports, tweeting all things Syria, saving money for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and scouring the Internet for scholarships abroad.

“In 2011, I was going out with my friends, studying finance, going to work in a bank. But then, shit.” Abdullah laughs once, then is quiet. “It’s OK. It’s good experience. I know how to scramble to live, alhamdullilah (praise be to God), you know? Syrians are like that. Bashar hits us with chemical weapons and all the kids die and we’re like, ‘alhamdullilah.’”

I have nothing to say.

What makes an American a millennial? A 20-something from Generation Y, narcissistic and privileged, raised on a diet of Facebook and Instagram, ambitious, image-conscious, convinced that we can be whoever and do whatever we want to, and that anything less than that is some freak accident of circumstance or will. 

What makes a Syrian a millennial? A 20-something caught up in his country’s sudden whirl into hell, victimized at the prime of his life, forced to live in a world that watches his people burn and leaves him powerless to do anything about it.

What happens when you put us together?

At a holiday party a few months after meeting Abdullah, I’m sipping eggnog and sangria with the millennials of Amman. We’re a motley crew of Fulbright grantees, Arabic students, NGO interns, and journalist wannabes, mixed with Syrian and Jordanian language partners, roommates, and friends.

The Americans banter about Ohio versus New York, making fun of each other’s accents and football teams. We talk about plans for next year, the uncertain job market, and why our internships are awful. Our millennial selves are quick to self-doubt; we want to prove ourselves and attain the next stamp of affirmation even as we name-drop degrees, Arabic programs, and thesis advisors.

A few minutes later, I’m sitting on the floor with Mohammad Rumman, also 22 years old and Syrian. He ran across the Syrian-Jordanian border last year, dropping to his stomach to crawl every few meters. “They shoot at you until you get into Jordan. Then you go to Zaatari,” Mohammad tells me, referring to what is now the world’s second-largest refugee camp. Syrians can’t leave the camp without a Jordanian sponsor submitting a legal guarantee to bail them out. So, after four days, Mohammad climbed a fence at the camp, asked for directions to Amman, and started walking the 45 miles to the Jordanian capital.

When he arrived in Amman, Mohammad knew no one. He spent months working at a bakery, sleeping on the floor of the shop, before getting a journalism job that allows him to scrape enough together for rent. His family is still in Damascus.

“I don’t Skype them every day. I don’t like hearing my mother cry,” Mohammad shrugs, adjusting his beanie and grinning through his mustache. “But I call, because I might not hear her again.” Then Macklemore starts pounding in the background. “‘Thrift Shop,’ shit, I love this song!” he shouts. Conversation stops. We get up, join the crowd, and dance.

Americans here often apologize, embarrassed, for our country. “The State Department gave me a scholarship, but that doesn’t mean I support everything it does!” We make deprecating comments about the government shutdown, Kerry’s “peace process,” and Tequila Tuesdays, when a local bar offering $2 shots draws a hundreds-strong study abroad crowd. “‘Murrika’s finest,” we laugh, sheepishly.

My Syrian friends speak of their country like its very name tastes of honey and fire. They teach me songs that damn Assad’s soul in one stanza and cry, “Syria, my country, paradise” in the next.

“Jordan is nothing like Syria,” Mahmoud al-Brinie, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, says as we walk down Amman’s neon-lit Rainbow Street. He paints his Syrian hometown of Homs in lilting words, telling me of the water wheels, the morning tea and bread with za’atar, the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque. “Don’t Google it now,” Mahmoud warns. “You’ll cry.”

No one remembers Syria, Mahmoud tells me, because the world is driven by money, not heart. “Everything is economics,” he says. “Interests outweigh ideals.”

I recognize Mahmoud’s point. I heard it a year ago, while debating realism and liberalism in my international relations class at Princeton University. We’d discussed the world like proprietors, tossing around theories as if we could decide which ones applied on a whim. We talked about Syria back then too, impersonating secretaries of defense and state and treasury, invoking statistics on the number of killed and displaced Syrians as part of our debate for or against intervention. Then class would end and we’d walk down the street to complain about our theses over drinks.

Syria is not so easy to forget here. The civil war crops up in every corner. When Abdullah asks me to help him practice his IELTS interview, I prepare an extemporaneous prompt: You’re having lunch tomorrow with any two people in all of humanity, one from history, already passed away, and one alive today. Who would you choose and why?

