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.