Escape from hell: Amna al-Khodr, 17, is one of the millions of Syrian refugees caught in the crossfire of a brutal civil war.

Author:Mourtada, Hania

Amna al-Khodr was a typical Syrian high school kid. She loved shopping with friends, decorating her room, and surfing the Web. She looked forward to going to college to study computer science.

The Khodr family had a three-bedroom apartment in Yarmouk, a middle-class suburb of Damascus, Syria's capital. Amna's father, who owned a supermarket chain, often drove the family to the countryside on weekends for picnics. Neighbors left their doors open for visitors, and Syria was considered one of the safest countries in the Middle East.

Then civil war broke out in 2011 and everything changed. Before long, the tight-knit community Amna had grown up in became sharply divided by political loyalties--those who supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad versus those who wanted to oust the longtime dictator.

At first, Amna's family decided to stay put. They thought they could weather the crisis by keeping their heads down. For a while, calm prevailed in Yarmouk. But late in 2012, rebels swept into the neighborhood and government forces ratcheted up attacks to put down the rebellion. Amna's nightmare had begun.

"Airstrikes do not discriminate between civilians and militants," she says. "We never took sides in this war, but of course this isn't enough to shield you."

Amna found herself thrust into a violent and unpredictable world. Some rebel groups stole from people and harassed them, but Amna recalls that the Assad regime was far more brutal: Using bombs, airstrikes, tanks, and snipers, it carried out a policy of violent oppression.

When rebels tightened their hold over Yarmouk, Assad's military sealed off the neighborhood and restricted who went in and out and how much food they could bring back.

To buy bread for her family each day, Amna had to cross government checkpoints: Soldiers set up barricades, looking for rebels wanted by the regime. Often, the soldiers insulted Amna and took away her groceries to feed their forces.

"I have never been the pliant type, so at times I would talk back--especially when they confiscated my pita bread," says Amna. "But my mother told me my bravado could get me killed in an instant."

In the summer of 2013, the shelling of Yarmouk intensified. At the same time, the Khodrs heard that a young girl had been detained at a checkpoint and raped by soldiers. Amna's family decided it was time to flee.

Since the civil war began, 200,000 Syrians have been killed and 3 million have escaped to neighboring countries. Another 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced inside Syria.

A 'Lost Generation'

Amna and her brothers are part of what is now referred to as Syria's "lost generation." At least half of the 3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are children. Two-thirds of those children--in addition to some 3 million children who are displaced inside Syria--no longer attend school.

The Syrian refugee crisis is a massive regionwide humanitarian problem. Huge tent cities have been set up in Turkey and Jordan to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people. Some camps are prone to flooding and have raw sewage all around. In Lebanon, the government has refused to build new refugee camps, so the 1.1 million Syrian refugees there live wherever they can: overcrowded apartments, stables, and makeshift camps.

Amna, now 17, lives with her parents and two younger brothers in a refugee camp in Lebanon. They're crammed together in a windowless 10-by-10-foot room, lit only by a flickering candle. Danger lurks outside in the form of rival gangs and sometimes snipers. Increasingly, school looks like a faint dream.

"I don't like to whine because my family members escaped this senseless war unharmed," says Amna. "But I don't know how we're going to survive here." Amna's family settled in Shatila, an old refugee camp on the southern fringes of Beirut that was originally set up in 1949 for Palestinian refugees from the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the decades since, it's evolved into an...

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