Omar thought he would never leave his homeland. "Damascus is my city," the lanky young man with a furrowed brow said in May 2012. Even then, many of his friends had already left Syria, fleeing to places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Cairo.
Now, though, roughly two years later, Omar is sitting in a jail cell some 7,500 kilometers from Damascus in a Malaysian prison, locked up as an illegal immigrant. The 26-year-old's parents and siblings are still in Syria. They are among nine people from two families who share a room in the Syrian capital. Their own home, a house in the Yarmouk district of Damascus, was destroyed in a bombing raid.
Aside from the fact that Omar made it all the way to Malaysia, his family's story is far from out of the ordinary. At least every second Syrian has had to leave his or her home since 2011. They get by somehow, but for most of them, their situation becomes more precarious by the day.
It has now been three years since the protests began in Syria. Many of the people in Syria that SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL ONLINE has met with since then have had to leave the country in the meantime. But at least they are still alive. Since 2011, well more than 100,000 people have died in the fighting, according to United Nations numbers released last summer. Since then, the international community has stopped counting the dead.
What started as a government effort to suppress peaceful protests transformed into a civil war that has destroyed a country and its people. Syria is collapsing a little further each day and it has become the most costly humanitarian crisis in the history of the United Nations. The UN asked for $6 billion for Syria in 2014, more than ever before.
"Syria has been set back 30, 35 years in its development," Muhannad Hadi, the regional emergency coordinator for Syria for the World Food Program, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He has been in the country on behalf of the UN since 2008. "The girls that we supported back then, we now encounter as beggars on the street. It is heart-rending."
When SPIEGEL ONLINE met Omar in August of 2012, he was still living with his parents in the Yarmouk district of Damascus. One month later, electricity and power to their house were cut off, just at the height of summer. The neighborhood was repeatedly targeted by artillery.
Omar's family fled to the center of Damascus in December, crowding into a single room which cost them $100 per month. Prior to the war, they had belonged to the Syrian middle class, and the move was a luxury that they could still afford, if only barely. And it was one which likely saved their lives. Yarmouk has since come under siege and the people still living there are starving.
Omar was prepared to do almost anything to help support his family and managed to get a three-week visa for Malaysia. He figured that the job situation had to be better there than in the Middle East. In February 2013, he sold everything he still had, including his laptop and athletic shoes, and borrowed the remainder he needed to buy an airplane ticket. Last November, he was arrested by the Malaysian police due to his long-since expired visa and he has been behind bars ever since.
Omar had imagined his life differently. He had hoped to work in the marketing department of a company in Damascus once he finished university. But it is a dream he buried in 2012. He had also thought that Syria's future would develop differently, having been convinced that the country's economy would continue to move in a positive direction and that additional freedoms would be the result.
In the spring of 2011, Omar took part in a student demonstration for the first and only time. Security forces chased them down and several were taken into custody and tortured. He decided not to take to the streets again.
Omar is just one of many people that SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL ONLINE has met with in the last three years of violence in Syria. Click through the photo gallery above to learn about the fates of others.