A few weeks ago, I met with a family of Syrian refugees at their temporary home in Anaheim, California. Sixteen members of the extended family had fled the country together, and now were living under a single roof. One couple slept on the floor of a tiny bedroom, next to their four children, who shared a bed. The grandparents slept in the hallway. The grandfather told me their living conditions were worse than at a refugee camp.
The family came from Homs, an industrial city whose residents were among the first to join the peaceful protest movement that eventually became the Syrian Revolution. The grandfather, who was a member of the city’s Local Coordination Committee, the civilian administrative apparatus of the revolution, told me he was present for the very first hour of the first protest in Homs. His son was arrested by the regime and tortured for five months before they fled. While he was in prison, their home was bombarded. The family was driven underground, and then into exile, first to Egypt, then to the United States.
The family’s story tracked the history of Syria’s path from protest to revolution. That history has been told many times. But given the level of confusion and indifference in the West to the nearly incomprehensible catastrophe that has unfolded over the last five years, it’s worth retelling it many, many more times.
The uprising is usually traced back to the moment in 2011 when a group of mischievous teenagers in Daraa spray painted an anti-regime slogan on the wall of a school. “Your turn, Doctor,” the graffiti read. The “doctor” in question was Dr. Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president, or more accurately, its tyrant and dynastic leader. “Your turn” was a reference to the revolutions overturning dictatorships all over the Middle East at that time, at the height of the Arab Spring.