Ala’a*, who can’t share her real name or location because it’s too dangerous, decided to stay in Syria for the sake of her career. This is her life...
The alarm goes off on my phone, but I hit the snooze button (/sleep through it) until my mum pokes her head around my door and forces me get up. I’ve been living with my parents for three years now – I love them to bits, but it’s incredibly frustrating and I end up rolling my eyes quite a lot. They’re just very overprotective. Before the war started, I was studying English Literature at university in Damascus. I lived on my own in a flat in the centre of the city, and I was completely independent. When I graduated in March 2013, I flew home for a visit – but in the short time that I was away, the conflict around Damascus got worse and the situation became so dangerous that I had to stay with my family who live in an area that’s currently away from the fighting. So now I’m back in my childhood bedroom, complete with pink and silver wallpaper.
I get dressed for work in a pair of black jeans and a shirt, or something else that errs on the side of smart-casual. Shopping is hard here – the town where I grew up has been largely unaffected by the war so far, but that’s because it’s so small, which also means there isn’t anywhere for me to go to buy clothes. That said, it’s much harder in Damascus now too. When I lived there, there was Zara, H&M, Promod, Sephora… These days, there’s a Mango, and that’s about it. The upside is that I quite like Mango. The downside is that everybody is wearing exactly the same clothes.
Quick breakfast of fruit and coffee, then I have to head to work. My office is about 30 minutes drive away, but my mum won’t let me use the car because she thinks it’s too dangerous – not because of the conflict, but because she hates my driving! Instead, I wait outside the house for some of my colleagues who live nearby to pick me up and drive us across town.
I need more coffee before I can even think about doing any work, so my colleagues and I sit around and chat for 15 minutes or so before the day begins. When I came back home from university, I was really depressed because I felt like my career was over before it had even begun. I knew that if I left Syria for Europe, I’d become a ‘refugee’, and I’d never be able to get the kind of job I’ve always worked towards. But I also knew that if I stayed, my options were limited too. If I’d stayed in Damascus I would have been fine – that’s where everyone goes to launch their careers. But there aren’t many opportunities where I live. With a degree in English, I was pretty much limited to getting work as a Foreign Languages teacher in a secondary school. And I’m really, really bad with kids.
Thankfully, the day after I accepted a post at a school nearby, I heard that there was an NGO setting up a program nearby, and they needed translators. I applied and got offered the job almost immediately. Six months later, I moved to a position with the International Rescue Committee.
It’s funny because three years ago, I’d never heard of the IRC. I didn’t even know what an NGO was. These days, they’re everywhere.
My morning is hectic. There’s so much to sort out – delivering aid to the people who need it most around the country, organizing food distribution… It’s kind of endless. In my current role as Livelihoods Officer, I manage a team of 40 to 50 other staff members, so I’m constantly hopping from meeting to meeting, signing papers and necking coffee as I go. It’s very stressful, but I love it. The war in Syria is terrible and terrifying – I think I’ve woken up feeling scared every single day for five years now – but I have to force myself to deal with it.
I also know I wouldn’t have reached this level in my career so early on if it wasn’t for the political unrest. As a woman in Syria, it feels like the power balance has changed. Young men under the age of 30 are all obligated to serve in the military for a couple of years unless they’re studying, so most young men have left for Europe or other neighbouring countries. As a result, the country’s millennial demographic is now largely female – and we’re getting promoted quickly.
That’s why so many young men are travelling to Europe on their own. It’s not because they’re the strongest ones, or the ones most likely to get jobs when they’re over there. It’s because joining the army is like being given a death sentence.
I have a 24 year old brother who is studying Mechanical Engineering elsewhere in the country. He still has two years left on his degree, and we all hope the war will be over by then – but if it’s not, then we talk openly about the fact that he’ll have to flee too.
Technically I get an hour for lunch, but there’s so much to do that it’s usually just like 15 minutes or something. I’m on a bit of a diet at the moment – or trying to be, anyway – so I opt for tabbouleh, which is like parsley and cous cous mixed together – and then maybe I’ll have some bread and hummus if I’m still hungry. Syrian food is amazing – admittedly I’ve never been abroad, but there are still a few Italian restaurants and chains of American-style food like McDonalds in the centre of some cities, and trust me – we just do it better.
My colleagues and I get distracted for a moment and end up chatting about the programmes we watched on TV last night. When the conflict started five years ago, everyone would hang out together and talk about it all the time. It was the theme of every night out, or every night in; who supported who, and who thought what would happen. We got angry and wrote Facebook posts about it. We read every single piece of news. But it’s hard to keep that up when it’s just the same thing, day after day. Corrupt politicians, terrorism, war… Eventually we just stopped talking about it. We live through it. That’s enough. Grey’s Anatomy is much easier to focus on.
I’m supposed to finish work around now, but I have so much left on my To Do list, I know I’ll stay in the office for another couple of hours. It’s not hard to stay motivated when you know how much is at stake – people’s lives are directly impacted by whether or not I do my job. I’ve been very, very lucky because nobody I know directly has been killed in the last five years, but that’s unusual. Most of my friends know someone. Everyone is grieving in some way, all the time. As it is, most of my male friends and nearly all of my relatives have fled to Europe now. My aunt left last year with my nieces. She didn’t want to go, but she felt like she had to for the sake of their safety. She WhatsApps us a couple of times a month. I know she’s struggling. Everyone is.
I head home, armed with a tote bag full of work to continue plowing through in the evening. My mum has made dinner – the one good thing about being back with my family is that I always get fed, and I always get to pick what we eat, too. This evening, we have stuffed vine leaves with lamb, and I catch up with my dad who’s just come home from work. Before the war, we were really lucky – my dad’s job paid really well, and we lived very comfortably. But over the last five years, the economy has suffered so much that his pay cheque doesn’t amount to much any more. If he earned about £1000 before, now it’s like he only earns £100. Meanwhile, prices for food have gone up. We all have to work a lot harder. My older brother is 33, but he’s disabled, so employment is tricky, and my mum was a nurse, but she retired last year. Still, we’re better off than a lot of people.
I head up to my room and Skype my fiancé, who lives on the other side of the country. We met at university, and he’s 28 too, but having a long distance relationship is hard. Two months ago, he proposed, but I don’t know when we’ll be able to get married. As we chat, we reminisce about Damascus before the war – how we’d just go out to house parties like normal students, and dance until the early hours. I used to be able to walk down the street on my own at midnight and feel safe, and nobody ever worried about bombs or fighters or Islamic extremists. These days, there are so many different groups of bad people – it’s hard to know which is the worst. ISIS probably scares me the most, though. When I think about what they’re doing to people, my throat tightens and I have to try not to throw up. It’s too much.
After a couple more hours of working, I give up and watch some more Grey’s Anatomy on my laptop, and trawl YouTube for a while before going to sleep. Every day is exactly the same – a monotonous routine of working and eating.
I know I’m safe. I’m with my family and I have a career that I love. But I’m not free. I can’t leave Syria unless I want to become a refugee. I’m fluent in English, but I can’t apply for jobs abroad because they won’t give Syrians visas.
I’m just trapped here, in my childhood bedroom, and there’s no end in sight.