I grew up in a Kurdish family that can only be described as ‘dissident’. With two of my uncles imprisoned by the Assad regime – and later forced to live in exile for the remainder of their lives – I naturally grew up resenting the political system, albeit silently. This forced silence nearly lost its appeal on more than one occasion, until it was abandoned altogether in 2011.

On March 21st, 2010, Newroz celebrations had been cut short in Raqqa when regime forces violently stormed the festivities with guns and tanks—the first time I had ever seen a tank in real life. Families were forced to flee the festivities, but some groups of young men and women remained and were checked by the security forces to ensure they were not “mukharribeen” (a term which would later come to make sense to the wider Syrian population). With my dad in the car, we fled this scene only to be confronted with a new horrifying one, which plagues my mind to this day: a group of military men circling a young man from a predominantly Kurdish area of Raqqa. Their leader was holding what looked like a whip, and repeatedly struck the young man’s face with it. My younger sister rolled down the car window and naively cursed at them to stop hurting him. A young thawrah almost took place in that car—a young revolution that was supposed to stay isolated.

The excerpts I share here are not intended as discussion of my own marginalization, but rather the marginalization of an entire identity. They are also a reflection on my own silence, a silence which was necessary for our survival during a time when we felt completely alone.

*****

Sometime in March 2011, once the first sparks of the Syrian revolution reached Raqqa, this perennial silence demanded to be broken. I was 16 that year, and moments of sharedness and community emerged at a most opportune time. Whispers, chatters, dinner conversations and news from other cities began to herald a long-awaited change. Sometime in winter 2011 after school, a childhood friend and a classmate of mine texted me to ask if I wanted to “play basketball”, which I later found out was code for a protest. We gathered outside near the school, with 16-year-old naivety, covered our faces with scarves (thinking this would be camouflage enough), and started shouting for freedom. It did not take long until police cars surrounded us and we heard shots being fired. We quickly dispersed in different directions; I saw a few other people running in the same direction as my friend, two of them policemen. I headed towards passersby in an attempt to blend in, and as I was taking off the scarf covering my face I heard a familiar voice suddenly call my name from behind. I looked back to see a family friend of ours, who was also a policeman, looking at me angrily and telling me to go home immediately. I started walking back home and texting my friend to see if she was okay and, thankfully, she was.

I knew my dad would hear of this, and I worried about his reaction. Although a strong opponent of the regime, my father preferred to stay beside his books, in an effort to avoid the fate suffered by others around him. He was like this for as long as I knew him. I had heard various stories about my young rebellious father which I unfortunately did not get to witness, but given that he now had four motherless daughters to take care of, his choice of silence made sense. I took part in a few more protests after that, and still I heard nothing from him until one night, sitting in the living room, he turned to me, laughing.

“Lily,” he said, using his nickname for me, “I know what you are doing.”

I played dumb, pretending not to know what he meant. Then he said calmly, “Are you trying to get us killed?”

His calmness was infectious; I answered with a simple no, to which he replied, “Then don’t get caught.” The conversation ended there, and the small group of young people I was part of became a coordination group.

*****

Sometime in 2012, more and more different kinds of people started to gather in tansiqiyyat, organizing small demonstrations and movements on Facebook that soon gained enough momentum to evolve into larger-scale protests. These were protests like no other. Especially prominent in my memories is hearing Azadi, the Kurdish word for ‘freedom’, echoing through the squares, shouted by Kurds and Arabs alike. A variety of flags waved, and none were perceived as a threat. The violence these protests were met with was unprecedented for our small city; more and more people were being arrested, and the city was becoming more frightening by the day. 

Sometime in March 2013, Raqqa was officially freed from the regime, but at the same time the solidarity which had brought people together began to unravel due to differences in people’s demands. The tansiqiyyat increasingly became more segregated, with Kurds organizing within their own groups and Arabs doing the same. During that time, the city was also heavily bombed by Assad, and civic movements became harder by the day. Soon after, in a battle later described by the people of the city as an epic fight put up by the few remaining freedom fighters, ISIS captured Raqqa.

Hate and fear continued to spread as a natural consequence of ISIS’s takeover: a group of people who found a space to sympathize with ISIS’s ideology began to emerge, but by no means were they a majority. These were the people who indifferently maneuvered over the debris of a city where a few months back we had stood in squares beside one another in protest. Now nothing was left but memories and new realities: memories of that first shout for freedom, and the realities of hatred and fear transforming the city into something altogether unfamiliar.

While working on documentation of the war, I was almost killed. When I posted a message of solidarity for the people targeted by ISIS on my private social media account (reserved for trusted contacts), someone I had considered a friend implied that we had brought it on ourselves. Soon enough, death threats to that same account started pouring in: one of them simply read “We will kill you and all the Kurds.” The targeting and violations against the Kurdish population soon became systematic.

*****

I do not write these excerpts of a Kurdish experience to take away from the struggle of my fellow Raqqawis, but to shed light on a story that has not yet been told. The experience of being a Kurdish Raqqawiyyah is complex, and contains both terrible and remarkable experiences. It is a complexity that allows me to express grievances about the injustices I faced due to my identity, yet also reminds me that, at the time, this struggle was shared in Raqqa. This is a struggle that also gave space to stories of solidarity as well. A friend of mine, a Kurdish woman, was escaping from ISIS when she was given shelter by an Arab woman. She told her, “Come in, ya khala – they’re doing the same to us.”

Sometime in December 2015, we were tipped off by neighbors to leave Raqqa. The night after we fled the city – intimidated, threatened, vulnerable – we were informed of a particularly painful betrayal. Our neighbor, a boy my dad used to call “son”, had stormed our door in the middle of the night, yelling for Beit el-Krad (the Kurds’ house) to come out so he could murder us. Straight after we were forced to flee, our home was taken over by those same neighbors, whom we had lived beside for 15 years. This monstrous betrayal was also the moment when I felt the most Kurdish. After Raqqa’s “Liberation” from ISIS in 2017 (accompanied by the indiscriminate killing of civilians) my family had their homecoming. I am yet to have mine. 

Sometime in March 2016, I left Syria and embarked on an odyssey to Europe. Although I remained engaged with the Syrian activist community until the end of 2017, I eventually conceded defeat. The image of us Syrians which I had once believed in – a youthful, tolerant, forward-thinking collective, working with and for each other – became obscured and eventually impossible to see, and this undeniable harsh reality brought with it shattering loss of hope and belief. What I witnessed due to my identity—something I was born with and proud of—was the reason I had been sidelined.

Sometime in January 2023, I made a metaphorical return to Syria—the closest thing to a homecoming. It was a rediscovery of my values within a space striving, much like me, towards the same vision for Syria: a vision that is a common thread, binding us together in preparation for the dream we collectively embraced in 2011 and in the movements of the years before. 

*****

Sometime in August 2023, the revival of a long-forgotten dream stirred. Syria once again heard echoes of 2011. From the brink of despair, As-Suwayda’s movement generously breathed life back into a fractured solidarity, and Syrians found themselves tentatively taking a breath of fresh air, holding their banners embellished with symbols of renewed unity and reclaiming spaces too long usurped. 

“No division between the children of our one country. Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, we are the people of one cause,” reads a banner held by an elderly woman in As-Suwayda.

These protests speak once more to the enduring spirit of our Syrian identity, gently weaving threads of resilience into the fabric of our shared struggle for the togetherness of 2011. Once again, I dare to link my identity as a Kurdish Syrian to the shared struggle for Syria.