Yaman is a recent MSc Finance graduate from Durham University Business School and a Chevening Scholar from Aleppo, Syria
Part 1: The Beginning Of the Civil War
Before I begin recounting my life, I would like to highlight that my story, the one that you are about to embark on, is a fortunate one. There are many others who are going through worse and my experiences are just a fraction compared to what friends and relatives in Syria have witnessed and been through at first hand.
The first part of my journey started on March 15th 2011, a date Syrians will talk about for decades to come. The 'Arab Spring' fever spread to Syria, and back then I thought that our government was seeing what was happening and would respond to, at least, some of the people's demands.
I couldn't have been more wrong. When the first demonstration broke out in Dara'a City, I was a third year economics student at Aleppo University. In April 2011, the protests and demonstrations spread to my university on a small scale. The majority of the students at Aleppo University were from the city and its suburbs, and most of them weren't participating in the demonstrations at the time.
The number of protests and demonstrations started to increase slowly, up to November 30th 2011 when events took a definitive turn. The demonstration was so immense that the University Square was crammed with students from different departments and backgrounds, chanting in support of other cities, chanting for freedom! Their unity and voices sent a shiver down my spine. The students of Aleppo had finally broken their silence.
Up until then the situation in Aleppo had been relatively safe; we were able to go out late with friends and family, to eat, shop, watch a movie and enjoy a night out. Those days were numbered. The Syrian population was now suppressed. A regime over 40 years old was now preventing its people from the simple right of expression, ruling it by force, and the corruption of officials made us reach the point of no return. Our fathers had feared this moment since they witnessed what happened in Syria during the 1970s.
The situation soon deteriorated dramatically, massive arrests took place daily by the secret intelligence services. Airstrikes and bombings began and in no time the number of people forced to evacuate their homes increased and suddenly Aleppo University dormitories were filled with displaced families. During Ramadan in 2012, my friends and I volunteered to help allocate rooms in schools to displaced families and search for donations to cover the costs of their food and basic needs.
In a matter of weeks things got even worse. Electricity was restricted and the internet cut off. It was so hard to cope with the sleepless nights with the sounds of explosions, bombings and ambulances tending to the injured all day and every day. I recall looking at the sky and too often seeing helicopters, looking at the streets and seeing tanks. We were at war.
The number of secret police checkpoints in the streets increased so much that I was afraid of leaving my own neighbourhood. I had friends and acquaintances who were arrested, some never came back, some did, others were found dead. I've lost five friends to date, in different ways, mostly tortured. These were students in their twenties that would have contributed to their country's future. The body of my friend Ayman, who I had known since high school and the first friend I lost, was found on a highway: he had been tortured to death. It didn't matter who you supported, Syrian civilians always seemed to pay the price with their life.
By then, I had already started looking for an alternative that would allow me to continue with my studies in a safer place and began applying for master's programmes in Turkey. On an unusually calm Tuesday I received news that my father had been kidnapped by an armed group on his way back from work. To this day, I still can't explain the emotions that I experienced or what prevented me from crying. Maybe I was becoming desensitised by the atrocities inflicted upon us civilian Syrians. I was 22, planning to leave and start a new life abroad, and the only sibling with my mother (my two sisters are married and my brother was doing his PhD abroad). After an indescribable week of worry following his abduction, he came back home saying "that was one hell of an adventure!" He never talked much about the incident; I guess he didn't want us to feel worse about what happened.
Shortly after my father returned home, I booked a flight from Aleppo to Istanbul through Beirut, not knowing if I would ever see my family again. I arrived in beautiful Istanbul, with goals to achieve and challenges to endure, not knowing that the most difficult days my country would face were still ahead.