'Beneath the rubble and burning buildings of Syria's civil war exists a small women's center in the Al-Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo. Last July, the grounds above the center were barrel bombed three times. Bashar Assad's regime has repeatedly used these bombs indiscriminately, and discriminately, to level infrastructure and kill thousands of civilians.
"We don't understand why [the regime] wanted to bomb our center and kill us," said Bakri Kaakeh, the CEO of Silkroad, a local civil society group that administers the center.
Silkroad is one of many local civil society groups that have established initiatives to promote democracy in opposition-controlled parts of the country. Those who work in these organizations put their lives on the line. They have crossed in and out of Syria to administer schools, youth centers, hospitals, bakeries and vocational centers, all of which have been systematically targeted by regime forces and extremist groups in the country.
After Syria's Baath Party assumed power in 1963, the government set up state-funded associations while barring the establishment of any independent organizations. Syrian activists continue to be arrested, tortured and murdered today. Yet due to their perseverance, civil society may have expanded more during five years of conflict than it did in almost five decades under Baathist rule.
One lifeline for many civil society groups is an organization called Baytna Syria - "Syria, our home" - which aims to build a community of active citizens while financing an array of community projects in opposition-controlled areas.
During the early stages of the uprising against Assad's regime, demonstrations were repressed and activists were often hunted and executed. Many others were killed by barrel bombs and regime snipers along with the very people they were trying to help. The "Islamic State" group, which didn't announce its presence in Syria until April 2013, has executed numerous media activists and dissenters.
Other opposition groups in the north of Syria have coerced, restricted and even threatened activists in the area. Achi recalled a time when Baytna Syria had to cancel a project to finance a youth center in Idlib after Jabhat Fateh al Sham - previously known as al-Nusra Front - threatened to kill the man who was supposed to oversee the center when it opened. The setback was a reminder of how fear and violence shape all aspects of life in Syria today.
"We only had four incidents out of the 84 projects we've supported in 15 months. Overall I think we been pretty successful in evading risks," said Assaad Al Achi, executive director of Baytna Syria. "Part of it is risk management, but part of it is luck as well. When the regime is dropping a barrel bomb, it's either a hit or miss."
Many activists, however, haven't been as lucky. Razan Zeiytouneh, a human rights lawyer who ran the Violations Documentation Center, a network that monitored the deaths and violations of opposition and regime forces, was abducted along with three of her colleagues in December 2013. There has been no news of them since.
Tammam Al Jamous, one of the founding board members of Ghosun Zeiytoun - "olive branch" in English - said three people in his organization had died from indiscriminate attacks by the regime.
Ghosun Zeiytoun was first formed to create safe spaces for children while helping to keep schools running. One of their first initiatives, Al Jamous explained, was to send teachers basic necessities to allow them to keep working since the conflict prevented them from retrieving their salaries. The group has also provided children with language and software classes as well as first-aid training.
"We want freedom for Syria and we want a democracy," he said. "The partnership we have with Baytna Syria has been one of the most successful we've ever had. They are Syrian [so unlike some international donors] they know the exact situation in the country and the risks."
Activists who first mobilized to coordinate demonstrations have managed to build small institutions, helping bring a semblance of normalcy to life in parts of the beleaguered country. Their defiance alone has put them on at least one hit list.
"Any action we carried out without the regime's permission means we're terrorists [in their eyes], Al Jamous said. "But we won't stop. We are promoting a language of peace. "We promised our friends [who died] that we would continue their work for them." '