We are thousands of miles away from Syria, but the horrors of the war always seem a fingertip away. I scroll from the comfort of a couch in Café Kubal. Students are working, coffee is brewing, and so is our American dream. Assil Alnaser arrives a few minutes late. Her smile is contagious. The last time we were here, it was November. It was snowing then, just as it is now. Will spring ever come?
The weather hasn’t changed, but other things have. Since then, she has become a friend of mine. She beams with enthusiasm, and I compliment her on her English. She has come a long way since she first arrived in Syracuse. During our first meeting, she was still adjusting—she moved in after classes had started because of visa delays during the Muslim ban in effect over the summer of 2017. Now, the 26-year old Syrian woman is poised and confident, making the most of Maxwell’s graduate program. Gazing at the snow outside, she reminisces.
“I remember the first few days of the revolution back in the spring of 2011,” she told me. “It was really fun! We were so motivated, we thought that we were gonna change the world.”
The word “fun” struck me by surprise, but then it hit me—being able to hold on to that initial feeling despite the knowledge of the years of hardship ahead is what makes her perspective so refreshing.
"One of my friends took pictures of the protest and then gave me his phone before he got arrested. I sent them to Al Jazeera and two minutes later I checked the TV and there they were! My friend was in jail for two days, but they never found his phone." She smiles as she's recollecting. Her friends and her never anticipated the violence to come.
What the international community calls the uprising that led to the Syrian civil war, she calls it a “student revolution.” Before meeting Assil, what used to come to mind when I heard “Syria” was “ISIS.” Now, it makes me think of students like her who marched for freedom and continue to advocate for justice.
Back in early 2011, the Assad regime was not aware of the extent that the younger generation was using Facebook for political purposes. “We planned protests on it among university students using different names,” she explained. “When Assad realized its impact, he tried banning it, but we had proxies!”
Meanwhile, iPhones were everywhere around us, and as students used them to pay, swipe or snapchat, she added: “In Syria, if you have a GPS on your phone, you get arrested.” I was surprised; I thought the tracking chip was built into every phone. “We have iPhones specifically made for Syria,” she told me, laughing.
I asked her how people find their way through the city. “We know Damascus very well. It’s in our blood,” she said proudly. I’m intrigued by the idea of iPhones without geolocalization. “Maybe Syria is all about individual privacy,” I whispered, not without a sense of irony. “There is Big Brother in Syria, believe me,” she retorted. She explained to me that Assad didn’t want people to be able to share the locations of military checkpoints as the conflict intensified over the summer of 2011, a turning point when several soldiers defected from Assad’s regime to back up the protesters and form what would come to be known as the Free Syrian Army.
The crossfire and tensions would only escalate. A year later, in the summer of 2012, Assil had taken her mother’s advice and moved out of Syria after months of protesting. She spent time in Jordan working in refugee camps for a year. She was still an undergraduate student back then. When she returned home to take her finals and renew her passport, the government arrested her. Reports had been filed about her volunteerism and her activism on Facebook. She was 21 at the time, and she was to spend 45 days in prison.
Going back the topic of technology, she told me: "When I was in jail, these animals had confiscated my phone but they didn't even know how to turn it on. When they moved me to a different branch, a so-called tech specialist came in and asked me for my password, but I had forgotten it! I hadn't used my phone for the 40 days that I had been in prison. They didn't believe me, but it was true!"
Somehow, we both laughed at this. This sounds so genuine and comical despite the tragedy of it. There is no self-pity in her stories, just candor and authenticity. Beyond the violence of the war I witnessed moments of self-awareness and vulnerability that humanize the conflict. Life itself has a way of juxtaposing horror with lighthearted details. Maybe the contrast of bad news and memes on our social media feeds is the real mimesis. She continued on: "Eventually I managed to unlock my phone and it was blowing up with messages from my mom—she was so scared." Still, no comic relief can ever console a worried mother.
