“Who is the hope for the future of Syria?” A teacher paces in a drab classroom in Syria, asking the young students. “Who is the hope to lead us to a better future?” She adds, “We have the right to choose.” She calls on a few to answer, one by one, later marking them as orphans of the war. They dutifully stand and state the same (and only) answer, “The President, Bashar Hafez al-Assad.”
This video has been making the rounds on Syrian social media in the past weeks. Another social media post from an official state channel covers the launch of the 2021 Children’s Parliament under the Young Baathists. Three young, unenthusiastic-looking children were elected as president, vice president, and secretary of the parliament. They and their peers are all wearing matching orange T-shirts with black scarves tied around their necks. Behind the young leaders of this parliament, the eternal leaders loom over them: three massive portraits of Hafez and Bashar. The tagline of the parliament is “Our hope is Bashar, to continue the journey.”
The upcoming 2021 elections will mark al-Assad’s fourth seven-year term. He’s already been in power for 21 years after his father, Hafez, reigned for 30. This means that any Syrian younger than 60 doesn’t even remember a time when the country was not ruled by the Assad regime. Still, the regime thinks there’s a need to play the brainwashing charade of “choice” and “elections.”
For over five decades in Syria — a country of millions of people — there has been one story, one portrait, one family, and one choice.
Early in the revolution, a video emerged of a man in a brown sweater with a trembling, hoarse voice, stating, “I’m human. I’m not an animal. And all these people are like me.” His words were uttered with so much pain, and yet they were so stark, so simple. This was the most basic demand of Syrians who rose up against the regime: to have the freedom to demand their own humanity. To reclaim their dignity.
Years later, at the 2020 Oscars, filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab walked the red carpet wearing a stunning pale pink gown with flowing, Arabic calligraphy embroidered in fuchsia thread across the back: “We dared to dream and we will never regret demanding dignity.” Al-Kateab’s groundbreaking and award-winning film, “For Sama,” was nominated for best documentary, but she had already won the night with her statement-making dress. “For Sama” chronicled Al-Kateab’s experience of the revolution in Aleppo from student to wife to mother, filming the collapse of her city and the country, and ending with her family’s forced displacement to Idlib, then Turkey, and now settled in the U.K. A journey similar to the ones of over 6 million Syrians over the past 10 years.
Waad’s poetic line, “We dared to dream and we will never regret demanding dignity,” has caused a scuffle on Syrian social media this month as well, after it became a popular Facebook profile frame to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the revolution. On the one hand, some question the validity of discussing dignity when the reality is that millions of lives have been destroyed in the past decade. On the other, some hold deeply the belief that no matter what the outcome will be, there is no denying that we must claim the right to demand our dignity and not regret it. We are humans — not animals.
These two opposing words, regret and dignity, occupy alternate universes of meaning now. Is it possible not to regret what has happened to Syrians and Syria since 2011? Since 2000? Since 1970? Is it possible not to wholeheartedly claim the right to dignity, freedom, justice, and to our own agency and potential? Where is the dignity in the suffering of refugees? Where is the dignity for those who are left behind? Is it possible not to hold on to at least the spark of humanity that spread across the country in the early years of the revolution, before it was brutally extinguished by the regime, its allies, the extremists, and the world?
The revolution pulled Syrians between extreme edges and impossible choices. Between humiliation and dignity and oppression and freedom were the barrel bombs, crushed villages, destroyed cities, and overflowing refugee camps. Hope mixed with wretchedness every day. And so many were left behind in the “ordinary” middle. That space where millions deal with the trauma of loss that is crushing on the human scale but unmentionable in the collective one. The loss of a home, of material possessions, of friendships, of a homeland to return to, of so much that cannot be measured. When the trauma simmers to the surface, it manifests in unanswerable questions. Who has the right to pain? Who has the right to claim the revolution? Who gets to be the victim?
The fact is that the revolution is suffering and has suffered from the beginning because of our unrealistic expectations. We expected things to be as quick as a viral social media campaign and a trending hashtag on Twitter. Undoing decades of colonialism, occupation, Baathism, and injustice with our fearless, yet mere, voices. And wait for it, with truth. How is this possible, and still, how could you not have these expectations? Who would literally risk their lives and their homes if not for a mediocre of imperfect revolution? Who would have thought that the entire world would just silently watch a country burn?
