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.

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Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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