When Shahed visited her home in Homs, Syria, last year during the summer break from her nutrition classes at Florida International University, she saw how much her city had changed.
On previous trips, she would go to weddings.
“Everyone was laughing, smiling with nice dresses,” she said.
This time was different.
“Everyone’s dead, like in black faces. It’s so sad to see them like that. I didn’t even recognize most of them,” Shahed said. “It’s like a dead city. It smells like death.”
Then, Shahed’s friends took her to a peaceful protest against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and she was stunned when she heard people in the streets cursing the president out loud.
She started to repeat the crowd’s chanting in a low voice, little-by-little gaining the courage to raise her fist and yell.
“We the people want to change the government,” she screamed.
“When you break this fear, it feels so good,” said Shahed, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family in Syria. “We never had this before.”
Growing up in Syria, Shahed knew one thing: never say a word against the regime, not even as a joke.
“When you were little in school and you heard somebody cursing the president or just saying something bad, next day or maybe on the same day he was gone,” she said.
Syria is a country where the minority rules the majority.
About three-quarters of the population is Sunni Muslim. Alawi Muslims, who make up only 12 percent of the population, have controlled the government for more than 40 years, since Hafez al-Assad became president in 1971. He died in 2000 and his son, Bashar al-Assad became the president.
But Charles MacDonald, a retired professor of Middle East studies at Florida International University, said the civil war is not a conflict about religion.
“It’s not a conflict of Alawi versus Sunni, it’s a conflict of young people against the conservative, authoritarian regime,” he said. “But the tradition of violence between the military controlled by the Alawite and the people controlled by the Sunni is there.”
Shahed, a Sunni, moved to Lebanon when she was 19 to study nutrition. She came to the United States in 2010 to work on her master’s degree at Florida International University.
When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and spread to Egypt and Libya, Shahed knew that if the revolution spread to Syria it would be disastrous.
When the Syrian uprising started in March, 2011, Shahed was against it, fearing the country would fall apart.
She changed her mind when the government started to kill, arrest and torture its citizens.
“You see your own people killing you, or pointing at you, or occupying your city,” she said. “We are refugees in our own city, in our own country.”
The revolution reached Homs in May, but she had seen what happened to other cities.
“When they want to attack they surround the neighborhood, they cut electricity and they bomb,” she said. “They cut water, and then no phone, no Internet.”
Shahed became the source of news for her family. Gathering information through news and social media networks, she called them to say if tanks or snipers were surrounding their neighborhood.
“They are sitting in the house, hearing all these noises. They don’t even know if it’s coming to them or if it’s just around them,” she said. “And I have to read to see where they are going, to tell them to get out.”
She often did not know for hours or even days if her family was still alive.
School took a lower priority. Shahed didn’t care if she missed a class or a test.
“It comes to a point when nothing matters,” she said. “Everyone is dying, who cares if I don’t do this assignment?”
Every time she went online, Shahed feared what she would learn.
The bad news came at the end of the 2012 spring semester, on the Friday before finals week: “I heard what happened and I hope your dad is fine,” a friend wrote.
Her father had disappeared two days before, but Shahed’s family tried to hide the news from her.
Shahed missed her finals and spent the week wondering if her father was being tortured, was lost in the desert or dead.
She wanted to go back home, but her visa had expired, and had she gone, she might not have been able to return to the United States and finish her studies.
“It was so bad that I couldn’t be with them,” she said, “with my mom, and brothers, and sisters.”
Family friends found her father in a military prison a week later and obtained his release.
He was arrested because he had the laptop of Shahed’s little brother in the trunk of the car and he did not know the password.
“They can arrest you just by your name. They don’t have to have a reason,” Shahed said. “Put the gun in your face, take you.”
Her mother wanted Shahed to come home, but now feels her daughter will be safer in the United States.
Her father wants Shahed to come back and help the people.
But Shahed’s hopes are fading.
She feels responsible for her family because they have nowhere to go and have no way to make a living. She hopes to get an internship or a job so she can help them.
Shahed will graduate in December.
Because she is an international student, if she does not get an internship or find a job after she graduates, she will have to leave the United States.
“If I don’t get an internship I don’t know where to go,” she said. “I’m so lost with my life right now.”