Syrian medics on the frontline: an interview with the Medics Under Fire campaign

It’s been almost six years since the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Since March 2011, an estimated 11 million Syrian refugees have fled their homeland, whilst a staggering 6.6 million internally displaced Syrian citizens still lie within Syria’s borders, having also had to flee their homes due to the conflict. Within Syria itself, 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The heartbreaking conflict shows no signs of ending any time soon. As President Assad and his Russian allies continue to bomb civilian homes, schools, and hospitals, there is sadly no peace for millions of men, women and children. Humanitarian aid workers and medical staff continue to risk their lives to tend to the sick with scarce resources. In light of this, I got in touch with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) who run the Medics Under Fire campaign alongside the NGO The Syria Campaign to find out more about the situation on the ground in Syria right now. 

As a humanitarian organisation, the focus of SAMS’ work is: “to provide medical care and relief to any patient in need, regardless of religious or political affiliation”. According to SAMS, the major threat to their facilities comes from airstrikes from the Syrian government and its allies. 94.7% of medical workers who have died in Syria have been killed at the hands of the Syrian government. In exact figures that’s 750 medical workers since the beginning of the Syria conflict, with a total of  52 staff who have not been killed by Syrian/Russian government attacks. As SAMS notes, these figures only include documented numbers. They estimate that the real number is much higher.

In light of this and the immense difficulties that come with both living and working in Syria at present, I wanted to find out more about the realities and challenges doctors are currently facing in Syria. This is what SAMS had to say.

Thank you for taking the time to undertake this interview for Voice of Salam – your time is very much appreciated.

Although the conflict in Syria has been going on for five years now, there’s been a much greater focus in the media over the last few weeks – in particular on Aleppo. Could you give a breakdown on the current situation and state of emergency?

Eastern Aleppo City was evacuated in December 2016. Evacuees were taken to the Aleppo countryside, Idlib, and Turkey, for the most critical medical cases. Aleppo countryside has seen aerial bombardment in the past few weeks. However, the situation in other parts of Syria remains critical, including the recent developments in Wadi Barada, located north-west of Damascus. The area has seen intense shelling, and the Ain Al-Fijah spring has been cut off, which provided drinking water to many of Damascus’s neighbourhoods. The situation in Wadi Barada must be addressed. 

What are some of the human rights violations taking place in Syria both before and during the war and from which side? Who are the perpetrators and to what level?

Physicians for Human Rights has well documented the range of human rights violations taking place against healthcare in Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011. They have documented 400 attacks on healthcare facilities and the deaths of 768 medical professionals, the majority of which were perpetrated by the Syrian government and its allies.

In January 2017, SAMS published its report The Failure of UN Security Council Resolution 2286 in Preventing Attacks on Healthcare in Syria, documenting 2016 as the most dangerous year for healthcare in Syria.

The Medics under Fire campaign is run by yourselves – The Syrian American Medical Society – and The Syria Campaign. Could you tell readers a little more about your organisation, campaign and the work that you do?

When the conflict in Syria began in 2011, SAMS expanded its capacity significantly to meet the growing needs and challenges of the medical crisis. SAMS has since supported healthcare throughout Syria, sponsoring field hospitals and ambulances, training and paying the salaries of Syrian medical personnel who are risking their lives to save others, and sending lifesaving humanitarian aid and medical equipment to where it is needed most. SAMS also supports Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries with critical psychosocial support, medical and dental care, and art therapy programs.

The Medics Under Fire Campaign was created to highlight the horrific conditions that medical personnel in Syria have been forced to work under since 2011. Medical workers, hospitals, and ambulances have become acceptable targets in the conflict, completely undermining the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law. SAMS has lost too many medical staff and rebuilt too many destroyed hospitals as a result of the Syrian government’s campaign of targeting healthcare. 

What are some of the main issues and vulnerabilities that medical professionals in Syria are currently facing?

Healthcare has continuously been used as a tool of war in Syria, with the Syrian government indiscriminately targeting hospitals and medical facilities. The targeted strikes on medical facilities have left medical personnel without the adequate tools or resources to treat patients. Since the onset of the crisis, over 700 medical workers have been killed, and every doctor’s death or hospital’s destruction means that thousands of people will be deprived of life-saving medical care. The remaining doctors know that they will be targeted by airstrikes, but they risk their lives to continue to provide healthcare to patients in need. Because there are so few doctors inside Syria, many are forced to practice medicine beyond their expertise, and often without the resources they would typically have. Our medical personnel make do with what they have, but unfortunately because access is routinely blocked into non-government held areas, we cannot deliver the supplies that they require.

Could you tell us about some of the personal accounts you’ve come across?

SAMS highlights many personal accounts on the homepage of our website under ‘Stories from the Field.’ We also produced Syrian Medical Voices from the Ground: The Ordeal of Syria’s Healthcare Professionals

As a non-political organisation fighting to raise awareness of the human rights abuses taking place in Syria and aid medics working on the ground since the onset of conflict, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced? Have the public been as receptive as you’d hoped?

We have had success in elevating voices of medical workers and attacks on healthcare. We were so amazed and moved by the tremendous support we received in December 2016 following the crisis in Aleppo. 27,000 people from 90 countries donated to our Aleppo Fund on Facebook, which raised over $1.5 million dollars. However, policy change has been limited and there has been very little change in the situation on the ground, despite global awareness and condemnation.

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For people out there who are currently disengaged or sceptical about the issues you work with, what would you say to them?

We would appeal to their humanity and ask them to see Syrians as men, women, and children like them. We understand that this crisis is now entering its sixth year, and there is a lot of compassion fatigue, but the world cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering that continues every single day. While politics have unfortunately played into the crisis, we must always remember the humanitarian side of the issue and the innocent lives that are at stake.

Where do you see your campaign going? What are your next steps and strategies?

SAMS recently released a report on the failure of the UNSC Resolution 2286, which condemned attacks on medical personnel. Until there is accountability for these war crimes, SAMS will continue to reinforce our hospitals for the safety of our doctors and patients, provide medical care for those in need, and advocate at the highest levels for their protection.

What do you envisage for the immediate future of Syria and the Syrian people?

We hope that the world continues to pay attention to the situation in Syria, not just Aleppo, and calls for protection of civilians. 

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How can we support the Syrian people, aid workers and medical professionals working in Syria?

SAMS is one of the most-trusted local Syrian NGOs working on the ground, both inside Syria and in refugee-host countries including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece. 

Choosing local Syrian organizations, like SAMS, to donate to or volunteer with is an effective way to reach Syrian men, women, and children and provide medical support to those in need.

Thank for your time and I’d like to wish your campaign all the greatest success in the coming future!

[…]

So spread the message and raise awareness! For further information please visit:

Acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank SAMS for their time and assistance in undertaking this interview and wish them all the success in the world with their crucial inspiring work.

Image credits:

Syrian American Medical Society (Medics Under Fire) (c)

Feature image: Johannes Zielcke (CC) – photo of Golan Heights hospital (Quneitra, Golan Heights, Syria)

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Four facts about refugees the media ISN’T telling you…

There’s a lot of talk of refugees in the media at present but rather than presenting facts, what the tabloids present is predominantly anti-refugee rhetoricscaremongering and racist/Islamophobic discourse. As a result, many people are worried about the effect of refugees on their local communities and on a wider international scale.

The following statements represent typical “concerns” of certain sections of British/European society fed by the media:

“They’re claiming thousands of pounds of benefits.”

“It’s safe back home for them.”

“It’s just single young men coming over, never any women or kids.”

“We can’t possibly take anymore – why can’t any other countries take them?”

