“When I was little, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I would repeat my father’s words, who wanted me to be a plastic surgeon. In truth there was no space for a child to express their personal desires, their likes or talents.” This is how Maria* describes the relationship that existed between children of her generation and their parents.
Maria was born in 1984 in the Qanawat neighborhood in Damascus, one of the historical neighborhoods that appeared around the Old City’s walls. It used to be called the “Neighborhood of the Beks,” (Bek being the title given to important people during the time of the Ottoman Empire), as so many dignitaries and wealthy people lived in the area. Qanawat was very close to the Old City’s commercial center, and many old government buildings were located there, such as the courthouse, the seraglio and the municipal hall.
Growing up, Maria was unimpressed with the educational system and the type of relationship teachers had with their students, which was hierarchical. The teachers gave commands that had to be obeyed without any give-and-take or understanding.
“One of the subjects at school that really helped forge my personality as a child was our religious education class,” said Maria. “They taught us principles of ethical behavior, emphasizing that individual actions had an impact on society at large. These were ideas that I sought to embody, and that later contributed to my interest in community work and working for public welfare.”
The idea of working for social change took hold of Maria in middle school, when she saw that the only person capable of affecting real change in the country was the President, and so she decided that she would grow up to be President. She was immediately mocked, however, when she voiced this ambition to others, and she finally understood that it was an impossible goal.
“There was continuous effort from all sides to produce a certain type of person, an entire generation whose minds were pre-programmed and specifically moulded to limited ideas.”
She points to the military-style educational system that was applied in schools across Syria before the year 2000. It was a strict system whereby both girls and boys were required to wear military uniforms during the school year, and there were military education classes. Beginning in secondary school, students were also taught to dismantle and put together weapons and had to attend compulsory military summer camps.
“Even classes were quite uniform and traditional across all the schools,” says Maria, “with the same photo mounted in the middle of the wall, with the same two photos flanking it on the left and the right, the same flags, the same slogans, and everything seemed quite studied and deliberate.”
Maria had no clear ambitions or goals while she was in school. She was, like most young people of her generation, seeking only to maintain a good average for her secondary school certificate, one that would allow her to gain entrance to a good university.
During her first year of study in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Damascus University, Maria was surprised by the vast numbers of students and by the overcrowding in classes and seminars. The atmosphere was like nothing like she had imagined.
“I met this group of students,” recalls Maria, “who probably assumed I was Christian like they were because of my name. One day during the month of Ramadan, I happened to mention that I was fasting, and so they found out that I was Muslim. They began treating me quite coldly, and this forced me later to leave the group.”
This incident led Maria to begin observing how students at the university gathered in specific cliques. There was a clique of Palestinian students, one of students from the Jazira area in Eastern Syria, and another made up of students from the south, from Daraa and surrounding areas. Maria couldn’t stand the idea of joining any such clique, and so she opted to spend most of her time alone.
In her third year of university, Maria decided on her major (Economics), a choice that proved to be a milestone in her educational experience. “I was really influenced by my classes in Economic Development, looking at the reasons behind regressiveness and the way it was rooted in a type of thinking. That’s when I realized that I really love this subject and that I wanted to see it through to the end.”
Maria recalls her father’s positive influence, the way he constantly encouraged her to finish her schooling and pursue higher academic degrees, even while her mother’s biggest wish was for her to get married after she graduated from university. Maria describes her father’s mentality as different to the dominant patriarchal ideas of the community which generally discouraged women from university or higher education. She credits her father’s different mentality to his travels in foreign countries as a young man, and to his family who generally encouraged education. Maria’s aunt earned her degree and went on to hold a well respected senior position at work.
“Maybe those of my generation don’t consider there to be much value in education,” explains Maria, “because the highest rates of unemployment are among the educated and university graduates. Add to that the low incomes for those working in the public sector, from teachers to employees to others.”
When she started her Master’s degree, Maria also began looking for work. She couldn’t find employment due to the widespread favoritism and nepotism that gave priority to those with influential connections. She therefore began volunteering at one of the civil society universities where she was later hired, and this contributed to her interest in working toward public welfare, away from the commercial world of companies and businesses.
“The idea of traveling and working abroad took hold of many people of my generation,” says Maria. “Many indeed went to the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. I also thought about traveling, but not to one of these countries, because I really wanted to work in public affairs, which is not something you can really do in those countries.”
Maria describes her generation of the 1980s as, “a generation of dreamers, a utopian generation, because despite all the attempts to fit us into a particular social and cultural mold, we were still able to find tolerance and understanding toward others, to deal with others without sectarian discrimination.”