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Disillusioned after Russian Intervention, Nonviolent Syrian Activist Heads to Europe

Amman, Jordan -- It's midnight, and there are only a few cafes still open in Amman. Tizkar Abu Nabout, 26, leans against the colorful tile wall of Rakwet Arab, a nostalgic cafe in the Jabal Al Weibdeh neighborhood. He has only a few hours left in Jordan before he's on a flight to Izmir, the coastal Turkish city that has become a station for thousands of refugees hoping to make the journey to Europe.

This is not the first time Abu Nabout is seeking a new home. He fled to Jordan in 2012 after being detained twice in Syria, suffering torture and humiliation each time. A nonviolent activist against the Syrian regime in Daraa, Abu Nabout says one of the main reasons he left was not just continued harassment by the regime, but also his disillusionment with the uprising becoming increasingly armed, and radicalized.

"I was against it. I saw what violence can do," said Abu Nabout, taking a sip of water. "It killed my brother. I don't want anyone else to lose a brother."

If I thought it was just another year, I'd wait. But it keeps getting more complicated, Syria is an international conflict now, Abu Nabout said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

In Jordan's northern city of Irbid, Abu Nabout found the familiarities of home, but was faced with the same problem most Syrian refugees face here: the inability to work legally or within their profession. An electronic engineering graduate and teacher in Syria, Abu Nabout worked a number of odd jobs, putting up with long hours, little pay, and the constant threat of being caught and deported.

"It was enough that I could still feel the breeze coming from Syria; here there is a similar culture, the same language. But the material conditions became unbearable," Abu Nabout said.

Always hopeful that he could return home soon, Abu Nabout endured increasingly difficult financial strains, and refused to join his many friends and family members who took off for Turkey and Europe this summer. Up until a few weeks ago, he would even try to convince them to stay.

"Once we are in Europe, returning to our country is impossible. Here it is difficult, but possible. We will lose a lot of our identity by leaving," said Abu Nabout. "But unfortunately, things here in Jordan kept getting worse, as in Syria."

His turning point, Abu Nabout said, was the advent of Russian airstrikes in Syria. As the conflict has escalated in the past years, it has drawn in intervention from an array of actors, including Iran, the U.S., and their allies. With Russia now on that list, Abu Nabout said, he has lost hope for a political solution that would end the violence, along with the hope of returning home in a year or two.

Watch this video by Ezra Klein to understand the different sides fighting in Syria:

"All these countries have intervened, but unfortunately none of them have intervened to help the people. We have faced oppression for years, and now there's an international oppression on top of the national one. We're now up against Russia, and we don't have the resources to resist," Abu Nabout said.

While Russia has claimed to be striking Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria, strikes have killed dozens of civilians, as well as rebels fighting IS, including those trained and armed by the U.S. More recently, Russian airstrikes have hit at least seven hospitals and health facilities in Syria.

"People see Syria as nothing more than ISIS and airstrikes," said a visibly frustrated Abu Nabout. "But there's an oppressed people. We are lost between the regime and ISIS."

Umm Kalthoum is still playing loudly as the cafe starts to empty, and Abu Nabout reminisces about his days in Daraa, and the optimism he had had while organizing peaceful protests. He pulls out his phone to show me a video of him protesting, buoyed on the shoulders of his friends.

"It was the first time we were able to express anything in us. We thought, maybe it is possible to get rid of this regime, and the repression we're living in," said Abu Nabout.

I did not wear a mask. I wanted to break the wall of fear, Abu Nabout said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

In Izmir, Abu Nabout plans on finding a smuggler and a group of people he feels comfortable traveling with. After crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece in a rubber dinghy, he will begin his long trek to Sweden. There, he hopes to continue his education, and find work. When I asked what he was taking with him, he shrugged, saying some clothes, ID papers, and a journal.

"And a small hookah," he added, laughing.

Although he is worried about the difficulties of the road, Abu Nabout said he is more worried about how far he will be from home, and whether he will ever be able to see his family again. European countries, he said, could have decreased the number of asylum seekers to their states by supporting Syrians in neighboring countries, like Jordan, find housing.

Getting ready to head to the airport, Abu Nabout tells me again that he still has hope that one day he will go home and take part in building a civil, pluralistic society that is "home for everyone."

"Syria is like an island for us; other countries -- no matter what they're like -- will remain a sea for us. At any moment, we may lose our anchor. We will stay a people without an address. Exile will drown us for sure," Abu Nabout said.

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati

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