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Syrian civil war continues to take toll on UCLA students

Second-year biology student Ayesha Rasheed draws the Syrian flag as part of her response to the posted question, “What does Syria mean to you?” at the Syrian Open House. (Heidy Cadena/Daily Bruin)

By Ian Stevenson

April 6, 2015 12:08 a.m.

Rawan Naji’s uncle was waiting with his family in Damascus, the capital of Syria, for their American visas when the Syrian government bombed a civilian area that included his two children’s clothing factories, which burned to the ground in 2014.

Naji, a third-year political science student, said her uncle and his family had planned to sell their two factories and use that money to buy plane tickets to come to Orange County, where Naji and her parents live.

Although Naji said she is relieved that her uncle and his family are safe from the war in Syria, she said seeing them lose their livelihoods back home has made her feel sad that she cannot help them. Her uncle, who works late as a chef and grocery store employee and comes home exhausted, has told her he would rather be in Syria than here, she said.

About four years have passed since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, but violence and unrest in the country have intensified. The United Arab Society, a UCLA student group, sought to mark the anniversary through its Syrian Revolution Week last week.

The group coordinated events and documentary showings in the evenings and placed poster boards on Bruin Walk during the day to educate students about Syrian history, culture and the ongoing civil war. Undergraduate Students Association Council General Representative 1 and 2 offices both sponsored the week’s activities.

Jodutt Basrawi, a third-year engineering geology student and United Arab Society president, said the group’s goal is to humanize Syria.

Demonstrations began in 2010 as the Arab Spring, an upwelling of civilian rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East against authoritarian regimes, spilled into Syria in 2011 and has continued ever since.

The peaceful protests against Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, quickly escalated into violence that led to the formation of a rebel force, the Free Syrian Army. A brutal crackdown by the government ensued, including its use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs against its own civilians.

So far, the war has killed more than 200,000 people and led to the displacement of 50 to 60 percent of the Syrian population, said James L. Gelvin, a UCLA history professor who has written several books and articles on the region.

In recent months, the Islamic State group has joined the battlefield and further complicated the war.

The death of thousands, displacement of millions and destruction of infrastructure has caused Syria to little resemble the country it once was, Gelvin said.

Despite the violence, Naji’s mother decided to travel to Syria last summer to visit family.

Her mother told Naji that bombings were audible in the distance in Damascus, and the city once vibrant with night life was quiet by 6 p.m.

After going to a mosque one day, Naji’s mother and uncle stopped at a nearby coffee shop for refreshments, Naji said. The day after, the coffeehouse was bombed, Naji said.

Naji said she thinks the strictness of the authoritarian government in Syria has engendered fear in some citizens that they are constantly being watched.

When the Syrian government visited Naji’s grandmother and aunt in 2013, Naji said her aunt had to stuff her “Free Syria” flag in the drain of the kitchen sink to hide it from government home inspectors, who performed random searches to make sure civilians weren’t collaborating with rebel forces.

Naji said she remembers how difficult it was early in the war to learn about the situation.

“Every time we would ask our family, ‘Is there something going on?’ they would have to say ‘no’ for their lives,” she said.

Gelvin said he thinks the complexity of the war has caused many to predict a bleak future.

 

“It’s going to end up with both sides exhausted, but like prize fighters not able to deliver a final blow,” Gelvin said. “A permanent failed state is the prospect. (Syria has) disappeared from the face of the earth.”

Despite this forecast, Basrawi said he believes the best solution to the war is to establish Syria as a heterogeneous nation full of a diverse range of people. He said he thinks the government should provide its citizens with many of the same freedoms democracies provide their citizens.

Although the violence continues, Naji said her grandmother will never leave Syria.

“She’d rather die in her own home than somewhere else,” she said.

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