They may be scarred, but nothing, not even torture, bombing or exile, could break them.
As the Arab Spring revolts swept through the Middle East and North Africa region like a wildfire, thousands of young Syrians joined protests in March 2011 demanding change in a nation ruled by the family of President Bashar al-Assad since 1970.
The regime’s revenge was swift and brutal, and many of the non-violent activists at the heart of the uprising paid with their freedom and their lives.
AFP interviewed four Syrian activists who ended up as refugees after surviving extreme violence and immeasurable loss.
But even now, with no end in sight to their exile, they do not regret their revolution.
Here are their stories.
Stockholm: The public speaker
The first thing Omar Alshogre sees when he wakes up in his Stockholm flat are the photographs of two prison guards who tortured him in Branch 215, one of Syria’s most notorious detention centres.
It may seem surprising but Alshogre wanted the pictures, which he had to buy off the guards’ families and keeps on his bedside table, as a reminder to himself that: “They could not break me, and I’m still alive.”
Alshogre, now 25, says he was just 15 when regime forces first arrested him “along with all the men” in his village near Baniyas city — a protest hub in a largely pro-government province — on the Mediterranean coast.
He was released two days later — but only after his interrogators had pulled out his fingernails and broken his leg.
“I understood what freedom meant for the first time, and that’s when I started protesting,” Alshogre tells AFP via a videoconference app.
Over the next 18 months, he was detained six more times in different places, including at his cousin’s home, in the classroom and at checkpoints.
In May 2012, regime troops attacked his village, killing his father, a retired army officer, and his two brothers.
Following his final arrest in November 2012, he was transferred to a total of 10 different prisons and detention centres.
“I saw more of Syria’s prisons than I ever saw of Syria itself,” he says.
Released in 2015, he was a shadow of his former self, weighing just 34 kilos (just under 75 pounds).
To save her sons’ lives, his mother smuggled Omar and his younger brother Ali, then 20 and 11 years old, into Turkey.
At the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, they boarded a smuggler’s boat to Greece and crossed Europe to Sweden, where they were granted asylum.
Alshogre has since learned Swedish and English and speaks both fluently.
Now, he works for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a US-based advocacy organisation, and has testified before Washington’s Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on torture in Syria’s prisons.
He has given TED talks on his experience, inspiring his audience with a universal message on overcoming pain by finding meaning even in one’s darkest hour.
And recently he won a place at Georgetown University in Washington DC to study business and entrepreneurship.
“It is not easy to lose your home, your father, your brothers, your school, your town, your mountains and your memories,” he says.
“But if I had the possibility to go back in time, I wouldn’t do it. Because the revolution is the first thing we did right in Syria.”
Berlin: The humanitarian
“When I was pregnant and I had pain in my belly, I would cry. Not for me, but for the Syrians living in displacement camps who can’t see a doctor, and for the detainees who suffer constantly,” says Nivin Al-Mousa, who has lived in Berlin since 2015.
When she joined the protests in her town of Taybet al-Imam in the central province of Hama, she never imagined she would end up seeking refuge abroad.
In 2013, her younger brother Hamza, also a non-violent activist, was detained at a checkpoint.
“We later learned that he had been tortured to death,” says Al-Mousa, who identified his body in one of the pictures of torture victims’ corpses released by a former Syrian military police photographer, codenamed “Caesar”, who fled the country taking thousands of photographs documenting abuse and torture.
“The moment you see that picture, a wound opens inside you, and the pain never heals,” she tells AFP.
Al-Mousa, her mother and siblings fled to Turkey in an escape “worthy of a James Bond movie. There were warplanes above us, bombing all around us, and the driver was speeding at 200 kilometres (125 miles) an hour,” she says.
In Turkey, she met her husband Mohammad, who originates from the central Syrian city of Homs and had narrowly survived being randomly shot in the head by a sniper while coming home from university.
In 2015, he was granted a visa to seek medical treatment in Berlin. There, the family received refugee status.
Al-Mousa, now 36, has frequent nightmares. “We are all traumatised,” she says.
But for her two daughters’ sake, she works hard to adapt to her new life.
She now speaks fluent German as well as English and Arabic, as do her girls, who are six and four.
She works for international aid group Humanity & Inclusion, formerly known as Handicap International, helping refugees with disabilities in Germany.
She also participates in protests in Berlin, home to a large Syrian refugee community, to help shine a light on the suffering of Syria’s detainees.
“All we want is a government that respects our basic rights,” Al-Mousa says. “One day, the regime will get the fate it deserves.”
Colmar: The feminist
Tohama Darwish survived an August 2013 chemical attack on the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta blamed on the regime, in which rights groups say 1,400 people were killed.
Then in 2018, the area faced an onslaught when the army, backed by Russian warplanes, crushed the armed opposition.
“The bombing was so intense, I wished my daughter had still been in my belly so I could run faster,” says Darwish, whose daughter Sumu was two at the time.
Darwish, then a volunteer nurse, and her family joined the tens of thousands who fled Eastern Ghouta to the rebel-held northern province of Idlib.
There, Islamist fighters accused her of spreading “obscenities” through her work raising community awareness about violence against women.
“We didn’t want to leave Syria,” the 30-year-old tells AFP. “Unfortunately, there was no difference between the regime and the Islamists ruling Idlib.”
The family went to Turkey, from where Darwish and her husband applied for asylum in France.
They now live in state housing in the northeastern French town of Colmar, where they are learning the language as they wait for their residence permits to come through.
“From a gender perspective, life is better here. It’s hard to be a feminist in Syria,” she says.
“I feel guilty for leaving my relatives behind. But I am happy that Sumu is at school here,” she says.
“She will always be Syrian, but her life is here now. When she’s older, I will tell her everything that happened.”
London: The doctor
When Bashar Farahat was released from detention in early 2013, he was barred from resuming his postgraduate paediatrics training at a government hospital in Latakia in western Syria.
He had been jailed for joining the protests, and beaten by his interrogators “even harder” because he was a doctor with a degree from a public university.
In April 2013, he was detained again for another six months.
“In prison, the torture during interrogations was bad. But the worst was the constant torture of living in a tiny cell of 30 square metres (320 square feet) with 90 to 100 other detainees,” says Farahat, who is now 36 and a registered doctor working in London.
“We would take turns to sleep while the others stood,” he says.
As a doctor, his cellmates would ask him to treat their wounds. “But I had nothing to treat them with,” he tells AFP of his time in a military intelligence detention centre in Damascus.
“Occasionally, the guards would give us two vitamins or two anti-inflammatory pills to share among 100 people. People would lose limbs because of simple injuries becoming severely infected,” he adds.
Following his release in November 2013, he fled to neighbouring Lebanon, where he applied for resettlement through the United Nations.
He arrived in Britain in March 2015, and has since passed the conversion exams allowing him to practise medicine there.
Now married to an interior designer, he works at a National Health Service (NHS) hospital in north London.
“When the Covid-19 pandemic began, of course I worried for my loved ones, but I think my experiences in Syria prepared me to work well in a crisis,” says Farahat, who feels proud to be able to give back to Britain in its time of need.
He has also set up a telemedicine website offering vulnerable Syrians online consultations free of charge.
“We have to be strong, work hard and build good lives, so that when the regime falls we can contribute to Syria’s future,” he says.
Looking back, knowing now what he didn’t know in 2011, what would Farahat tell his younger self?
“I would say: go out. Protest. Even more than I did. Do I regret the revolution? Never, not for a second. The revolution made me who I am today.”