26 Oct 2014

Syria: still dreaming of the future after war

As I walked onto Aleppo University Campus I felt I could have been in Beirut or Tunis or any peaceful, mixed city in the Middle East. Girls in headscarves walked alongside those with unfettered locks.

There were boys in skinny jeans and older men, presumably teachers, in jacket and tie. An old man wandered around selling tiny cups of bitter Arabic coffee as the students chatted before going into their afternoon classes.

In January 2013 the campus was bombed, killing more than 80 people, mainly students. The government claimed rebels had targeted the university but opposition groups said government aircraft dropped two bombs. The campus had been a centre of anti-Assad demonstrations.

Some students came up to ask why we were filming, curious never hostile. All of those I spoke to had one aim: to leave Syria. The war has not only caused destruction and misery but a braindrain that will affect the country for many years after the fighting stops.

Nineteen-year-old economics student Ahmed Soukkar, a ginger-haired skinny young man in a fluorescent pink hoodie, was heading to Boston in two weeks’ time. His father was already there.

“The war destroyed my dream to study in Syria,” he said. “Life in America is very good, you can do everything, you can work anywhere – everything is better than here.”

He said his family had been forced to flee their home and several of his friends had been killed.

Read more: What I’ll remember from four days in Aleppo

Twenty-four-year-old Zoozan Maamo had just finished her medical studies. From her calm demeanour and elegant appearance you would never have guessed that in March she and her family had fled Islamic State militants who occupied her home town of Afrin, in the Kurdish area north of Aleppo, towards the Turkish border.

“They said we must wear black from head to toe,” she said. “It was my first time to see such faces. I think maybe they were Afghan – they spoke with a strange accent. They wouldn’t talk to a woman, saying it’s not allowed by Islam.”

Now she, like Ahmed, is thinking of the future.

“I don’t want to be a normal doctor,” she said. “I want to be extraordinary, to discover something new in medicine, to find a new treatment for a disease.”

After four days in Aleppo I loved her optimism and self-belief. In the ruins of the old souk and the half-built apartment blocks where displaced families live open to the elements, I had seen the devastation and despair that war brings in its wake. And here was a young woman who believed that despite or maybe because of her terrifying experiences she could do something good in this world.

“Before these events I was a child in my opinions,” she said. “But although it was difficult to live through those hardships, I feel they made me what I am now.”

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum