Photo by David Holt (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At The Globe and Mail, Mark MacKinnon tells the story of Naief Abazid — who, at the urging of some older boys, graffitied a school wall on a lark in Daraa, Syria, at age 14. The “writing on the wall” enraged Syria’s Baathist dictatorship, and ignited the Syrian civil war — a conflict now nearly six years old — which has claimed over 400,000 lives, displaced nearly 5 million refugees, and has had lasting repercussions the world over.

At the start of it all, before the uprising and the civil war – and the refugee exodus and the terror and the hatred that have sprung from it – a 14-year-old boy stood giggling with a can of black spray paint, pointing it at the wall of his school in southern Syria.

Naief Abazid had no inkling that he was about to launch a revolution, or anything else that has followed. He was just doing what the bigger kids told him to. Trying to make them laugh. “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad, ” he painted, just under the window of the principal’s office of the all-boys al-Banin school in his hometown of Daraa. The date was Feb. 16, 2011.

It was an incendiary political idea – suggesting that Syria’s Baathist dictatorship would be the next to fall after the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, written by an apolitical teenage prankster. Painted on a cool and dry winter evening, it would improbably set in motion a chain reaction of events that continue to rock the Middle East – and the world.

By most estimates, more than 400,000 people have been killed, and the war in Syria rages on, with the Assad regime now obliterating large swaths of the city of Aleppo. Millions more have been driven from their homes, with hundreds of thousands – including Naief – seeking refuge in Europe, inducing an epic clash of cultures on the continent and the startling rise of politicians from the anti-immigrant far right.

Naief’s graffiti has had an effect on our world similar to the assassin’s bullet fired in Sarajevo at the outbreak of the First World War. Without Naief’s act of teenage impetuousness – and the Assad regime’s violent reaction to it – would the extremist caliphate have been declared? Would the refugee crisis be on the scale it is now? Would the United Kingdom – spurred by campaign posters of streams of refugees heading north – have voted to leave the European Union? Would the anti-immigrant message of Donald Trump – who has spoken, without evidence, of possible “Trojan horses” among the Syrian refugees accepted into the United States – have resonated quite so deeply with the American electorate?

Naief Abazid – a short, thin young man with slicked-back black hair and a stubbly beard – is stunned by all that’s resulted from his impulsive act five years ago. “I was the youngest one in the crowd. They told me what to write,” Naief recalled, sipping on a coffee and sharing a McDonald’s pie.

“I only realized it was serious when I got to prison.”

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