A War Apart: Syrians at Harvard

By Claire E. Parker and Emily B. Zauzmer, Crimson Staff Writers
By Xue Dong, Cynthia Guo, and Courtesy of Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

On the first day of shopping week this fall, Nisreen S. Shiban ’17 received a phone call from Syria. She immediately knew that something must be wrong.

It was one of her uncles. His voice panicked, he asked Shiban to get in touch with her father and make sure her mother was not within earshot. He had devastating news to deliver: Shiban’s maternal uncle Makarem, a former veterinarian who had practically raised her, had been killed by ISIS fighters in Aleppo. He was the latest casualty of Syria’s nearly six-year-long civil war.

Over the past six years, the war has claimed more than 470,000 lives and displaced 11 million others in what many are calling the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The conflict has catalyzed ISIS’s emergence as a global force of terror, created new and complex geopolitical entanglements, left countries scrambling to respond to a wave of refugees, and galvanized the spread of identity politics across the world.

Many of Harvard’s schools, including the College, report that none of their students list Syria as their primary country of citizenship. But the records do not account for students of Syrian origin with other legal statuses or citizenships, and they do not consider faculty or visiting scholars. These Harvard affiliates’ lives, families, and identities have been directly, irrevocably impacted by the Syrian crisis.

A College senior’s aunt and uncle were beheaded by rebel groups in Daraa.

An Arabic language preceptor often woke up in the middle of the night worrying about her brother and sister in Damascus.

A College freshman lost 13 relatives in the bloodshed.

A College junior’s secondary school in Aleppo shut down amid the hostilities before she could graduate.

A master’s student at the Graduate School of Education moved her family from Damascus to Cairo as the war intensified.

A junior volunteered at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in an effort to do something to ease the pain of her fellow Syrians.

A surgeon in Harvard’s Scholar at Risk program helped set up makeshift infirmaries to provide care to a bleeding city.

More than 5,000 miles away from the conflict that rips apart the country they love, they carry on their lives at Harvard—among peers who cannot fathom their experiences, in a nation whose President-elect has labeled them a threat.

Coping on Campus

Reconciling her identity as a Syrian with her daily life as a college student poses a perpetual internal struggle for Leen Al-Kassab ’18. While her classmates are stressing over exams and extracurricular commitments, she is thinking about the victims of airstrikes pulled out of rubble a continent away—a pattern she describes as detrimental to her mental health.

“It is my country—I should be sentimental, and I should be relating to them, but at the same time, how is that helping anyone?” she says. “That’s not going to change the fact that I have a midterm tomorrow. That’s not going to change the fact that I have a p-set due at midnight that has to be turned in.”

“It is my country—I should be sentimental, and I should be relating to them, but at the same time, how is that helping anyone?” says Leen Al-Kassab ’18. “That’s not going to change the fact that I have a midterm tomorrow. That’s not going to change the fact that I have a pset due at midnight that has to be turned in.”
“It is my country—I should be sentimental, and I should be relating to them, but at the same time, how is that helping anyone?” says Leen Al-Kassab ’18. “That’s not going to change the fact that I have a midterm tomorrow. That’s not going to change the fact that I have a pset due at midnight that has to be turned in.” By Jason K. Thong

Her parents tell her to concentrate on her studies, so she has learned to scroll past the videos of a burning Syria that crop up in her Facebook feed for the sake of her own sanity.

Coping with war-related grief on a busy American college campus can be isolating. When Shiban’s aunt and uncle were killed during her sophomore year, she describes feeling “heartbroken.” She told one adviser about the deaths. The adviser encouraged her to seek help, but she declined.

When her uncle Makarem died earlier this fall, she only confided in a couple of friends. Tutors who found out about his death offered her support, but she said that she was fine. Nor did she seek out University mental health services.

“All I wanted was just to think about him alone and in peace,” she recalls. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing—I grew up where you have to handle your grief yourself. You have to be strong.”

For the mourning students at Harvard who seek solidarity, members of the Syrian Humanitarian League have considered designating a day to process difficult emotions with other groups across Harvard. “We want to do something where we can just talk, discuss, and heal,” Shiban says.

