TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Last year, Khalid was a 19-year-old Syrian university student whose modest dreams were to land a job and earn enough to marry his girlfriend — not simple tasks given Syria's weak economy and his lack of connections to the ruling elite.
Since then, he's become a fugitive activist in the fight to topple President Bashar Assad. Khalid said he has been tortured by security forces and hasn't spoken to his loved ones in months for fear he'll endanger their lives.
Young people like Khalid have manned the front lines in the uprisings across the Arab world, organizing protests, documenting violence and taking up arms against government troops.
Analysts say youth frustration has proven to be a potent force in an area where some 60 percent of people are younger than 25 — making it one of the world's youngest regions.
Many youth activists say they had plenty to protest, facing adulthood in societies where decades of autocratic rule left them with limited freedom and constricted economies. For Khalid and other young Syrians, the uprising is about more than just toppling a dictator. It's a fight for their generation's dreams.
"I can't think about my own life now," said Khalid, now 20, after sneaking across the Syrian border into Lebanon. "All I can think about is working to make the revolution succeed because it will have a huge effect on the lives of all youth."
The young have been key players in Syria's uprising since its start in March 2011, when security forces arrested a group of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Daraa, generating huge protests.Comment on this story
Assad's security forces violently cracked down, deploying tanks, snipers and thugs to quash the spreading dissent. Later, many civilians took up arms to defend their communities and attack security forces. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have been killed, including at least 500 children. Hundreds more children have been injured, detained or abused.
As the death toll mounts, young activists acknowledge some naivete in their decision to challenge one of the region's most brutal police states. Their elders often tried to dissuade them, recalling how Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people while crushing a 1982 rebellion in the city of Hama.
"Many of them were scared. They saw what the regime can do and told us, 'We were there in 1982. You weren't.' " said Mustafa, 24, who fled the coastal city of Banias to Lebanon last year.
Still, many have decided that a chance at better lives was worth dropping their studies, jobs and marriage plans.