Abdullah has been preparing for the interview for weeks. He scribbles for a minute and then clears his throat. “First, I would choose my friend Anas, who was killed during our revolution in Syria. He was a brave and ambitious person who don’t deserve to die. He should really be in the young Syrians’ generation. Syria needs those kinds of people now.”

I break eye contact. Abdullah continues.

“The other would be my brother, who’s not in Jordan. For sure we would talk about the war, but also about how we used to go to college and grew up together. I would love to go out with these two together, even if it’s impossible.”

I’ve forgotten what I’m supposed to do. Abdullah raises his eyebrows. “Any grammar mistakes?”

“Oh, right. Um. You said ‘don’t deserve to die,’ but it should have been ‘doesn’t,’ or I mean, ‘didn’t’…” I swallow. “That’s all. Your English is great. You’ll be fine.”

All my Syrian friends give the same answer when I ask what they hope for: first, that the war will end; and second, that they’ll manage to complete their educations. Moutasem al-Homsi, 26, sells street-side coffee from a stall I pass every day. He left Damascus, where he’d been studying English literature, just one class short of finishing his degree. The missing course? Phonology.

“If I found that course somewhere for free, maybe I could get the diploma,” Moutasem says, emptying a frothy stream of Turkish coffee into a cup. He once wanted to be a translator of classical literature, bringing Umayyad and Abbasid stories to the English-speaking world. But tuition at Jordanian universities costs thousands of dollars, a joke to Moutasem, who works from 6:30 a.m. until night every day to house and feed his parents and siblings, who are also in Amman but can’t work. He hides when the Jordanian police come by his stall to avoid arrest for working illegally—the only way most Syrian refugees survive, since work permits are almost impossible to obtain.

Mohammad is one step behind Moutasem. He completed high school but doesn’t have written certification to prove it. So if he wants to study in the West, where some American and European colleges are offering scholarships for Syrians, he’ll have to prove his capabilities on the SAT.

The idea of seeking a scholarship hadn’t occurred to Mohammad until a recent party, when his friend Craig approached him. “What the hell are you doing in this country, man?” Craig had yelled, slightly inebriated. “You’re the fucking future of Syria.”

Mohammad chuckles. “He’s right. I’m going to do it. I’ve got to get out.” I’m sitting on a beanbag chair in Mohammad’s room as he tells me this, with Miles Davis playing in the background and a line of candles lit across the floor.

“I only started feeling a few months ago,” Mohammad says. “I was numb for a long time, you know?” When people start dying around you, he tells me, you just have to stop feeling. “You see someone shot and you can’t be like, ‘Oh, I’m so sad.’” Mohammad’s eyes are fixed on the candles. “You just move. Don’t feel. Pick up the body. Take it to their parents. Move. Today and tomorrow and the next. You feel nothing.”

These stories make me squirm. I am outraged at first, then upset, then tempted to just pretend I’d never heard about Syria or met anyone from there. For a generation that supposedly believes it can do anything, we American millennials are surprisingly quick to give up on changing the world. We grasp at personal glory, but cop out when it comes to challenging the system, perhaps because it affords us so much comfort.

Syria’s millennials challenge me to do the opposite. Apathy is easy for us, but it’s a privilege that they cannot afford. “Evil doesn’t last, you know?” Mohammad looks me straight in the eye. “It’s cheesy, but history proves it. Injustice always goes down. You’ve got to fight it. Don’t be numb.”

“Numb” is the last adjective on my mind when I go to Manar Bilal’s 27th birthday party. I am one of the few non-Syrians present, conspicuously immobile in a room of more than 20 young people, throbbing and whooping in an explosion of dance. Manar is over six feet tall, but they grab and toss him up and down, yelling as they prance in a dabke circle around the cake. Everyone ululates, hollering between gasps for breath, drenched in sweat, then throwing their heads back in roars of laughter. I’m stunned.

“Are all Syrian parties like this?” I whisper to one of Manar’s friends. Everyone around me has come out of a war. They’ve lost friends and family, seen innocent people die, and now they’re refugees, dependent on a state that sees them as a burden. Where is the celebration coming from?

Habibti, this is nothing.” The friend throws me a wink before picking up his drum again. “You should have seen how we danced in Syria.”

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Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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