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I Went to Aleppo to Study, I Left in a Convoy of Refugees

By Lina Shamy

January 20, 2017

I grew up here in Idlib, a northern Syrian town and moved to Aleppo, about 40 miles away, in 2008 to study architecture at the university. I had loved Aleppo since I was a child, when we used to visit my maternal grandfather. I would stare at the wooden houses with latticed balconies in the alleys that my mother had known as a girl.

As a student, I spent long afternoons at the eighth-century Umayyad Mosque with its slender 11th-century minaret, a masterpiece. I also admired the 12th-century Citadel, its gateways decorated with winged dragons and serpents. On the outskirts, St. Simeon Church, from the Byzantine era, reminded me of even older histories.

The joys of exploring such glorious history and architecture sat uneasily with my growing awareness of the limits of possibility in a Syria under President Bashar al-Assad. If you did not belong to the networks patronized by Mr. Assad and his cronies, you didn’t have much of a future in the country anyway.

In January 2011, during my third year at Aleppo University, the news of the Arab Spring uprisings arrived from Tunisia and Egypt. Many of my friends felt pessimistic that such a thing could happen in Syria because we knew how brutal the regime could be, because we had been raised to believe that the walls in our country had ears.

But by April, protests against Mr. Assad had spread throughout Syria. One summer day I joined a group of young women in an upscale neighborhood of western Aleppo. We walked through a market carrying banners critical of the regime. A few minutes later, pro-Assad militiamen arrived in several cars and began circling us. We ran. A girl and I who sought refuge in a house in an alley were arrested.

We were handcuffed, taken to a police station and then the intelligence headquarters. I remember walking through a corridor filled with men who had been stripped to their underpants with their hands cuffed behind them. Their backs were bloody. I told my friend to deny that we were at the protest and to say that we were in the neighborhood for lunch and had run for safety from the commotion. At night, we were blindfolded and taken into a room full of male voices. Our blindfolds were taken off and we were asked about the protest. We repeated our lunch story. A little while later, we were released.

As the uprising intensified through the summer of 2012, the regime responded with increasing brutality. I moved briefly with my mother to a Turkish town by the Syrian border, but after a month I decided to return to Aleppo, despite my mother’s anxieties, to complete my degree.

In July and August, the Free Syrian Army took control of most of eastern Aleppo. Moving between the rebel-held and regime-held parts of the city became extremely difficult.

The university is in western Aleppo, and I would constantly hear President Assad’s planes and helicopters dropping bombs to the east. People in western Aleppo seemed to be simply going about their lives. I couldn’t bear the laughter on the streets, the diners at restaurants in pretty clothes as bombs pulverized the eastern neighborhoods, just a few miles away.

My university became a hub of protest. Campus life alternated between classes and protests and raids by security forces. I narrowly escaped prison but a lot of my fellow students didn’t. On Jan. 15, 2013, I was working in a design studio at school when a classmate saw something falling by the window. A few seconds later, I felt a gust of air and, in a blink, my desk was covered with dust, glass and wreckage. I got a few scratches on my face and hands; two of my classmates had head injuries.

More than 80 people, including students, passers-by and hawkers selling coffee, were killed by the bombing that day. We felt that it was a warning from Mr. Assad. Protests at the university and elsewhere in regime-held Aleppo ended after that.

I did not want to stay in western Aleppo for even a day after my graduation. I went to Turkey to live with my mother. While I was there I met Syrian architects who were working to deal with the housing problem for refugees by replacing scattered tents in informal settlements with cheaply built houses. We built several houses. And I met Yusuf, an architect from Aleppo. Two years later, in the summer of 2015, I married Yusuf and moved to rebel-held eastern Aleppo to live and volunteer with him.

While we were there, I was constantly afraid of bombs dropping anywhere, anytime. The sound of helicopters and planes above kept me on edge. The Umayyad Mosque and the Citadel that I loved to visit as a student had been significantly damaged (St. Simeon was soon to suffer the same fate). Yet around 250,000 people were living in eastern Aleppo, some working in grocery stores, pharmacies or vegetable markets, others working with local and international aid groups.

Yusuf, though trained as an architect, volunteered in all possible ways. He worked as a paramedic, helped move schools into basements and acted in plays. I walked past bombed-out homes to work at a school, catching painful glimpses of family photographs and clothes still hanging on hooks on shattered walls.

Last July, the Assad forces established siege lines around eastern Aleppo. We could rarely cook at home because there was no fuel. A few days after the siege began, Bait al-Falafel, a small neighborhood eatery where we would get dinner, was bombed. Two workers were killed. Shops started to close, one after the other. A month into the siege, there was hardly anything left to buy in the markets. People bartered. Relief organizations had stocked rice, cereals and beans in anticipation of the siege, which helped. Several districts fell to the regime forces. Tens of thousands of people fled.

By November, rebel-held Aleppo had shrunk to about 50,000 people. The front line was moving closer to our home. Everything stopped. Yusuf went to fight with the Free Syrian Army. I would say goodbye to him every morning when he left as if it were the last time. I felt I would lose my mind when I couldn’t reach him on the phone after yet another wave of bombings.

One morning during the siege, I’d just had coffee with Yusuf when a sudden blast of air threw open the doors and windows of our apartment. My table and my computer were covered with dust. I was shaking on my sofa, my heart galloping.

Two days later, another barrel bomb fell, on a building close to our house. A hospital had moved next door. Regime and Russian jets were intentionally bombing hospitals and clinics. We grabbed a bag of clothes and moved to another house. President Assad’s forces were inching closer, and our new house was in the firing range. We moved again, to a friend’s home.

We were desperate for the world to hear and help us. I had been frantically tweeting images and videos of destruction from eastern Aleppo. We relied on local providers who used Turkish wireless networks and satellite routers to keep Aleppo online. On Dec. 12, as Aleppo was close to falling, many of us tweeted our last calls for help. I recorded my video inside a friend’s house, my voice trembling. I feared a massacre.

A few days later, a cease-fire was announced. Aleppo had fallen. We were granted passage out. On Dec. 21, Yusuf and I were in one of the last convoys to leave the city. We heard that militias aligned with President Assad had attacked one of the convoys and killed four men. There was no space left on the buses, and the authorities asked us to go in our cars. Heavy, swirling flakes of snow began to fall.

We waited in our car at the checkpoint, for 36 hours, cold and without food. It was still snowing in the morning when we were waved out of Aleppo. After crossing checkpoints operated by Russians, Mr. Assad’s soldiers and Iranian militiamen, we were finally out of regime-held territory. Twenty long minutes later, I saw a post with the Free Syrian Army flag. Tears filled my eyes.


Lina Shamy is an architect and activist.