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War Comes to a Damascus Private School

Nawar Nemeh is a 17-year-old rising senior at San Diego High School in California. Until age 16, he lived in Damascus, fleeing to the U.S. with his family after the war began. At his private school in the Syrian capital, Nemeh watched as the facets of regular teenage life – curfews, social studies lessons and playground dynamics – were transformed by conflict. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

[![205483_182269461820902_6860020_n][2]][2]I was born in New York to Syrian parents. We moved back to Damascus when I was six months old. We lived in a suburb of Damascus called Sahnaya. I went to a private school there. It’s called the Little Village School, and it’s still open in Damascus, but it’s moved to a new location. It’s considered the second-best high school in the nation. It taught us English and French, but it was an Arab school.

I basically grew up different from everyone else because my parents were agnostic. I was raised as a Muslim, then switched to atheism. I grew up with a family that’s really politically active. Dad was friends with [the late Syrian intellectual] Elias Marcos, and I grew up listening to their stories.

I remember the day the revolution began. For a long time in Syria, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter were blocked, and the block was removed on February 9 – and then reinstated on March 15.

Everyone in school was immediately split from side to side. Either we should kill [the protesters], or we should side with the government. I sided with the opposition. Teachers who didn’t push for the government, we assumed they were against it. We had to take a class called Arab Nationalism, which was part of our social studies grade. I remember my nationalism teacher going crazy, because this is the class that teaches us how good the government is. Anyone who would question this would get marched down to the principal’s office. And the principal, she would talk to us really calmly, she would tell us to stay quiet.

The first protest I saw was actually at our school. Some students’ parents had been shot in Damascus, and students wanted to have a rally against it. We did it outside our school where the buses parked. It lasted 20 minutes, until school security – not regime security – came down on us and pushed us out on the buses, and they called our parents. They were angry. The school is owned by the son of one of Assad’s personal friends.

The first “real” protest I went to was in Meydan. They had this unspoken rule at the protest where people who went every day were at the front. The reason behind it was that the people who protested regularly were the older generation, and those who were new to it were the younger generation. So the idea was that if troops came, the older generation would be the first to take fire, and the younger people could escape and keep fighting and keep the revolution going.

In Meydan, we protested in the square. One of the army guys said, “You have exactly 15 seconds to clear the square, we’re going to start firing in 15 seconds.” So the older people said to form a line, and they held their hands together, and they said to us, “You guys go off, we’ll hold them here.” And we ran, and when we looked back we saw them, and they were taking fire, and they were falling. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, at 15. I was shocked that people would do this.

The next big thing I went to was a protest in Hama. We were there because we were going to visit my grandmother in Idlib. My dad couldn’t believe this was happening, because before this in Syria, everyone had always been quiet, everyone complied. We got to Hama and we went to this building to stand there and look at this square. And two hours after prayers, it was filled with people. My family started watching government television for entertainment. My favorite was when they said people were gathering not to protest, but because they were thanking God for the rain.

In Syria before this, we had never categorized ourselves as agnostic, atheist, Sunni, Shiite. My mom is from an Eastern Orthodox Christian family, and my dad is Muslim. I never knew what my friends were unless I was in the same religion course as them at school. And then slowly, a sectarian [divide] began to show. People started asking, “Are you Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Christian, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox?” Sunnis in my school would hang out in their own little group. The Kurds wouldn’t want to hang out with Arabs, or the Arabs with the Kurds. I walked with everyone, so I’d say to a friend, “Let’s go talk to that guy, I want something from him.” And my friend wouldn’t want to go. He’d say, “No, he’s Kurdish.”

Our curfews became worse. Before the revolution, Syria was really safe. I’d come home at 3 a.m. and my parents wouldn’t ask where I’d been. We knew everyone, it was a community. Slowly my parents began to have a problem with me even visiting our upstairs neighbors after nine. Curfews became a lot stricter. Our lives were changing on a daily basis. You slowly got this impression of a war. People were in denial about it. People were saying, “We’re not another Lebanon, we’re not another Iraq.” For the first three months, you never saw a dead body. Then it was once a month, once a week, then a daily occurrence. And my situation was mild, because I was in Damascus [which hadn’t yet felt the full brunt of the conflict].

We have a farm in a suburb of Damascus called Zirbadani. I’d bring friends, we’d have a barbecue, we had a basketball court. They started setting up a lot of checkpoints on the road from Damascus to Zirbadani. Four were standard Syrian army and one was shabiha [the amateur militia loyal to Assad]. The other four would look at our IDs, ask if we going to protest, and when we said no, they’d let us go. The other, they’d say, “Nemeh, you’re Sunni, are you here to start protests? Why do you want to come here today?” It would take two hours. Once we had to take one to the farm to show him that yes, we have a farm. Eventually we stopped going up there because they became a little more violent with us, pulling us out of the car, shoving.

A shabiha actually showed up at my school to lecture us on what we owed the government. This was March or April 2011. He talked about how the Syrian government has defended us against Israel and protected the rights of minorities, and how if they didn’t exist, Islamists would take over. Right outside my school there was a checkpoint with a tank. There were five soldiers there who would search us every day. So we had to wake up earlier, and we came home later.

In the building I lived in, our next-door neighbors were Alawites and Sunnis, and the owners were Druze. Upstairs we also had Alawite neighbors. They had three sons who were immediately sent off to work with the shabiha. One was 14 years old. Their mom had cancer, and she told [the father that she] needed them there to take care of her. He didn’t even argue, he just said, “They’re going off to help President Assad, he needs us now.” We had Christian neighbors who were skeptical and fearful about what would happen to them.

Nawar and his father were vocal with the opposition in the early months of the revolution. 

Suddenly a friend of ours in the regime said, “You’re on a list, get out in a week, or you’ll all be in jail.” So we were freaking out. The entire thing happened in four hours – we got the message, we packed and we flew next morning to Qatar. It was me, my sister and my mom. My dad stayed behind [to tie up loose ends], and I haven’t seen my dad since. We went to Ottawa, because my aunt lives there. But we realized we couldn’t stay in Canada, because we have no grounds to be there. A family friend in San Diego suggested we try it out there. My dad eventually got out and moved to Algeria, but he’s not allowed to be here [in California] until his green card comes through.

I Skype my friends from home all the time. No one chose to stop speaking to us when we left – some can’t because of “technical” problems. They keep me updated on what’s happening. They tell me about the inflation. One is related to [former opposition leader] Moaz al-Khatib. He just told me he went down to the market and bought lettuce for 225 lira, and it used to be 30. I used to get a dozen eggs for 45 to 50 lira. Now it’s 600 to 700 lira in some places. And people’s paychecks aren’t rising – they’re going down. So you’re just losing everything, there’s nothing you can do. My dad owned a [top] advertising agency. But after the revolution began, who’s going to advertise new products?

In San Diego, I walked in to my new school and a girl said, “Where are you from?” I said, “Syria.” And she said, “What state is that in?” I had a history teacher here in my 10th grade year, and he started each class watching the news for 20 minutes and then discussing it. Al Jazeera, or the BBC, or CBS. We even watched Russia Today. Syria would always be a headline, and he’d ask me for my stories.

I don’t miss Syria as a feeling of nationalism or Syria as my homeland. I miss the people, I miss the culture. My biggest regret is not spending more time in the historic locations that we have, and not seeing all of them. We had this house in the Old City, it was a traditional family home, fountains in the middle. I spent a lot of time there, and only recently did I find out it was built before the Crusades. You can go to the market in Dam and it was part of the Silk Road. And then now we’ll be on a field trip to the Mission in San Louis Obispo, and it’s like “Oh, big deal, 300 years.” My friends here call me Nawar, the Father of All of Us, because Syria is so old.

Nemeh blogs at


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