“When I got arrested, I thought back on everything I had read about prisoners’ experiences in the Assad jails, but what I faced was dramatically different.” She added: “Whatever you read, the reality is worse.” She explained that it wasn’t the physical but the psychological part that was hardest on her, because she cared so much about the other women (and teenage girls) with her in the cell. “Even before going to prison, I was praying that if anyone from my family had to go, that it would be me. I knew I could handle it."
She then told me about her older sister. They protested together. “She was calmer and cleverer than me. I was the troublemaker,” she laughed. “She handled my transcript situation while I was in jail. My school had lost my file. They claimed my name didn’t exist in the system! Meanwhile in prison they told me to forget about college.” Despite being the quieter one, her sister pulled out all the stops to fix the situation. Eventually, her University sent her diploma home. “I was among the top of my class! My sister was so excited but my mom didn’t care. She just wanted me back.”
I was intrigued as to why she was let out. “They couldn’t prove anything. They just did, eventually,” she said. As this article is being written, Assil hasn’t seen her family in over four years. Still, she moved on with her story with the same energy. “When I came home and told them what happened, my sister cried for two hours. We had to call a doctor and he gave her an injection to calm her down.” I paused for a second and couldn’t help but start laughing again. I asked: “You came back from jail, and she’s the one who needed the shot?” She shrugged. “I’m a Leo,” she said, laughing as well. “Not a Virgin like you,” referring to that time when I mistook Virgo for Virgin. Assil may seem fearless and detached, but she also explained how English allowed her to have more self-distance. “It’s like talking about a different person,” she said. She told me she gets more emotional and self-censored in Arabic—her mother tongue.
“When I came home, that’s when I saw white hair on my mom for the first time. She could barely recognize me. I was so thin.” And she had plenty of reasons to worry. Assad’s regime has been targeting women’s bodies to instill terror in the mind of every citizen fearing for their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. Taking advantage of a cultural taboo that puts female honor and purity on a pedestal, Assad’s soldiers have been using systematic rape as a weapon. A handful of Syrian women risked their lives to testify in a heart-wrenching French documentary released in December of 2017, Le Cri Étouffé [“The stifled yet deafening howl,” translated into English as Silent War].
Assil’s voice remained steady. “In Syria, a man comes out of prison a hero. When a woman does, she is shamed and stigmatized.” I asked her if movements like #MeToo are universal and whether they can break through cultures and borders. “Sure, they can,” she responded, poised. “Even my sister put it up on her Facebook. Many Syrian women did.”
She looked at me straight in the eyes, more resilient than ever. “At least we broke the fear. People will never go back to that fear of talking about politics.” She added: “The next generation will complete what we did. For now, it’s about maintaining the dream. We should never regret starting the revolution despite the consequences we suffered.”
For her and for Syria as a whole, the journey has been long and is far from over. It is a battle over the integral sense of identity. From using other names on social media, to being just a number in a prison cell, to disappearing from the university database, and to being registered in her mom’s phone under a different name, Assil has had to reclaim her own identity every step of the way.
Her last name “Alnaser” means “winner” in Arabic. I asked her if she was one. “I am,” she said. “You win everything when you lose everything.” This answer left me perplexed. She clarified: “When you lose many things, you win many other things. But you don’t know about it until you start being another person.” From the Assad jails to the Maxwell halls, Assil has undergone her own personal revolution.
I reminded her that in geometry, revolutions are full circles. I asked her if they are bound to always go back to zero. She replied: “No—the goal is to do a 180; but we’re only at 90° for now.” Even if they materialize, revolutions are often slow and seldom linear. Still, Assil has demonstrated courage in how she holds on to her vision. In Arabic, “heart” and “seeds” share a similar root, “حب” [“hob”/“hab”]. Through our conversations, she has showed me that the same goes for revolutions—it is about planting the seeds for tomorrow.
Outside, it stopped snowing. I looked back at her, feeling inspired by her optimism. We can only hope that spring will come. Eventually.
Note: Assil did a documentary with Al Jazeera. This documentary (Solitary II, in reference to the cell she was in) will be screened at Maxwell soon.