CAIRO — "Tareq," a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, looks out a cafe window onto Tahrir Square, where an effigy of Hosni Mubarak limply hangs from a nearby lamppost. "They kept beating me on the head, and I was bleeding," he says, breathing shallowly. "I was screaming, 'For the sake of God!' But they would only respond, 'Where is your God now? Let him come and save you.' I was about to faint and could almost see light. I kept saying the shahada and telling God, 'This is for you and for the sake of freedom.'"
Tareq's story is one of many among the growing community of Syrian exiles in Cairo. As the number of refugees fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's 14-month crackdown has mounted, a collective memory has formed in the Egyptian capital: For many young Syrians, the horrors of war, once spoken of in hushed tones by their elders, have now come alive. From the relative safety of the spiritual heart of the Arab Spring, Syrian activists are organizing, protesting, and praying from afar for the demise of Assad's regime in Damascus.
But the comforts of Cairo -- it's safer for Syrian activists than Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey's border areas and cheaper than Istanbul -- are often not enough to drown out the physical and emotional trauma many refugees have endured. Tareq, who declined to give his real name for fear of retribution against his family in Syria, says he is plagued by memories of the electrical instruments used to torture him, soldiers' boots that crushed his face as he lay on the prison-cell floor where he was kept, handcuffs that restrained him as the guards threatened to rape his mother, and screams from detainees as soldiers used pocket lighters to burn the flesh from their groins.
Now, 400 miles away in Cairo, Tareq has attempted to rebuild his shattered life by remaining an energetic member of the activist community, organizing public events, plays, art activities, and short films to raise money and awareness for those back home.
Egypt, of course, is itself still far from a model of stability -- the upcoming presidential election promises to provoke a confrontation between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), newly resurgent Islamists, and embattled liberals -- and the dysfunction has left Syrian activists in a sort of political limbo. But Rami Jarrah, a well-known voice of the Syrian revolution who now heads a vast activist network from an office in Cairo, thinks Egypt's opportunities outweigh the inevitable disadvantages of a country in transition.
"In general, Syrian activists are free to move here," Jarrah says. "In Lebanon, you can't open an office like this. You have Hezbollah … It makes it impossible to really be active, to really surface and talk about the Syrian situation. In Egypt, it's far away, but close to what's happening. There's a lot of moral support."
Jarrah's own memories of torture in Syria, after being apprehended in March 2011 while covering one of the early anti-government protests in Damascus, motivate him to work into the early-morning hours in his Cairo office. He said he was imprisoned for three days in central Damascus, where he was denied food, water, and sleep, and would wake up covered in bleach after falling unconscious between beatings and suffocation at the hands of Assad's security forces.
Jarrah still tweets under his former alias, Alexander Page -- a daily reminder of the repression that initially drove him, his wife, and his child from Syria last October. Although he has made a new life for himself as an activist in Cairo, Alexander Page's biography still lists his location as "limbo."
"I spent the last seven years [in Syria] practically hating every second of it because of the fact that I felt Syrians didn't understand what freedom was," says Jarrah, who was born in Cyprus and raised in London, and who returned in 2004 to Syria, where he found work as an import-export consultant. "I [want] to spend another seven years in a democratic Syria."
Of course, Assad loyalists have found it just as easy to exploit Egypt's relatively open political space as opponents of the Syrian regime have. The Syrian mukhabarat, or secret police, regularly intimidate Syrians involved in anti-Assad activity in Cairo, activists say. After fleeing to Cairo, Jarrah says, he would receive ominous phone calls from an unknown number every day at 6 a.m. A voice on the line would recite the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran, which is often said after someone dies.
But now, Jarrah says, the work of Syrian intelligence officers in Egypt is waning -- activists have not been harassed with the frequency that they were in the past. He attributes this to the raging conflict inside the country, which may be preoccupying the regime's attention. Nevertheless, Jarrah explains, Syrian intelligence officers still want activists to be aware of their presence in Cairo.
What's more, he thinks Syrians in Cairo who appear to be working for the regime may not necessarily be pro-Assad at all. In a bitter twist of irony, he says, some Syrian asylum-seekers who reach Cairo still find themselves prisoners of Assad's tyranny and are forced to feed information to Syrian intelligence to free family members and friends still in detention back home.
But for some Syrians, solidarity with Egyptian activists partly makes up for Cairo's pitfalls. "We see [Syrians] as people looking for their freedom," says Muhammad Ramadan, a freelance filmmaker and Egyptian revolutionary. "We support them and welcome their presence and protests in Cairo."
Ramadan could be found in Tahrir Square last year, filming the unfolding Egyptian revolution. Now he documents anti-Assad protests in Cairo -- his way of boosting a cause that many Egyptian and Syrian activists believe has yet to generate any significant response from the international community. "I support Syria because I'm Egyptian," he says. "It's important to have solid revolutionary governments around us [to lead] our Arab world forward."