Originally appeared in the Daily Californian on Sept. 11, 2013 .
For many college students, a Skype call to family is an hourlong respite from the work and stress of school, but for Aisha, it was a moment of shock and silence.
The UC Berkeley junior, whose name has been changed to protect her family in Syria, found out via Skype that her cousin’s son had died after being imprisoned by the Syrian government for eight months. The family still does not know why he was taken or how he died.
Too close to home
While the conflict in Syria is thousands of miles away, for some its effects reverberate close to home.
Aisha is just one of a number of UC Berkeley students who have family in Syria. Although President Barack Obama floated the idea of air strikes on military targets in the country, he has since agreed to hold off on military action as new diplomatic solutions have been proposed. While a majority of Americans may have breathed a sigh of relief, UC Berkeley’s Syrian students still worry about friends and family trapped in a conflict that has been raging since March 2011. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the war has claimed more than 110,000 lives.
Syria is largely under the control of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled the country since 1971. Obama has threatened to punish the Assad regime for a chemical attack the United States alleges it unleashed on its own people in August that killed some 1,400.
Aisha said members of the regime left word of her relative’s death with neighbors. The body was allowed to be removed for burial only under the condition that the coffin not be opened. Aisha said she thinks the body was so mutilated from torture that officials didn’t want the sight of it to start a protest.
Even with the shocking nature of this brutality, Aisha said she and her father weren’t particularly surprised.
“He was saddened, but he was more expecting it,” she said.
Other UC Berkeley students also worry about their family in Syria. Junior Kasandra Kachakji has visited Syria once, in 2005. The family home where she stayed — a three-story concrete house with a big deck for entertaining — is now a pile of rubble.
Kachakji said there is a big divide in her family between support for Assad and support for the rebels. Some family members have images of Assad as their Facebook profile pictures, while others use the social networking site to post messages such as “Free Syria” and “Don’t Attack Syria.”
Kachakji’s great uncle was kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom by the Syrian rebels. They, too, don’t know why he was targeted. The family paid the ransom, and he was dropped off in the snow in the middle of winter. He died shortly afterward in a hospital.
Asad Ahmed, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic studies, said he thinks the situation in Syria may get worse. He is concerned that intervention may allow outside forces to garner too much influence in the region.
“I do worry that a war in Syria may turn into a full-scale war,” Ahmed said. “It appears that, for certain regional actors, this may be an excuse to push forth a longstanding agenda of military action against others.”
Peter Bartu, a lecturer in the international and area studies program and a U.N. mediator, said he, too, worries the Syrian conflict may expand. Bartu served as a political adviser to the U.N. envoy to the Middle East peace process from 2001 to 2003.
“It’s a full-blown civil war with regional interference and no consensus internationally on how to stop it,” Bartu said. “This means ongoing displacement of peoples and the potential spread of conflict to all Syria’s neighbors.”
Bartu said that he doesn’t think the Syrian conflict is going to lead to a third world war, as many fear, but that there has been quite a bit of spillover from inside Syria to neighboring countries. According to Bartu, in a worst-case scenario, Syria as an entity could be torn apart.
A new normal
UC Berkeley senior Norah Arafeh, who is half Syrian and has family living in Damascus, worries about the country’s future.
“My biggest worry is that I’ll never see the same Syria again,” Arafeh said.
Arafeh fears for the children who have had their schooling halted because of the war. Her 16-year-old cousin hasn’t been in school for two years because when she moved to Malaysia, she wasn’t at the same level as her peers and couldn’t join the local school system.
“If they don’t do anything about this, then Syria has lost an entire generation of Syrian students,” Arafeh said.
Aisha, whose relative was killed by government forces, said she also worries about the future of Syria. She said her family is simply waiting to see what happens next.
“They say they’re OK,” she said. “But for them, ‘OK’ means gunfire as background noise.”