In 2015, Shiban and Tala Atassi ’18 started the League, a College-recognized organization that aims to mitigate the plight of refugees. Karen Mardini ’18 and Al-Kassab were founding members. But determining what the League should do has proven challenging. “I think it’s been a huge struggle,” Al-Kassab says, “just because of how vast this thing [the Syrian conflict] is and how helpless we feel. What can we do?”

Last academic year, the group held a vigil for victims in Aleppo and a benefit concert in Ticknor Lounge. Members considered the concert, which attracted about 30 students, unsuccessful. They have toyed with the ideas of sponsoring Syrian students at Harvard Summer School and launching a campaign to raise a year of Harvard tuition as a fundraiser for educational nonprofits. But neither effort has taken off yet. “It’s just not an issue that’s close to a lot of people,” Shiban says.

The League’s failure to attract widespread support is indicative of the chasm between Harvard’s Syrians and their peers, whose circumstances and experiences differ so vastly.

“When people ask where you’re from and you say Syria, their eyes widen,” Bushra Hamid ’20 says.

Any conversation that follows is usually fleeting. “They usually ask me, they say, ‘Oh, it’s terrible what’s going on,’” Nour Barmada, an Arabic instructor from Damascus, explains. “[But] you don’t feel like people really understand the extent of the suffering of the Syrian people.”

“No one ever thinks these things are going to go on. It’s always like, ‘Oh, in a few months it will be over... It’s ending soon. I can feel it,’” Karen Mardini '18 says. “It started out slow and then eventually started getting worse.”
“No one ever thinks these things are going to go on. It’s always like, ‘Oh, in a few months it will be over... It’s ending soon. I can feel it,’” Karen Mardini '18 says. “It started out slow and then eventually started getting worse.” By Saul A. Urbina-Johanson

War Breaks Out

When Tunisian vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, sparking protests that led to the Arab Spring, Mardini was a ninth grader at an international school in Aleppo. The daughter of a licorice maker and a piano teacher, Mardini spent her time riding horses and playing piano.

As the Arab Spring took off, the world she had known began to slip away. By March 2011, pro-democracy protests inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were spreading around the country. When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s security forces fired on demonstrators in the city of Homs, a movement that began with peaceful protests turned into a full-fledged uprising.

“No one ever thinks these things are going to go on. It’s always like, ‘Oh, in a few months it will be over... It’s ending soon. I can feel it,’” Mardini says. “It started out slow and then eventually started getting worse.”

She heard rumors of kidnappings, and she sensed fellow Aleppo residents growing wary. Her parents did not permit her to stay out late with friends, and she was forced to stop her horseback riding lessons. The electricity cut off frequently, and schools closed temporarily when bombs exploded nearby. Mardini recalls that period as oddly boring. Driven indoors by the nebulous threat of violence hanging over the city, she sat at home without much to do.

That year also marked the first summer in many years that Al-Kassab did not visit Syria. Although she is a Syrian citizen, born to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, she grew up in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. But she split her summers between Syria and Lebanon, driving from Lebanon to visit her grandfather in Damascus. In those peaceful pre-war days, crossing the border was easy.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Texas, Hamid spent three months every summer at her grandparents’ homes in Syria, where her parents grew up and her extended family still lived. She would wander around the city with her cousins during the hot, mosquito-ridden Damascus days and light candles at night when the power went out. The Hamids spent so much time in Syria that her parents began building their own house up in the mountains.

“It was so much fun,” Hamid remembers. “I didn’t realize how privileged I was until after the war [started]... My childhood was amazing because of Syria.”

“When people ask where you’re from and you say Syria, their eyes widen,” Bushra Hamid ’20 says.
“When people ask where you’re from and you say Syria, their eyes widen,” Bushra Hamid ’20 says. By Jason K. Thong

But violence escalated over the summer of 2011, preventing both Al-Kassab and Hamid from returning to the country. Hamid’s family stopped construction on that house in the mountains.

