From the Archives: Alumna Reflects on Time in Syria
Editor’s Note: This first-person story by Dina Shahrokhi BA’11 appeared in the spring 2013 issue of UT Dallas Magazine.
During my senior year at UT Dallas, I grew a bit jealous of my friends as they worked on graduate school applications, studied for law and medical school entrance exams, and prepared for job interviews around the country. After four years of undergraduate study, I yearned for a continued sense of stability and security. Instead, I made the least stable and secure decision of my life: I chose to move to a Middle Eastern country in the midst of a revolution.
The big decisions made during that final year at UTD came from the growing awareness that law school, grad school, or a career in the U.S. were not right for me—at least not yet. Before settling down, I wanted to live in the Middle East for an extended amount of time and work for an agency dealing with political and social issues. I needed to live among and understand the people whose lives I wanted to make better.
I landed in Damascus in September 2011 as a worker for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Instantly I remembered why I loved Syria’s capital so much—the hospitable people, the beautiful mountains, the remnants of old temples. Everything appeared to be exactly as it had been during my first visit. A few years earlier, as a student with a blossoming interest in Middle Eastern policy, I had lived in Syria and Morocco and traveled throughout the region, thanks to support provided through the UTD McDermott Scholars program and a summerlong grant from the U.S. State Department.
When I arrived in Damascus after graduation, things were fairly calm and normal. I attended big family feasts every Friday, went to cafés with my friends, strolled the streets of the markets, and even followed a Turkish drama dubbed in Arabic.
For fun, I took salsa classes and went dancing on the weekends with my friends. In many ways, I had some of the best times of my life in Syria. It was exciting to live in a vibrant, walkable city that offers amazing hospitality. Damascus, considered the oldest inhabited capital of the world, is filled with beautiful old mosques, houses and cafés. Music was everywhere. While living with a Syrian family, I had some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. (Syria is very vegetarian friendly.)
It didn’t take long to realize, though, that drastic changes were happening with the advent of the Arab Spring and the ensuing conflict between loyalists and revolutionaries. Electricity had become systematically cut; communication to the outside world was either blocked or monitored; the sound of bullets had started to become the norm; and a city once nearly absent of petty crime was becoming rife with thefts, muggings, kidnappings and worse.
Then, in December, the first suicide bomb went off. My immediate reaction, besides deciding to never leave my residence, was to research topics ranging from the radius of a bomb blast to different kinds of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). I avoided densely populated areas, like movie theaters, and stopped taking the U.N. bus to work so as to avoid being a target.
The strength of the people of Damascus encouraged me through those first scary months.
They went to work every day, walked their kids to school, and even went out for dinner and hooka the day after a suicide bomb blast. As I witnessed their courage and defiance, and with the support of my family and friends back in the U.S., I knew I could push myself to stay.
The U.N. agency that sent me to Syria, UNRWA, provides assistance, protection and advocacy for registered Palestine refugees. I started as a volunteer in the communications office, where I learned how the organization provided education, health, relief and social services, and microfinance opportunities to some 5 million refugees.
I interviewed refugees and wrote their stories, visited camps and helped with events organized by Palestinian youth. Later, I managed a project to bring 10 different U.N. agencies under one safe, united and green roof. In this role, I learned about other organizations like the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the U.N. Development Programme. I witnessed firsthand how these organizations directly helped people — something quite unlike the perception many have of a U.N. body that only makes resolutions. My colleagues came from all over, including countries that I had never heard of. Having coffee with them made me feel like I had traveled the world!
As the situation in Damascus grew worse and the international community became involved, the violence in the streets started to escalate. I started having panic attacks while on a busy street corner. I missed being able to speak openly to my friends in the States about all topics, including politics, rather than having to use code to circumvent government wiretapping. And while I think I could have stayed at least three more months to finish off the year, I had begun to realize that it wasn’t right to put myself, my family and my friends through the stress of worrying about my safety. It was time to get out.
I returned home in June 2012 and took a tour across the U.S. to visit college friends. The love and support of so many of these friends made it possible for me to stay in the Middle East as long as I did. Most of all, I have to thank my best friend in Syria, Lana Moamar BS’09, and my best friend in the U.S., Mac Hird BS’11, for keeping me strong and sane.
After graduating from UTD, Dina attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she studied public policy. She later spent time working at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., and also was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow.