Student life in Damascus
The state of Syria: An interview with John Khoury
the newspaper recently had the opportunity to speak via internet relay chat with a university student living in Syria about what life is like for those who are choosing not to leave. John Khoury is 19 and studies in Damascus. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the opinions of the newspaper or its staff.
Oct. 2, 2015 (October 3 in Syria)
Tell me about life in Damascus right now. Are you safe where you are?
I won't call it safe, but it's better than … most parts of this country. It’s still normal, but I'm worried everyday that ISIS or the other terrorists who call themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will get into my city, especially because my house is like, in front of the line between our military and them. ISIS are not as close as the FSA, and while nothing has happened to me or my family, the FSA keeps throwing mortar bombs at the civilian spots in the city—from time to time, not always. My university had to change its place to a bunch of hotels because it was in a bad zone.
How are living conditions?
Last couple of weeks it was hell, electricity only came on for four hours a day, and those four hours were like half an hour every now and then. Last couple of days it got better, now it cuts three by three. We have gas but sometimes the supply will be low. Police are still working, courts not that much, but to be honest it’s not the police that keep things going. We have a military stop in every street and they search the cars for bombs or weapons or such. Still they don’t do that much good work, because sometimes cars slip by unsearched.
I live in an apartment with my parents and my younger sister. My dad still works every day, but he can’t always go to the hospital that he works in because it’s right inside the line of fire.
It’s amazing that he goes to work at all.
Yeah, well you gotta keep your family alive, you know. He is trying everyday to transfer me to a university outside of Syria. I study IT, so I want to continue my studies in English.
What would you say the main thing people outside Syria get wrong is?
Hmm, well there’s a lot of things, but the main thing is our government, I think. It’s bad, but not as bad as those who are trying to take it down. And the most important thing: it respects Christians like me, not like the terrorists. People should stop thinking that the FSA will be a better government than the current one. If they're willing to kill hundreds of innocent civilians to make the government weaker, then they're not better than it, but worse.
Do you think there’s going to be a positive end as other countries get more involved?
I want to believe that there'll be, but I really doubt it. I will get out of here with my family before that happens. I don't really know how, I just wish that it would happen. Transferring won't work because the universities in Syria are no longer acceptable outside.
Do you know people who've left on the boats?
Yeah, a lot. Fortunately they made it. Even my cousin left a week ago, and he made it—he’s in Greece, trying to go to Germany like all the others, and then he can get his parents and siblings there easily by a plane. But there are people who my parents know that didn’t survive.
What do people think about foreign involvement?
They love that Russia just got involved and is helping us (because Russia and China were the only ones in the beginning who supported us and not the terrorists) and we don't like the rest getting involved, especially if the U.S. got more involved in it.
What will be the hardest part of rebuilding Syria after the war ends?
That's really hard to say, but I think the hardest part will be [the] people. A lot of good people left Syria in these years, and especially in the last two months. I’m afraid that all the people that will be left here are bad ones.
Have the last few years changed your religious views? Either your own, or about how you feel about Islam?
My view of religions in general didn't change, but I got reminded of how the Islamic religion really is. The things you see on TV that ISIS does, that is the exact Islamic religion in its heart. People say it’s not representative of “real Islam,” I say yeah it’s the original, real Islam, though I don’t think that all Islamic people are like that. Of course the majority of Muslims will not follow their religion to the word, and these are the good types. Not that I mean people who don’t follow their religion are better but in the case of the Islamic religion, I think that it’s true this way.
Have you travelled outside Syria much?
Yeah, back when I was younger. I’ve been to Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, France, Jordan and Egypt. My favourite was France. When you’re a child, you see France (mostly Paris) in every single cartoon and it makes you want to go so bad, and of course because of Disneyland.
Do you feel unlucky to be Syrian? I feel very lucky to be Canadian talking to you.
No. I like Syria as a country. The years before the war were amazing. We didn’t have everything, yeah, but who cares? It was beautiful.
I spoke with John again nine days later and got a brief update on the situation after Russia began extensive airstrikes on ISIS targets.
Oct. 11, 2015 (October 12 in Syria)
How have things been since we last talked?
When you first talked to me, it was one of the worst times I experienced since the beginning of this war. That's why I was a bit sad at the time. But from the last time we talked until now, things changed a lot. They got a bit better actually. Russia helping us really improved a lot of things. People for the first time have a bit of hope that this might end soon and the terrorists are getting afraid, so they aren't throwing as many bombs as before.
The Russian army got into Syria and they're helping us beat the terrorists (ISIS and the FSA). They're going for some hard-to-beat places first though, not near my city, so the threat of the terrorists next to my city is still there but I think they'll get to them sooner or later. It's hard, but I'm having more hope than before of this ending.
My cousin now got to Sweden. It's hard for him because you know he's away from his family, but the government there is giving them money and food, so it’s kinda good I think.