They once dreamt of becoming engineers, teachers or other professionals, but for tens of thousands of Syrian students those hopes were cut short by the war in their homeland.
While some have managed to rebuild their lives overseas and others remain stranded in refugee camps, there are those who transformed themselves in the chaos of the conflict into fighters or journalists.
Here are the stories of two of them:
– Delbrin Sadeq, a chemist battling IS –
A year before jihadists from the Islamic State group turned Raqa into their Syrian capital, Kurdish student Delbrin Sadeq was studying pure and applied chemistry at the city’s university.
“When IS arrived in 2014 and forced women to wear black, I left Raqa,” the 26-year-old told AFP.
Sadeq then traded books for bullets as she took the decision to sign up with the all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and fight alongside male comrades from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
The YPJ was involved in some of the fiercest battles against IS as the Kurds fought a life-or-death struggle to keep the jihadists at bay.
Eventually the Kurdish fighters became the spearhead of a US-backed force to oust IS from its strongholds — with Raqa the ultimate goal.
After four months of ferocious urban combat Sadeq and her comrades finally took full control of Raqa on October 17.
“It was only the battle to recapture the city that brought me back,” Sadeq said.
The university where she studied was the scene of fierce fighting.
As Sadeq toured its bombed-out buildings, her hair in plaits and a gun slung over her shoulder, the rifle-carrying rebel reminisced about her past life.
“When I walk around here now I believe I can still see my classmates,” she said. “I don’t know what happened to them, but I hope they are well.”
Despite the pain she feels for everything that she lost, Sadeq is adamant that she does not regret her fate.
“I like military life, I will not quit it as long as there is a war going on,” she said.
As for her studies, if she gets the chance Sadeq would start again.
“If I could resume my studies while remaining a fighter, I would do that,” she said. “Life continues and education continues.”
– Ahmad Khatib, engineer to reporter –
Ahmad Khatib was a third year civil engineering student at Tishreen University in the coastal city of Latakia when the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule broke out across Syria in March 2011.
“It was my uncle who inspired me because he was an engineer but he always said I should study journalism,” Khatib, 28, told AFP.
“I told him that the media in Syria was under tight control, and that is why I chose civil engineering.”
It would take the heady days of protests against Assad and the bloodshed of Syria’s ensuing civil war to eventually push Khatib into journalism.
Security forces found out about his involvement in the early demonstrations against the regime and in November 2011 he was arrested at a checkpoint while travelling in the northwestern Idlib province.
“I was in detention for 22 days in Idlib then sent before a court in Damascus on accusations of ‘undermining the authority of the state’,” Khatib recounted.
“They wanted to torture me into admitting that I was an armed rebel, but I wasn’t.”
Eventually he was released and handed a pass that was supposed to let him travel through regime checkpoints.
But when he tried to use it to return to university pro-regime militiamen confiscated the document and warned him to quit university and never show his face again.
Left devastated by seeing his dream of becoming an engineer shredded, the straight-A student rejected the chance to take up arms and instead turned to reporting the horrors engulfing his homeland.
“I started off by watching YouTube videos to learn how to film as at that point we were only using mobile phones,” he explained, recalling his joy when he acquired his first handheld camcorder.
“I filmed protests and fighting, and then started doing reports on the humanitarian situation,” Khatib recalled.
“Being a reporter is the most beautiful aspect of the revolution. We showed Assad’s crimes to the whole world.”
Now this self-trained journalist has definitively swapped his goal of designing roads and bridges for his new passion of telling the story.
“If the war finished then I would like to sign up for a journalism course.”