As the conflict worsened and alliances formed, the war took on sectarian dimensions. President Assad’s family is Alawite, a minority Muslim sect that comprises roughly 10 percent of the Syrian population but has ruled over the majority Sunni country since the 1960s. Prior to the Arab Spring, Syrians across ethnic backgrounds had coexisted in a fragile peace, despite undercurrents of tension.

Shiban—who was born in Syria, moved to Qatar, then settled in the United States when she was 12 years old—comes from an Alawite family. Her family had close Sunni friends in Aleppo before the war. Shiban remembers playing with their children as music floated over the balcony where the adults sat sipping a traditional Middle Eastern drink and smoking hookah.

But when predominantly Sunni rebel groups began fighting for Assad’s overthrow in 2011, they were challenging not only the regime but also long-secure Alawite control. Some used religious affiliation as a rallying cry to mobilize the population against what they considered an oppressive minority. Faced with the very real threat of a take-over by a hostile majority, the Assad regime invoked Alawites’ identity to intimidate them into allegiance.

Swayed by this rhetoric, Shiban’s cousin and uncle left for the front lines. Neither would return.

On the first day of shopping week this fall, Nisreen S. Shiban ’17 received a phone call from Syria with devastating news: Shiban’s maternal uncle Makarem, a former veterinarian who had practically raised her, had been killed by ISIS fighters in Aleppo.
On the first day of shopping week this fall, Nisreen S. Shiban ’17 received a phone call from Syria with devastating news: Shiban’s maternal uncle Makarem, a former veterinarian who had practically raised her, had been killed by ISIS fighters in Aleppo. By Saul A. Urbina-Johanson

Meanwhile, Shiban and her family noticed their Sunni friends sharing Facebook posts written by a Sunni religious leader promoting violence against Alawites. “We were very heartbroken. We were confused,” Shiban says. “When you hear about all of the infringements on human rights, constant censorship by the government… you can understand why a war like this would happen, but nobody could see people literally going against loved ones, friends, family.”

By the middle of 2012, nearly 20,000 people had been killed in the conflict, fighting had overtaken much of the west of the country, and a United Nations-brokered cease-fire had failed. For many civilians, staying in Syria was beginning to feel untenable.

On the Front Lines

The sheer magnitude of the brutal wounds and ghastly afflictions were unlike anything Dr. Mahmoud Hariri had ever seen before.

Earlier this year, Hariri entered Harvard’s Scholar at Risk program, which supports international academics under political pressures. Before he came to Cambridge, Hariri practiced as a general surgeon and served as the Scientific Vice Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Aleppo University, where he had received his master’s and doctoral degrees. Yet his training could not fully prepare him for the horror of war. “It’s not written in the textbook… how to deal [with] and treat patients with multiple injuries, severe injuries,” he says.

When the war broke out, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He served as a member of the Aleppo City Medical Council, a team of doctors that treated the injured as Aleppo’s medical services rapidly deteriorated around them. Airstrikes targeting health facilities forced the Council to take its work underground, into the basements of old hospitals whose buildings might afford them some protection.

Understaffed and overworked—the number of medical specialists in Aleppo is “more or less than your fingers,” Hariri says—the doctors danced daily with death.

He compares the enormity of the suffering he witnessed to the destruction wrought by an earthquake. But an earthquake ends, he says, while the violence just kept coming. In his small makeshift operating room, often crammed with upwards of 20 people, the scene could be grim. “There is somebody screaming,” Hariri recalls, “and on the other side somebody shouting and crying for his relative or his brother or sister or someone. Limbs here, hand here.”

He continues, “When you see these hospitals… [you] find a lot of blood everywhere. You need to clean everything—even your heart and your mind—to be able to continue and proceed [with] your work.”

Al-Kassab also came face-to-face with the devastation. She went on a week-long medical mission to the Zaatari camp in the desert of northwestern Jordan, the temporary home of more than 80,000 Syrian refugees.

There, she served as a translator and helped treat patients—many of whom had sustained injuries in the fighting before escaping Syria—in a cramped trailer that barely fit a bed, the doctor, the patient, and herself. Her patients included a young man with left-hand paralysis whose brain had been pierced by a stray bullet and a boy whose legs and an arm had been blown off in a bomb blast.

