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Twenty-six-year-old Mohammad B. left his home country
CAIRO, Egypt--Syrian refugee Mohammad B.'s passport expired a few weeks ago, making official what he has long known: He no longer has a country.
The 26-year-old had nowhere to renew his passport. The Syrian embassy in Cairo was closed after protests. The embassies in Libya and Tunisia had switched loyalty to the opposition and could no longer issue passports. And the embassy in Algeria simply told him to go back to Syria.
That was not an option.
In Syria, Mohammad had been studying to become an English teacher. He fled in May 2011 after he was shot in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising. The bullet pierced his upper lip, broke his teeth, ripped through his cheekbone and exited near his temple. The deep, jagged wound identified him as an anti-government protester, which in Syria marked him for death.
At first, all the protesters wanted was a new mayor and better amenities. Mohammad was hopeful.
"I didn't want to leave my country, I wanted it to get better," says the softspoken young man with a ponytail and a right eye that droops slightly from his wound. He uses only his first name because he fears for the safety of his parents, both government employees in Daraa.
On April 25, the military clamped off the main road into Daraa. Then, he says, security forces started firing into the crowd of about 50 people with large machine guns.
A bullet sliced Mohammad's lip. He waved his hands for help, and a car came to his aid. A cellphone video he was shooting at the time, seen by The Associated Press, records the sound of a hail of bullets popping off the metal.
"It was very painful," Mohammad recalls. "I thought: Today is my last day. And the driver thought I was dead."
When he got home, his family fled to hide with relatives in the countryside. He stayed in bed for a week, unable to eat. Then he made the most difficult decision of his life: He had to leave Syria immediately.
He had never left Syria before. He chose Egypt because he would not need a visa, and knew a friend there.
Egypt does not share a border with Syria, and only about 1,700 Syrian refugees have registered there, according to the United Nations' refugee agency. However, the agency estimates the real number is closer to 95,000.
Mohammad's family gave him about $1,000 in cash, all they could spare. He put on dark sunglasses, wrapped a headdress over his face and prayed all the way to the airport. The bus passed a gauntlet of 25 checkpoints.
At the airport, he was detained for questioning but slipped interrogators a $300 bribe. He headed for his plane, sure he would be back.
Instead he is still in Cairo, with no money. He lives in a rundown apartment where eight people share three rooms.
With the help of a German-based aid group, Mohammad has had four operations for his face. His doctor says he will need more.
In February, one of Mohammad's five brothers made his way to Egypt, via Jordan. Bashar, 21, suffers from psychological problems after being shut in the house for a year watching the violence on TV. His presence both helps and hurts Mohammad.
"I feel like I have a family, but on the other hand, it made my life more difficult," Mohammad said. "He doesn't work."
Mohammad cannot legally work or study either. But he is teaching Arabic and translating for journalists. He also is considering starting a Web-based service to collect videos, photos and other documentation of the rebellion from citizens back home.
He talks with his family in Syria most days by phone or Skype. They never discuss politics. Since he left, security forces have gone to his house twice looking for him.
"I am worried all the time about my family and friends," he says. "When I check on them, I just want to know they are still there."
Above all, Mohammad longs to go home, study and have a good career. None of that is possible while he is stranded in Egypt with an expired passport.
"I just want to stop this bloodbath," he says. "I don't know how."