Behind the Headlines
Even Prison Couldn't Stop This Syrian Millennial
There were some days in prison that 25-year-old Noor never looked away from the wall, never spoke a word. Sharing a 10-foot-by-11-foot cell with as many as 30 other women, she thought of killing herself to avoid the interrogations she faced every day from Syrian soldiers.
"So many times I wished I were dead, only so I don't have to be there. The only thing that kept me alive is the wish that my mom could see me again,” Noor said. Although she has since fled Syria, she asked that neither her last name nor her face be used in order to protect her identity.
A civil engineer from a prosperous family, Noor never thought she would end up in a Syrian prison. When Noor was growing up, both of her parents were doctors, and she and her five siblings always had enough to eat. Her grandparents had come from Palestine shortly after the creation of Israel in 1948, and Noor was the second generation to be born in Syria. She was working on her master's degree at a university in Aleppo when protests consisting largely of students like her started sweeping through the Middle East.
“We were all hopeful. The Arab Spring was good news,” she said. “Not just [for] Arabs — but everyone. Even though some Arabic countries aren't called kingdoms, they are still ruled by leaders who inherit their leadership by blood. For that fact alone, people should rise up."
Syria was no different. President Bashar al-Assad had assumed power after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. Together, one family had ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Initially, the younger Assad had promised reform when he took office. In a period that became known as the Damascus Spring, people began openly debating Syria's future.
But in 2001, Bashar had cracked down, arresting and persecuting political dissidents in much the same way his father had. Noor and others inside would have to wait 10 long years before protesters would once again fill the streets.
Noor watched as the uprising reached her home in Aleppo, one of the country’s commercial centers, and when it did, she took to the streets to demonstrate with her college classmates in April of 2011.
"It was the first time in my life I felt I could say anything I wanted,” Noor says. “As girls, we felt so good. In our culture, girls aren’t to raise their voices while speaking. In the protests, we were shouting."
But not for long. In May, the military moved in to crush demonstrations in cities across Syria. When protesting in the street became too risky, Noor and her classmates went underground. The Free Syrian Army had taken over parts of Aleppo, and Assad’s forces responded, in part, by cutting off funding for city institutions, including schools, to put pressure on the population.
When they saw the laptop, I was thinking about my family. I knew that I was about to be arrested for a long time.
But on September 4, 2013, Noor's life changed forever.
She was practicing her guitar in her bedroom when soldiers arrived at her family's apartment in Aleppo. It wasn't the first time; soldiers had searched the family's home before, looking for weapons or men to conscript, Noor said. On that day, her siblings were at school and her father was at work. Noor was home with her mother.
At first, she said, the soldiers were sympathetic and swept through the apartment quickly. "Some of them were not trying hard intentionally, overlooking things while searching." Then they asked her to enter the password for her computer.
"When they saw the laptop, I was thinking about my family. I knew that I was about to be arrested for a long time, judging by what had happened to the others," Noor said. "When the commander saw the photos, he gave the orders to arrest me."
The photos in question were drawings by Syrian children, some showing bombs and violence, others showing doves taking flight, wrapped in the flag of the revolution. The pictures were from an art exhibit Noor had helped organize for the Syrian children at the school where she volunteered.
The soldiers then waited for her father to come home, and arrested them both. For Noor, it was the beginning of a nearly two-month ordeal she would never forget. Through the walls of the prison where she was kept, she could hear the screams of other people as they were tortured.
"What I saw there was [the] torturing of women, the same as of men," Noor said. "If a woman was accused of being with the [Free Syrian] Army, and this was the highest charge, then they didn't have mercy on her. There was hanging, electrical shocks, starvation, and rape."
She said she was interrogated every day and forced to sign false statements saying she was a terrorist. She said she was allowed to bathe only twice over the course of 50 days.
Then one night, without warning, she and other prisoners were ordered to board a bus. They were taken to the Lebanese border as part of a prisoner swap. Those who weren’t exchanged, including Noor, were driven into Damascus and released on the street, in the middle of the night.
My mother told them, 'If you take my daughter, I will kill myself!' And she tried to do it, she went to the kitchen to grab a knife.
As a Palestinian, Noor would need a visa to cross into Turkey, something she had no time to get. So she said she used a friend’s passport to cross the border while her brother made his way over barbed-wire fences with the help of smugglers. The siblings relocated to Gaziantep, where their parents later joined them. Today, she works with an international aid organization, coordinating supplies of water, food, and health kits for people still living in Syria.
Now 27, Noor has gotten used to living in Turkey. She rides her pink bicycle throughout the city and comes home late without asking her parent's permission. For her birthday in November, her mother promised to give her an electric guitar, something that simply would have never happened in Aleppo.
“Honestly, up until last year, I thought a lot about going back to Syria, but as I get used to life here more, I feel afraid to go back and lose the freedom I found,” Noor said. “I couldn't take a guitar out to the street there; everyone would be looking at me. It's not something normal or acceptable, especially for a girl wearing a hijab."
Noor said that her work makes her feel that she is still supporting the cause of a free Syria, even from afar. That’s why she has made some bold decisions about her own future as well.
"I don't want to lose what I worked for, regardless of the reason. A few weeks ago, my family was suggesting to me that I get engaged to a man who lives in Denmark,” Noor said. "But I said no. Maybe my life would be better off in Denmark, as a refugee with a salary, but I don't want to leave everything behind me and go. I want to be able to work for Syria, no matter what the job is, as long as it has to do with the Syrian people."
Filmmaker Tarek Turkey contributed reporting from Gazientep, Turkey. This story draws on interviews conducted in person in Turkey and on the phone from New York.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Noor had been arrested on September 14, 2013. She was arrested on September 4, 2013.
About Behind the Headlines
Refinery29’s original series “Behind the Headlines” takes an in-depth, human look at the policy debates dominating the global news media, from American immigration reform to the continuing struggles of Syrian refugees and Afghanistan’s lingering gender inequality crisis. Bypassing the pundits, we’re dedicated to spotlighting the stories of the people whose lives have been profoundly impacted by these issues, and believe that their voices must be heard.