“It was definitely an eye-opening experience, and it definitely taught us not to take anything for granted,” Al-Kassab says.

Getting Out

Syrians do not take the decision to leave their homeland lightly. “They don’t like to be refugees anywhere,” Hariri says. “Syrians are not willing to live anywhere in the world rather than their own country.”

A young Nisreen Shiban rides her bike in Syria.
A young Nisreen Shiban rides her bike in Syria. By Courtesy of Nisreen S. Shiban

As summer wound to a close in 2012, a private school in Damascus held a meeting for its students’ parents. Nour Mounajed—a mother of three and now a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education—listened intently as the school laid out contingency plans in case of emergency: If bombs hit the city, parents should not rush to pick up their children, and students might need to spend the night in the building.

“I felt it was a really, really dangerous place to be,” Mounajed says. “That’s the time when I came out of the meeting and I felt, ‘I don’t want [my children] there next year.’” Less than a week later, Mounajed, her husband, and her three children flew to Egypt.

Mardini’s parents had always planned to send her abroad after she graduated from high school. In 1995, after securing a visa, Mardini’s mother gave birth to her in Montreal to ensure that her daughter would always have the benefits of Canadian citizenship.

That foresight paid off in 2012. The ICARDA International School of Aleppo, the private school Mardini had attended since 1999, shut its doors in April as the city’s conditions worsened. “Towards the end, it was every few days or so you would hear a bomb going off in the distance,” she says. “It was really common at night to hear gunshots.”

Mardini needed a new school. She searched “international boarding school rolling deadline” on Google, scrolled through the results, and sent in applications. The Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, Mass. offered her the financial aid that allowed her to attend. In 2012, Mardini entered her junior year in America.

Her parents followed her across the globe, to the home of an uncle in Maryland. “At one point there were 10 to 11 people staying there,” she says. “We joked and called it the refugee camp.”

Mounajed and Mardini are some of the lucky ones. Citizenship and socio-economic circumstances prevent many Syrians from simply catching a flight out of Damascus or Aleppo. Some flee through whatever means possible to bordering countries: 2 million have escaped to Turkey, 1 million to Lebanon, 600,000 to Jordan, and 200,000 to Iraq. Others have escaped to Europe. This summer, the story of Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini—a Syrian refugee who, alongside her sister, pulled a sinking boat of 18 people to safety en route to Greece—made headlines.

The Politics of Identity

Al-Kassab’s residency statuses in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have enabled her to escape the implications of a Syrian identity in the eyes of the law. But her Syrian passport still poses difficulties at international airports and has deterred her from returning to Syria since the start of the war. She fears losing her passport—and the U.S. visa inside of it—in the chaos.

Now is not the best time to hold a Syrian passport—the 2016 Visa Restrictions Index ranks it the fifth worst passport to hold in the world.

Al-Kassab recalls a recent visit to Lebanon when she saw two women begging on the street. Their Syrian ID cards, placed prominently on the ground in front of them, served as their only plea for help. “The fact that just having it there should cause pity enough for people... Is that what our value is, what our definition is?” Al-Kassab asks.

She came to appreciate the power of a visa—and the peril of lacking one—after her citizenship status derailed her college plans in 2013. Since she attended a British high school in Saudi Arabia, she wanted to pursue her medical studies at a British university. She landed an interview at the University of Cambridge, but her visa got rejected twice, and she missed the interview. The United Kingdom sent her third visa rejection on New Year’s Eve, two months before American colleges released their acceptances.

“At that point, it was like, ‘Shit, am I actually going to make it? Am I actually going to go to college? What am I going to do?’” she remembers thinking.

Later that year, she received an acceptance letter from Harvard and, thanks to her Saudi residency status, a visa from the U.S. But she and Mardini both have Syrian friends who were forced to delay their educations after they failed to receive visas.

When Mounajed left Damascus for Cairo in 2012, getting out of Syria was still easy. Egypt, like many countries in the region, made it very difficult for refugees to work. But she did software development jobs from afar and enrolled her children in a local school. She says that Egyptians welcomed her.

But as the war and the influx of refugees intensified so did restrictions on Syrians settling in other countries. “When I wanted to apply [for a student visa], I had heard about so many Syrians applying and not being given visas, and that made me worry about it,” says Mounajed, who used her Lebanese passport instead.

Acts of terrorism only increased suspicion of refugees and exacerbated these restrictions.

On Nov. 13, 2015, 11 ISIS operatives killed 130 people in a string of terror attacks across Paris that shook the world. The attacks fueled anti-refugee rhetoric across Europe and the U.S. and bolstered support for right-wing nationalist parties in France and other European countries.

In the days following the attacks, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump argued that America should no longer accept Syrian refugees, likening them on national television to “Trojan horses.” Meanwhile, 30 governors—including Massachusetts Governor Charles D. Baker ’79—publicly objected to resettling Syrians in their states.

“The refugee status is really sad because these are people who left the country because it was unsafe and now they’re being perceived as a threat,” Mardini says. “They’re the people who have been terrorized, not necessarily the ones who will be terrorizing.”

The Senate struck down a House bill in January that would have virtually curtailed refugee resettlement in the U.S., and the Obama administration pledged to take in 10,000 refugees during the 2016 fiscal year—a goal it reached in August.

Still, the process of obtaining legal refugee status is long and arduous, often taking up to two years as U.S. government agencies conduct extensive background checks on applicants. Syrians who wish to enter the country must undergo additional levels of screening, making them the most heavily screened group of refugees the U.S. admits.

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees live in limbo in crowded camps in countries that neighbor Syria, like the one Al-Kassab worked in over the summer. Some of her patients from Daraa, where the fighting started in 2011, had been at the camp for nearly five years and were still not allowed to leave without permission.

Watching the war and the refugee crisis in Syria unfold from afar has reinforced Hamid’s sense of her Syrian identity.

“I could have been one of [the refugees] easily if my parents weren’t fortunate enough to come here and move here at a young age,” Hamid says. “The rhetoric spread on the media, the people being scared of them is ridiculous because it could have been me. I’m the same. It’s my family.”

A photo of Bushra Hamid when she visited family in Syria in 2010.
A photo of Bushra Hamid when she visited family in Syria in 2010. By Courtesy of Bushra Hamid

That feeling—that it could have been her—has been the source of a constant crisis of identity for Al-Kassab since the war started.

“How do I have the same passport? How do I have the same identity and I’m here and they’re there?” she often wonders. “I’m here, where my biggest worry is my midterm or what is this weekend going to look like, and there it’s like, ‘How am I going to survive this next day?’”

At the same time, Al-Kassab hopes Harvard will give her a new source of identity and security beyond actual legal status.

“I think the biggest reason I chose Harvard was because I have a Syrian passport and because I felt I need something else. I felt Harvard was my new passport. Because let’s be real, how else am I going to get anywhere else in the world?” she says. “Having Harvard as a name—that does a lot. That provides me some sort of worth in that region.”

The Family Left Behind

By virtue of birth or successful visa applications, some Syrians were able to make it to Harvard. But many still have family members at home. Other relatives carve out new lives in new countries. Some are no longer alive.

Most of Al-Kassab’s relatives, able to afford travel expenses, have scattered to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. But her 86-year-old grandfather remains in Damascus. Lonely, he passes the time by watching the news.

“When are you going to visit?” he asks his granddaughter over the phone.

Jedda, I can’t,” she replies.

Barmada, the Arabic preceptor, fears the worst when her phone rings. Though she left Syria in the 1980s after marrying a Tunisian, her brother, her sister, and their families still live in the government-controlled region of Damascus. Her siblings practice medicine but are losing patients as poverty climbs. Inflation has made food increasingly unaffordable. They consider themselves lucky if their electricity stays on for four hours at a time.

“There is fear… something might happen to them every day,” she says. “When I receive a call now, first thing [I ask] is, ‘Are you okay?’ That’s my first question… because you are afraid of bad news always.”

Next to an image of Bushra Hamid's sister in their grandparents' home is a hole caused by a piece of shrapnel.
Next to an image of Bushra Hamid's sister in their grandparents' home is a hole caused by a piece of shrapnel. By Courtesy of Bushra Hamid

Hamid once had a boisterous family of more than 40 relatives in Syria. They are now flung across 12 countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and the Netherlands; at one point, five of her aunts’ and uncles’ families crowded into that small unfinished house her parents were building in the mountains. “All their houses in Syria are gone,” she says. “We look at pictures of the bullets holes in the same place that we used to be.”

One of her cousins was drafted into Assad’s army and escaped to Lebanon. Another cousin has gone missing. “It’s always in the back of your head,” Hamid says. “I still have family in Syria. You don’t know how they’re doing.”

Shiban’s family has fared even worse. All of her maternal aunts and uncles were trapped in the country, despite efforts by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Across the ocean, Shiban worried that something terrible might happen to them.

“I felt so helpless. It was miserable, you know,” she says.

In 2013, her fears became reality. During her sophomore year, her mother’s uncle and his wife were beheaded by rebel groups in Daraa. “They were dragging people into the streets, and they were using the dull parts of the blades to make an example,” Shiban says. The couple’s orphaned children now live with Shiban’s grandfather.

Some of the Syrians at Harvard are concerned that their words could affect their families. Barmada’s brother and sister do not want her to visit them for that reason. “I am [a] liability to them because if you say something, you might put them in danger and put yourself in danger,” she says. “When you live outside, you get used to being free and expressing your ideas freely.”

That fear of retaliation prompted several interviewees for this story to avoid certain topics and one College alumnus from Syria to decline to comment on the record altogether.

In the early years of the war, Hamid, then a high school student in Houston, participated regularly in rallies and advocated passionately through social media. “Then it started getting worse, and you couldn’t post anything on Facebook,” Hamid says. “You’d be so scared even for your family... If [the government] found you wrote something, your family was taken to jail, stuff like that.”

The conflict raises troubling questions for young Syrians who one day will have to explain their cultural background to their children. “How much heritage and history have we lost?” Al-Kassab says. “My kids are never going to be able to see stuff that I’m going to tell them stories about... Things that I do with my grandfather, the park we’d go to to feed the ducks—I’m going to be telling my kids these stories, and they’re not going to have anything to relate it to.”

An Uncertain Future

“If it wasn’t for the Syrian crisis... I wouldn’t have thought about going back to grad school,” says Mounajed, who already had a master’s degree in computer engineering. “When the crisis happened, with hundreds of thousands of kids not going to school, I felt this was what I want to be concentrating on.”

She is not alone. The war has directly informed the academic and professional aims of many of the University’s Syrian students and scholars.

Before the crisis began, Hamid hoped to study medicine. Six years later, she plans to concentrate in economics with a secondary in government and pursue a citation in Arabic in preparation for a potential career in politics. “[The war has] grown my love for Arabic now,” she says. “I miss the culture. I didn’t realize how much I loved it until after it was taken away from me.”

During his year as a Scholar at Risk, Hariri is researching Aleppo hospitals. He will return to Syria after his time at Harvard. And compelled by a sense of obligation to her fellow citizens, Al-Kassab, a pre-med student, hopes to return to Syria as a doctor after she finishes medical school.

For some, the Syrian crisis has motivated extracurricular pursuits. It prompted Shiban to co-found the Syrian Humanitarian League and Mardini and Al-Kassab to join. Shiban has sought to keep potentially divisive politics out of the club—she is well aware that her Alawite family and the primarily-Sunni families of other members stand on opposite sides of the war.

“I try not to bring up anything,” she says. “A lot of them have many different views than I do. The views they hold are generally accepted in America.”

Al-Kassab serves as a co-sponsor of Harvard Arab Weekend, a conference that brings more than 1,000 people from across the world to Harvard annually. Last weekend, the founder of the White Helmets, a volunteer civilian rescue group in Syria, delivered one of the conference’s keynote addresses.

The region, meanwhile, has descended into chaos. As a popular revolution to overthrow an autocratic regime morphed into a convolution of global alliances, Harvard’s Syrians became increasingly cynical about a peaceful resolution anytime in the near future.

“At this point, it’s not so simple,” Shiban says. “There are so many people involved. There are the Kurds, the Alawites, the Sunnis. So many people with different interests—Russia, America, ISIS.”

A photo of a young Nisreen Shiban '17 shows her laughing on the lap of her uncle Makarem, a former veterinarian who had practically raised her.
A photo of a young Nisreen Shiban '17 shows her laughing on the lap of her uncle Makarem, a former veterinarian who had practically raised her. By Courtesy of Nisreen S. Shiban

In June 2013, after determining that the Assad regime had deployed chemical weapons on rebels, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized direct support for rebel groups. And after ISIS began seizing territory in Iraq and Syria and gaining prominence on the global terrorist stage, a U.S.-led coalition started providing military assistance to rebel groups. But Turkey, a critical U.S. ally in the region, refused to support any Kurdish groups involved in the effort. In 2015, Russia began launching airstrikes in support of the regime, turning the Syrian conflict into what many analysts are now labeling a proxy war for influence in the Middle East.

Some Syrians no longer have a clear vision for the best outcome for their country.

“When people ask, ‘Oh, are you pro Assad falling?’ or whatever, it’s just like, what is going to happen after he is gone? What is the next step? Who is going to be in his place? Who is going to be controlling who is going to be in his place?” Al-Kassab wonders.

With no end to the war in sight, hearing about bloodshed in their home country and relatives in danger has become normalized for Harvard’s Syrians. “It’s a part of daily life. It’s like Trump,” Hamid says, making an analogy to the President-elect. “It’s insane. It’s not okay. But it’s there.”

The 2016 U.S. presidential election reinforced Syrians’ cynicism and brought an assurance that international interests would likely continue to steer the course of the war.

While many interviewees expressed strong opposition to Trump, some also looked unfavorably upon Hillary Clinton. She voted in favor of the Iraq war and has received criticism for urging the Obama administration to intervene in Libya in 2011—a botched intervention Obama later said made Libya “a mess.”

Trump is like a nightmare, but Hillary—is she a better alternative?” Al-Kassab wondered in the days leading up to the election. “She was a huge hand in destroying the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, Trump made an exclusionary attitude towards outsiders, Syrians included, one of the cornerstones of his campaign. He advocated closing America’s doors to Syrian refugees and at one point called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. This September, Donald Trump Jr. compared Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles, some of which might be poisonous.

At a rally in Ohio this fall, Trump broadened his attacks on Syrians: “This isn’t only a matter of terrorism, but also a matter of quality of life,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re only admitting those into our country who support our values and love—and I mean love—our people.”

On Nov. 8, 2016, Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. As the prospect of a Trump presidency quickly becomes reality, Syrians at Harvard must contemplate their futures in a nation whose incoming leader does not support their presence.

“I don’t even know what’s going to happen. We have a joke—we’re all internationals, me and my roommates—that we’re getting kicked out in November,” Al-Kassab said before the election. Her student visa will expire once she graduates, and she will have to reapply to remain in the U.S. for medical school—a prospect that worries her. After Trump’s victory she declined to comment further on the election.

Trump’s victory has already affected Hamid’s sister, a student at Texas A&M University, located in a state that gave Trump 53 percent of its vote. “She’s terrified,” Hamid explains. “She said, ‘I think I’m going to have to wear a baseball hat when I go out at night so people don’t see my scarf.’”

Trump’s win also carries implications for the situation on the ground in Syria. “I have concerns about… how his winning would affect the American stand about what’s going on in Syria,” Mounajed says. “The foreign policy towards the Middle East and what’s happening in Syria—that’s one of my concerns.”

During his campaign, Trump pledged to “knock the hell out of ISIS” in Iraq and Syria. He also said he will likely abandon the Obama administration’s policy of supporting rebels fighting the regime in favor of cooperating with Russia to uphold it.

As domestic politics become more threatening and the war in Syria intensifies, Shiban, Barmada, Hamid, Mardini, Mounajed, Al-Kassab, and Hariri carry on their lives at Harvard. They study in Widener. They grade Arabic tests. They walk the tree-lined streets of Cambridge. They eat in Annenberg. They sing in choirs. They raise their children.

And they prepare for an uncertain future, which for some may include returning to Syria.

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