Sound familiar? Well, here’s four myths the media likes to peddle and the real truth that they’re not telling you:

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Speaks volumes doesn’t it! So, next time someone thinks they’ve got their facts right: set them straight! Embrace diversity, protect human rights and welcome your global brothers and sisters! 🙂

Statistics: UNHCR, The Refugee Council (2015)

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Desperation in Dunkirk: French Jungle diaries (part 2)

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Photo: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

In an earlier blog blog piece, I featured a personal account of an aid trip run by Stafford Welcomes Refugees to “The Jungle” in Calais prior to its closure. Following utter chaos, the camp was later cleared. However help is still crucially needed across northern France. Whilst some refugees from Calais seek makeshift refuge in temporary new homes in other areas of France, more specifically in Dunkirk there lie many refugees in the official Grande-Synthe refugee camp, as well as those sleeping in ditches without shelter. Prior to the closure of the Jungle there were – and still are – many refugees in Dunkirk. Here volunteers have long been striving to help refugees in this lesser known area where conditions are harsh, numbers of children are high and various unaccompanied minors lie in wait and desperation to be reunited with their families. Aid is still crucial.

Dunkirk – refugees in desperation

The Grande-Synthe refugee camp – La Linère – located just outside Dunkirk, has received far less press than “The Jungle in Calais”. However, don’t let that fool you. Make no mistake: things are desperate. In fact, conditions in Dunkirk were previously cited as “far worse” than in the Jungle back in 2015, although things have since improved. In March 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières set up the camp on the site of the former illegal Dunkirk “Jungle” where conditions were so dire, volunteers found themselves setting up tents in muddy rat infested areas next to human excrement. Wooden huts have since been set up and unlike The Calais, Jungle this is now an officially recognised camp – but is however not run by the government. At present, there are 1000 people living in the camp, including babies, many children and 150 families. Based on figures from November (2016), there are 106 unaccompanied minors at the camp with family in the UK. Inside the camp, there is no electricity and refugees face the winter cold living in these wooden sheds. The media focus on France may have died down but the crisis is ongoing and aid is still essential.

Following the aid trip to Calais by local refugee organisation Stafford Welcomes Refugees, members of Stafford’s local Muslim community – Stafford Muslim Community Centre (SMCC) – headed back to France after the official closure of The Jungle in Calais to lend a helping hand. They met the wonderful Sofinee  of Kitchen in Calais from the last trip and found themselves instead directed to Dunkirk. Take a look into their trip, helping out our refugee brothers and sisters across the Channel.

Our Trip to Calais & Dunkirk (Yacoob, Bilal and Sulayman) 29th October 2016

This journey began with donations coming in a few weeks before our trip to Calais and Dunkirk. I had been in touch with the formidable Sofinee, a lady who has been at the heart of the Kitchen in Calais, and had adhered to the list of times she requested we took down. […] Friday evening arrived, our dear brother from Stoke-on-Trent, and experienced driver, Bilal, arrived […] with a big silver van. Several of us started filling up the van and whilst doing it, noticed a puncture in one of the tyres. We managed to pump air into it, however, a few hours later, it was flat again!! The entire van was emptied and the tyre replaced and this gave us peace of mind that we were good to go!

Alarm rang at 3am, a quick coffee and cooler bag in hand, my son Sulayman, 16, and I jumped into the van as Bilal had come to fetch us. It was 4am and we were already on the motorway. Almost two hours on the road, we needed to stop at the services near Beaconsfield for a break and morning prayer. Half an hour later, we were back on the road and fast approaching Dover. The glimpses of the white cliffs and seagulls approaching were an exhilarating sight and it was then the thought and realisation of this journey was fast becoming a reality…

We went through customs and parked the van up in the allocated bay and went up into the ferry for the duration of the journey. The grey skies dominated the rest of the journey until we reached Calais where glimpses of sunshine were caught. Once we disembarked from the ferry, within half an hour, we had reached our first destination, Calais. Here we were to meet Sofinee at the warehouse.

