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“I couldn’t feel more helpless, more hopeless. And I knew I would have to leave.”

May 2 2024

Aleppo University after a missile strike, January 2013
Aleppo University after a missile strike, January 2013

A Cara Fellow tells her story: From violence in Aleppo to safety and academic success.

In March 2011, fifteen schoolboys, some not even in their teens, were arrested by police in Daraa, Syria. The boys had been caught defacing the walls of their school, calling for an end to the regime of Syria’s then-and-current president, Bashar al-Assad. Like most kids anywhere caught playing with spray cans near government property, they ended up in the backs of police cars.

But instead of a police station, these children were taken to a local office of the Syrian Intelligence Services. In this building, they were tortured. Extensively. By people who knew how.

Protestors and regime forces clashed in the streets. Water cannons knocked protestors to the ground while others choked on tear gas. When these measures failed to deter the demonstrators, soldiers began firing into the crowd.

250 miles to the northeast, Layla* was working at Aleppo University and looking forward to starting work on her Master’s degree, and for a while life in the city continued in a kind of regime-enforced normalcy. The Assad regime had enacted a swift crackdown on reporting in the mainstream media, though reports of what was happening in Daraa were spreading swiftly across Twitter and other online information outlets.

“The war began in 2011,” Layla recalls. “But I lived in Aleppo, and Aleppo didn’t experience the war until two years after the actual breakout. It was 2014 when I knew I had to leave my house with my family. We fled when the bombing started. Everyone in the neighbourhood just left.”

The 2011 Arab Spring was a seismic shock to the tyrants of the Arab world, who felt the foundations of their regimes suddenly wrench and crack beneath them. In Libya, this shift toppled Muammar Gaddafi; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was ousted; so was Tunisia’s President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Assad, however, survived. The violence erupted and burned its way across the country, as Layla watched its progress on social media in horror – trapped with her family in Aleppo, with no means to get out of the way.

“We did not have any other place to go,” Layla recalls. “Most people – most of our neighbours – they went to live with relatives here and there, away from the fighting. But we were a big family. We didn’t want to leave our house, no-one would. Where could we go? Would we share a house, all of us, with another family? Would we share a room?”

“But in the end, we had no choice. And I remember, when we fled our home, my mom… She was filled with faith and insisted not to take anything with her. She said to us, ‘it’s only going to be for a week or so. We’re going to come back. When the situation gets better.’ Thirteen years later, we never did. Today, our house is nothing but rubble, debris, and destructive memory.”

Layla and her family eventually found new, temporary homes in Aleppo to rent – avoiding the worst of the violence and as far as possible from the city’s outskirts, which, as she describes, ‘were on fire.’ But the fighting stalked after them. As Layla recalls, “I don’t think there was a place in Aleppo by then where it was safe to walk, safe to wander, to drive, to get grocery or to do anything.” The city’s infrastructure had collapsed in the crossfire. She remembers weeks without running water. The electricity grid had failed completely. For four months, the family lived without electric lights - cramped together in the dark, night after night, listening to the city around them tear itself apart.

“In my head, my Master’s was my exit,” says Layla. “It was the only card I had, and I knew I should invest in that card to get myself out of that situation. It is sad to say but back then, there was no future for people like me in Syria.”

Layla was seeing first-hand the exodus from the country of other Syrians like her in higher education. And it wasn’t only students who were escaping. She describes how one of her Master’s supervisors simply vanished, overnight – no warning, no goodbye. As the brutality of the war increased, Layla’s university hollowed out, until the only people left were those with no choice. She desperately wanted to continue her education: to rise higher; to complete a doctorate. She saw that future disappearing along with her fellow students and staff.

“I needed to take the hard decision, to carry on with my life, to leave. To restore what was lost with the brutal war. And because I have a Master’s degree, I knew I wouldn’t just be fleeing to another country to do nothing. I knew, then, ‘I am a valuable person.’”

“I applied to many organisations besides Cara,” she says. “I got a lot of rejections, but never gave up on hope. It was not easy. I was fortunate as Cara is focused on academics who are at risk, I think I met the profile, you know?”

Layla recalls the moment Cara made contact.

“It was like a dream,” she says. “I was in a cafe; it was in the afternoon in summer I was sitting with my friends in a coffee shop. I was constantly checking my e-mails, because I had sent so many applications. But then, when I was just sitting there, I remember getting the e-mail saying, “We are pleased to tell you that you are eligible for a Cara fellowship: let’s arrange an interview.” At that moment what I felt was beyond describing...”

Just a few years later, Layla now has her PhD from one of the UK’s top universities. It is, she says, “a dream and a privilege.” At every step, she recalls, the Cara team were with her, helping her “in every aspect and making me feel welcome.”

But rather than let that be the happy ending to her story, Layla has made it her mission to maintain close contact with her friends, her colleagues, even her students in Aleppo. To share her successes and show them that there is an alternative to violence. To show them there is hope.

“I am telling them that I am an example – which I never dreamed I would be,” she explains. “I never dreamed that I would be able to get my doctorate. Now, I have my degree from one of the best universities in the UK. I want them to know: this is actually possible. This is a great thing that they can do.”

*Layla is a pseudonym