Seven months before the Syrian uprising befell, Syrian native and University of California, San Diego student Amr, departed from Syria for the United States. To this day, his family is still settled in the city of Damascus.
While Amr embarked on a new passage in the US, the ground of his home was shifting -- optimism and resistance erupting from the cracks. Change greeted the land and protestors welcomed its arrival.
Away from Damascus, Amr soon found himself desiring revolutionary change only to have these hopes taken away from him. Seeking hope elsewhere, Amr recalls his own life in Damascus predating civil war and looks towards Syrian refugees for potential promise in the future.
Standing for the principles that initiated the uprising, Amr along with several Syrians, yearned to witness and to participate in these demands for change. During these beginning stages, motives were clear and untroubled. This impulse towards revolution sought something as simple as freedom. An opposition against an oppressive regime, Amr commented, nothing more.
"At the beginning, people who went to the streets came from all backgrounds. Some were educated, others were hard workers. However, they were all peaceful and were not participating for sectarian reasons," said Amr.
The same desires of openly yet peacefully rejecting oppression inspired Amr. Certainly, Syrian authority in recent and former history displayed oppressive tendencies. Complaints of corruption and injustice piled high, accelerating unrest. As a result, a blueprint for revolution was underway and without notifying his parents, Amr packed his bags for Syria.
Amr arrived in Syria in August of 2011. "When I came back to Syria Damascus was different. Change was in the air. You could smell it. Protests were still peaceful. I still remember the look in people's eyes at protests I attended. You would get all kinds of mixed feelings: fear, power, excitement, and uncertainty. A protest would suddenly begin and end in a few minutes after security forces arrived in buses like disgusting monsters," he stated.
At this point, opposition groups mobilized and organized, hopes of freedom still lingering in the background. Amr spent about three weeks in Syria until his parents sent him back to California. Meanwhile, the uprising left the Syrian regime threatened, exposed, and revengeful.
"How the regime reacted, we couldn't believe," Amr revealed. Resistance was met with overreaction. "The regime tried to get all minorities on their side. They armed other groups and brought external paid fighters from surrounding countries," he said.
This backfire shocked the masses. Suddenly, the Syrian conflict displayed sects pitted against each other. In brief, the rulers of Syria belong to a minority sect known as the Alawites and the majority of the country hence the majority of protesters are Sunni. This important Syrian dynamic created the ongoing political debate on the country. Syria was now deemed a conflict of sectarian differences.
"The most important thing that I hope people will understand is that the Syrian uprising did not start this way. Or at least the people who started it did not intend it to be this way. Within my generation, I did not know my friends were Christian until I saw them celebrating Christmas. I did not know my friends were Shia until I saw them practicing Shia traditions. I did not know what sect my friends were. It was never a problem. Everyone was respectful of other people's beliefs," he shared.
Appalled by the regimes belligerence, Amr began to criticize the regime on his Facebook page. "It was very powerful -- everyone was very active at the time so I would get a lot of likes and shares. People would tell me, I am so sorry for what is happening in your country."
Soon after, Amr's father warned him that the regime was very aware of Amr's voice on social media. As a result, Amr has not risked visiting Syria ever since.
At this point, revolutionary aspirations endured amongst violence and chaos. Physical devastation, destruction, and displacement simultaneously demolished optimism and dreams too.
"When people gave up on the peaceful approach, they began smuggling weapons and fighting back. The regime went crazy and the country drifted into war," said Amr.
Syria now drastically differed from Amr's recollections and past experiences. Amr remembered unity, peace, and progress within his homeland. These memories have been buried deep within Syrian soil and Amr too has lost hope.
It takes looking beyond the country to glimpse where fortune and promise might emerge in the future. As Amr recognizes, "hope lies only in educating Syrian refugees. They are the ones that will one day return to Syria. This is the only place I find hope. This cannot be a lost generation. "
Because Amr has been unable to visit his family in Syria, he has returned to places like Lebanon to visit them. Additionally, Amr has volunteered his time at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
Currently, there is an estimated 81,776 total persons of concern within Zaatari.
"When I volunteered there I was surprised to see that kids were uninterested in activities like Lego workshops. Many of these kids felt that they had to work instead of going to school."
Amr described children who reached the age of five and still could not speak and his discovery of diapers for adults within doctor facilities. "These people are traumatized. Some have left Syria two years ago and they still are haunted by thoughts of planes dropping barrel bombs on their homes every night. They pee themselves and wake up crying," Amr confessed.
The lives of Syrian refugees is said to be over three million in places like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Amr feels it is these children refugees that need to be educated and nurtured. These refugees will one day retrace their families' footsteps, eventually reappearing in Syria's interior.
Within Syria, expectations continue to languish. "Syria is not in our hands anymore. There is a lot of confusion in terms of who is leading what. The Syrian regime resisted the revolution and ISIS killed any hope left for change. They are invading and dissecting Syria into pieces," said Amr. The civil war has left Syria vulnerable to both external and internal forces, deserting Syrians amid peril and obscurity.
Amr treasures his memories from Damascus pre-civil war where his family now lives in fear. Amr has not returned since August of 2011. It was the month of Ramadan.
"Ramadan is my favorite time in Damascus. Everyone is fasting, even Christians in my school skipped lunch out of respect. I loved walking in the streets of Damascus around Iftar time. The streets are empty. We would eat with family and pray and stay up till 3 A.M. with friends."
Damascus is by far Amr's favorite city. "I love Damascus for a unknown reason. It is something in the air. It is the vibe you get. People love cities for things like weather or food. Damascenes love every detail within Damascus."
Amr recalled Damascus further. He described unity and the people's hospitality. Speaking of refugees that have entered Syria over the years from Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, Amr stated, "Syria welcomed millions of refugees without having refugee camps. Regardless of religion or sect we welcomed them in our homes. We tried to make the people feel at home. These refugees were blended in every Syrian."
In reciprocity, Amr believes the countries that hold Syrian refugees and the people who will influence them have an opportunity to create a life of sustenance for them. These refugees are the future of Syria upon return.
Worlds away from home, Amr can only ponder his past in the city of Damascus. He had left to receive his education and to one day become an engineer. Amr hopes to build and create, paralleling his hopes for Syria's future. Surely, someday, Syria will need rebuilding.
Meanwhile, ambitions spawn and dreams for Syria accumulate. Waiting patiently, Amr wishes these dreams descend from above, land with grace, and filter throughout the heart of the Middle East.