A decade ago, after seeing Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, after watching a truck back up on protesters in Egypt’s El-Tahrir Square, after admiring Libyans waving pre-Ghaddafi flags in the thousands to topple the Arab world’s oldest dictator, Syrians dared to defy one of the most securitized states on Earth.
They dared to dream about freedom, about a civic life, about equality, about opportunity. Syrians dared to dream to live under a government that respects them, their dignity, their children, and their opinions.
A decade ago, children used graffiti in Dara’a to demand the dignity denied to their parents by a brutal regime. A decade ago, a woman organized a sit-in in front of the Syrian parliament in Damascus and wore a red shawl to signify the Syrian blood being shed by the regime. A decade ago, the men and women of Daraya threw flowers and water bottles at soldiers who met them with bullets.
A decade ago, I watched the news with my mother in our home in Al-Qaboun, Damascus, disbelieving that this was the same country that everyone believed to exist in an eternal state of fear. We watched, not knowing that Syrian lives – our lives – would change forever. We didn’t know that the boys plastering the walls with graffiti would be robbed of their childhood, that the lady in the red shawl may have been assaulted, that those who we considered our countrymen would become machines of a regime that never intended to protect us. We didn’t know that the young men who left their homes to protest had bid their last farewells to mothers who were forced to mourn and weep silently for the sake of the revolution.
We watched ourselves, dragging suitcases on the asphalt of ancient and broken streets, carrying our personal worlds into new realities.
We watched ourselves, dragging suitcases on the asphalt of ancient and broken streets, carrying our personal worlds into new realities. Syrians crossed a border, two borders, three, a hundred, and arrived at imperfect homes. Authorities kept them in tents, just barely let them exist on their lands. Syrian children walked, climbed mountains and crossed fences. They were trapped in trucks with no windows. They crossed seas in rubber boats, accompanied by the smell of human flesh and vomit. Some of us never arrived. Those who did became haunted by memories of a horrific sea and the baby who slept forever on a Turkish shore.
We did not know that we would encounter our best friends and worst enemies in our host countries. We couldn’t know that Syrians would change the politics of the world merely by existing within it, that we would be the reason peoples became polarized, divided between those who would welcome us and those who would reject us.
A decade ago, we watched a revolution begin, not knowing that we would soon build homes in more than 130 countries around the world. We didn’t know that we would serve as a lesson to the world of what happens when states, institutions, and old orders collapse. We didn’t know that we would start teaching people about our rights and their own, that we would become our own lawyers and other people’s lawyers. We didn’t know that we would soon become champions of freedom, justice and equality, that we would recite oaths and preambles to become new citizens of new homes, that we would design and build cities in countries apart from our own, that we would be elected to public office, establish civil society organizations, write novels and memoirs, direct movies and documentaries, and advance scientific inquiry.
All that Syrians knew a decade ago was that we would fight for those weakest among us. And we did.
In the process, we have simultaneously become so far from and so close to our homeland. We left our homes, but its memories will never leave us, memories of a reality that we sought to build together a decade ago, one that we still strive to build, with the new talents and passions that we gained in our new homes. After a decade, Syrians have redefined patience, determination, and perseverance, despite the odds they faced and keep facing.
A decade ago, we did not know that we would redefine what it means to dream, so we will never regret asking for our dignity. We will keep dreaming, and we will keep doing.
Marwan Safar Jalani focuses on peacebuilding reforms in post-conflict multiethnic settings. He is a first-year Rhodes Scholar from Syria and a Master’s student at the University of Oxford, pursuing a degree in comparative government.