My decision to leave Syria came in a hurry, prompted by the sight of my mother after I was released from two weeks of detention.
I had been politically active for some time, but because I belong to one of Syria’s many religious minorities, I was left alone, aside from a few inquiries by the authorities. They contacted my grandfather, a high-ranking regime party member, and asked him to “put me in line”.
That was the extent of it - until one day in July 2012. I was arrested at a demonstration in the Rukn el-Deen neighbourhood of the capital, where singing and chanting protesters were dispersed with live ammunition. I spent two weeks in solitary confinement in a basement, immune to the maltreatment others have suffered because of my minority status. Still, my stint at the department of state security’s branch in Kafar Souseh ended with a clear warning. “I know you want to go to Spain to study,” one officer told me. “I suggest you go now.”
I didn’t care much for what he said until I got home and saw my mother. She was not the elegant mid-40s woman I knew. After two weeks of not knowing where I was or how long they would keep me, she was barely alive. Her lips were cracked, her eyes swollen from crying, her already thin frame 15kg lighter. I knew she would not survive another bout of her only son in prison, or worse, killed.
I decided then and there to pack my bags. But I wasn’t psychologically prepared to leave so much history behind with little time to say goodbye. I was overwhelmed with emotion as friends streamed through a café to wish me off. So many friendships, built over years, were about to come to an end.
I spent my last hours in Damascus with a friend and my sister, visiting the sites one last time. First stop was the spice market in the old city of Damascus. At night, it is a magical place, its scent a breeze of paradise. You can stand there for hours without saying a word, just taking it in. Then we watched the sun rise from the Omayyad Mosque, also a unique Damascus experience.
I packed my bags with clothes, books and a few souvenirs, then sat down for a last morning coffee with my parents, telling jokes to try to make them laugh.
My mother tried to stay resolute, but because she and I do not have a convention mother-son relationship - instead we are good friends - I could sense her deep feelings of injustice. She felt I was being kicked out of my country. But she did not say a word. Instead, she wished me luck, told me to take care of myself, instructed me to come back as soon as possible, and insisted I not worry about anything else.
I resisted getting into the cab that would take me to Lebanon. My departure was now more real than ever. Within the hour, I would be out of Syria.
It amazes me how much taxi drivers can yap. It upset me at first. I needed a little peace to brood as I took one last look at Damascus. But by the time we crossed the Damascus-Beirut Highway, I found myself grateful for his distracting conversation.
It took us a long time to cross the border because there were so many people there, entire families that had packed all they could carry and delved into the unknown completely unprepared. I saw one woman wearing shoes that did not match. She must have left in an even bigger hurry than I had. I was about to enter a life in exile.
Syria Diary: Life in exile
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions