He spoke about how life changed forever at Damascus University, where he was enrolled; the dangerous weekly commute from his hometown, Hama, to the school’s campus; and why he does not want to study abroad.
Both of my parents were doctors so I was raised in a medical environment. When I grew older, medicine became my plan. To enter the top school in Damascus you need an almost perfect grade in the baccalaureate exam, so it was a challenge.
It has been a tough three years, especially at the beginning of the uprising [in March 2011], when we first had protests inside the university. We had friends fight each other and beat each other over political views inside the campus. We saw doctors stand by and they could not do anything if a student was getting arrested. We were also powerless when two professors were arrested for treating people wounded at protests. We saw other professors hire bodyguards for protection and close their clinics because they refused to treat gunshot wounds and they started getting threats from the Free Syrian Army or different armed groups. Some of them left the university and later left Syria.
Sometimes as students we stood by anti-Assad or pro-Assad friends to stop them from getting arrested for speaking up. We saw students become like secret service agents and arrest their university colleagues or even hit them to break up the protest.
Politics became like a war at the medical school. I used to be bothered by the lack of political discussion at university. Growing up, the first thing I would do in the morning is turn on the TV and watch the news. At my high school back in Hama we had more political discussion than in my first two years of university before the uprising. I would check the news every hour and fight with friends every day, trying to convince people they should fight with their words, not physically.
My studies became secondary to me, and I was falling behind, but I would always try to cram before tests to try to pass. It was hard if one of my friends had lost his brother or one could not sit for the test because of road trouble, or another was arrested or another was banned from university. The toughest are the kidnappings, because no one knows how those will end.
It has been hard, but we learned that life must go on. The electricity keeps cutting off so we have to learn to study by candlelight. We had to adapt.
I try to keep in touch with all my friends to make sure they are safe and fix problems between friends who have political arguments. We never stop talking about the news, even before our exams. On big exam days, I am always curious if there will be a protest in the university, since there is always a big crowd and the security has a heavy presence. This is more important to me than finding out the test questions.
Back to School by Bus
Waking up early became a must in order to travel, since half the roads are closed if there is an explosion. When that happens we have to walk to university and instead of three hours back and forth the journey takes half a day. When there is bad news my parents call every hour. It is hard to sleep because of the relentless bombing and fighting. Money is now reserved for university, and hanging out with friends is rare: maybe once or twice in a semester instead of daily.
Traveling between [my home in] Hama and Damascus used to take two and a half hours by bus. The only stop would be in Damascus and the journey could be any time of the day; in the morning they used to put music on and at night they would play Egyptian movies so you could enjoy the ride.
Now the route takes five to six hours and since I am a young man I have to be ready at every checkpoint in case they ask for my legal papers that say I am postponing my military services, and there is a checkpoint almost every 15 minutes. There are no more night rides. I remember I used to look out the window when we would go past green pastures and cross the river over a bridge, and I would see lots of restaurants as we entered Damascus. Now most of the farmers have stopped their work and there is less green, and many restaurants are in ruins.
Malls are all closed since no one is shopping, and we pass by cities that were magnificent, like Homs, and now they are either a military zone or in ruins. I see schools closed because half of them are on the ground: ruins instead of children playing. Every time we pass Homs, the streets are empty and the buildings are full of bullet holes and maybe I will see just a tank or a huge line for bread or fuel. You can always see tank tire marks on the road and you have to speed past a sniper or bombs falling.
My commute to Damascus became painful for my parents. My mother started praying and lighting candles and calling me many times to check on me. I used to come home for weekends, but now it is only for long breaks.
Hama is safer than Damascus. You can always hear planes from Hama military airport or gunshots if the rebels attack a checkpoint at night, but the government is very in control. Kidnapping and home robberies are the biggest issues, but those have actually decreased since last year. Hama was already destroyed once in the 80s and rebuilt, and that is enough.
Between Textbooks and Facebook
Academics have never been an escape from reality, but rather a painful exercise. I try to study but my Facebook is always open and the worrying news never stops. I start reading a lecture and all of a sudden I find myself thinking of the future and how the news is changing, and how killing has overtaken everything else. Pain has become a normal feeling.
Fighting is the antithesis of what I am studying, which is to heal people. We wanted freedom at the beginning and then got lost in religious conflicts. It has since become a war, an international game, and it feels terrible seeing people prefer guns to books and bullet over words. Most of the deaths now are not because of old age but rather from gunshots, and the majority are young people.
There won’t be winners in this kind of conflict. I know a few who dropped out of university [to fight]. I respect their choice and I hope when the conflict is over they will drop the weapon and go back to university, though I think that will be very hard. It is easy to pick up a gun, but it’s very hard to put it down. Studying becomes harder and harder, but we still have to do it. Life must go on.
Transferring to a university outside Syria was never an option in my head, because it would be expensive and make me lose years of study. I am in my sixth year of medical school, and if I want to transfer they would put me as fourth year or even lower. I want to graduate from Damascus University.
I had always planned to continue my studies abroad after graduation, but now with the crisis … I think it would be more stressful than exciting to leave loved ones in a war zone in order to go advance my education. I just hope that by the time I am a certified doctor, no one will need me here in Syria.