These dizzying polarities have lodged themselves in our minds. When we regret, we feel guilt. When we don’t regret, we feel guilt. We live in a time when memory and survival have become a burden. But we cannot do without either.
This regime is no longer only in a war against freedom, dignity, and justice. They are waging a war against the future.
Watching the latest Assad regime propaganda in schools underscores what we have always known: This is an authoritarian system with no imagination. Their default in 2021 is to implement the 1980s playbook. This regime is no longer only in a war against freedom, dignity, and justice. They are waging a war against the future.
I know exactly what those kids in that classroom feel like because I was that kid, too. Every Syrian I know was. We had only one answer on our fearful tongues. One name, one portrait, one family, one possibility that swallowed our own names, stories, selves, potential, and possibility.
In contrast, over the past 10 years, we have seen what Syrians are capable of doing when that fear is lifted, even at the most terrible price of trauma and displacement. I’ve witnessed hundreds of Syrian refugee youth thriving when given the opportunity and tools. At the Karam Houses in Turkey, Syrian refugee teens are given the chance to claim themselves as their biggest hope. They are their own agents for the future.
Just a few weeks ago, I watched two Syrian refugee girls, Hawla and Rua, present their project to redesign the popular online game, Among Us, to become a more interactive game in real life. They were coding live on Zoom in front of their mentors, guest critics, and peers. Another young teen in Istanbul, Rouba, has started an Instagram baking business during the pandemic. And yet another teen who had lived through the starvation sieges in East Ghouta as a child became a young technology leader in his Turkish school, where he taught dozens of Turkish students design programs he learned at Karam House. These young people and thousands more are proving every day that Syrian refugees are much more than their tragedies and trauma. They are brimming with potential and endless possibility.
Ten years on, I can tell you with certainty what the futures of the children in those stifling classrooms in Syria will be when they have the chance to breathe, to think, to dream. I know because the people who took to the streets and sacrificed their lives were once those children, too. I know because I see the children growing into adults outside Syria and what they are accomplishing.
So many years ago, at the time when we felt the hope of the revolution slipping away into the ugliness of war, my friend, activist Rami Jarrah, told me, “The people who started the revolution will not be the ones who finish it.” We were depressed, and the years that followed proved the first phase of his words right. We watched the monsters from the regime, its allies, the Islamic State group, extremists, and many shades of foreign interests in between tear Syria apart and kill our heroes of the revolution. Now, I think another version of his words are becoming true. The ones who will finish the revolution are the ones growing up now. The ones across the world who are using their voices in a million different ways. And their children. And theirs.
For decades, Syrians have been terrified to name things as they are. Instead, we had codes for everything. The Hamah massacres from the ’80s were always referred to in whispers as “the events.” The 2011 revolution is sometimes vaguely referred to as “the things that happened” or “the crisis.” In contrast, the Assad regime treats its singular, dominant narrative as an eternal dynasty: Assad = Syria. However, it’s clear that the Assad regime itself is just an “event” — a ruthless, murderous event — but an event, nonetheless. It has a beginning, a long, brutal middle, and it will have an end. The Assad regime is not the only Syrian story. It is a story. It is possibly one of the most terrible stories of humanity; but it is only a story, only a bloody name. There is no journey with Bashar. It’s a dead end. We, the Syrians, all Syrians, are the journey. A country on an infinite journey of infinite stories, infinite names, infinite heroes.
The first chants for freedom in Syria were declarations. They are as powerful as any declaration of independence in any other country in history. It is crying, “Death before humiliation.” It is screaming, “Only God, Syria, and freedom.” It’s the affirmation that we are humans and not animals, and all people are like us. The declaration to strive for a better future that all Syrians deserve. The future is coming, and no one, especially an enemy without imagination, whose only tool is fear, can win against the future.
“We dared to dream.” It summarizes the Syrian revolution in a few, powerful words. I dream of my country where no Syrian child or person will ever be forced to answer one name and stand under one portrait out of fear. I dream of a classroom with 100 Syrian children who are asked, “Who is the hope for the future of Syria?” Each of them will stand and answer — without doubt or hesitation or fear and with all the pride we were never allowed to feel — “I am.”