Laila, 24, was in the final year of her agricultural engineering studies when she left eastern Ghouta (the rural suburbs east of Damascus) to celebrate Eid with her family. Overnight, the regime started its stifling siege of the area, and Leila’s hopes of ever graduating were dashed.
“At the time, I was ranked second in my class, but suddenly I found myself stuck in the siege of eastern Ghouta,” she says. “My life instantly ground to a halt. In the early days, I lived in hope that the road would open so I could return to my studies. I lived every day waiting for any news, even if it was a lie, but it was useless.”
Leila’s story is emblematic of a generation of Syrian youth who have had to abandon their higher education, or even their aspirations to get one. Since the beginning of the uprising, Syrian universities have been hemorrhaging students due to stifling economic pressures, security concerns or simply being locked up as a result of being in one of the many areas besieged by the regime.
Ahmad, a 23-year-old pharmaceutical student, was one of countless students who had to leave his course under threat of arrest, only two years into his degree. “At the time, they were asking for everyone’s identity cards in Damascus, and young men from Douma were at great risk of arrest. So I preferred to stay in Douma and not return to university,” he says.
Some of these students made an informed choice to leave their studies to serve a higher cause – students such as Mohammad, 24, who left dentistry school with two years left until graduation in order to volunteer in Ghouta where there was a shortage of doctors.
“In the beginning there were no centralized emergency points – just separated groups of medical aid teams with whom I volunteered. Over time, a medical office was opened and I joined the emergency department.”
Mohammad is now a volunteer with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) corps in the area, where he does work ranging from medical and emergency response to providing vaccines, psychological support and even public health lessons for schoolchildren.
Mahmoud, a 23-year-old law student, chose joining the uprising over continuing his studies, too. Today, he serves as a field nurse and paramedic in a Babbila clinic, also under siege.
The struggle to conjure up a new life after their university dreams have been dashed can take its toll on many of these students. Leila fell into a depression for months, and was able to climb out of the abyss only with the help of her family and a newfound purpose in teaching. “Eventually I began trying to cope with the situation of the siege. I volunteered in a school that needed teachers in a poor, remote area of Ghouta,” she says. “For the past three years, I’ve taught all age groups and all subjects, including science, math, physics, English and chemistry. I’ve had a lot of experience in dealing with students, which qualified me to become a manager of one of the kindergartens here in Ghouta.”
The dreams of a return to normal life, and, eventually, to go back to their schools and resume their futures, flutter every now and then. But, as Mohammad reflects, always with the realization that it will never be the same again after what they’ve seen and experienced.
“Every night before I go to bed – like so many people here – I contemplate leaving the siege. I know that a lot of things are waiting for me outside: my family, my friends, finishing university and graduating … but this outside world has become completely foreign to me and sometimes even scary. After what I experienced these two years inside the siege I do not know if I will be able to cope when I go out. Sometimes I wish that the conditions would get better here so I’m never forced to leave.”
This post is published in collaboration with Humans of Syria, a project that aims to introduce its audience to the people of Syria: to document and publish their stories from beyond the battle lines, highlighting everyday life and survival, hardship and hope inside the country.