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Warehouse in Calais (top right), Dunkirk (bottom left/right)

We introduced ourselves and it was then that Sofinee figured that we were part of the famous Chris from Stafford’s circle of Helping Hands. Sofinee said that due the Calais jungle being razed to the ground just that week, unfortunately, they could accept only one trolley. They suggested that the rest of the contents of the van could be donated at Dunkirk. After a few phone calls arranging our visit there, we set off for Dunkirk.

Approximately an hour later we arrived in Dunkirk. With police visibly present in full force and a few police checks later, we entered the heavily-fenced kitchen area. There was a clear distinction that the kitchen was off-limits to the refugees. As we parked up, we were met by a lovely team of Irish volunteers who had given up their time to support the cause of the refugees. When we opened up the door of the van and the volunteers saw what we had, they were in awe and overwhelming appreciation followed.

As we offloaded the donations and settled for a chat with the volunteers, we learned that the demographic make-up was interesting. Afghan, Kurdish, Iranian, were among the refugees that lived in this camp. There was an interesting combination of the languages spoken and the diversity was clear.

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With the volunteers in Dunkirk

Being mindful of the time, we had to wrap up our visit to Dunkirk by asking what they really needed. Oranges, yes oranges, was on the list! Hopefully next time. […] So, as we left and drove past this sad cold place, I hoped and prayed that these refugees’ plight would be alleviated in some way. […] Having seen some of life’s harsh realities, the smells and sights of this day was to be etched in our minds for a long time. […] Praise be to God, for having made this journey happen. Our job was done this time and more aid will be undertaken in the future, God willing!

Yacoob Patel (Director- SMCC)

Get involved:

So what can be done to help refugees in both Dunkirk and Calais? Here’s a few pointers:

  • Donate: food, clothing, toiletries are all needed. Check out: Help Refugees and Kitchen in Calais
  • Volunteer: if you can spare the time and have the funds, head over to France. Find out more here and here
  • Sign the UNICEF petition to reunite refugee children with their families in the UK
  • Get active on social media: blog, post, Tweet to raise awareness and help reunite separate families and give crucial refuge to these vulnerable refugees.

Credits and acknowledgments:

Text and images: Stafford Muslim Community Centre (SMCC)

A huge well done to all of you who supported and took part in the SMCC trip – God bless.

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If you think violent jihad is the answer, read on…

Dear brothers and sisters,

Assalam aleykum,

I’m writing to you in light of the suspected terrorist attack on a German Christmas market last night just six days before Christmas – a time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom we refer to as Prophet Jesus/Issa (pbuh); a kind, modest, preacher from Palestine born to Mary/Mariam who taught us to love and have mercy on one another, to worship God, to undertake good deeds and to repel evil.

If you’re sympathetic to ISIS and the concept of waging ‘holy war’ you may see nothing wrong with this event. You witness the atrocities in Syria, you saw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you hear about sisters being harassed and you feel injustice. You feel you need to ‘seek revenge’ and ‘fight back’. You see it as your blessed honourable duty to fight in the way of Allah through bloodshed. Oh, how I pity you….

When the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) fled Saudi Arabia in his early years of prophethood he sought refuge in Ethiopia amongst Christians. When the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) established a government in Medina, the constitution comprised a multifaith community where Jews, Christians and Muslims alike could live in peace. The Prophet’s own family included Christians – none of whom he ‘forced’ to convert to Islam or despised. When we think of the wonderful beautiful names of Allah (SWT) we are reminded of such beautiful qualities and the lessons and teachings which accompany them as part of Islam: kindness, patience, generosity, truth, justice, modesty, compassion, mercy, wisdom and understanding. Amongst the 99 names of Allah revealed by Allah (SWT) in the Qur’an itself, are 15 names in particular which I’d like to draw your attention to with a relevant teaching from a Qur’anic verse or hadith:

  1. Ar Rahman (الرحمن)  – The All Merciful: Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to people.” (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim)
  2. Ar Rahim (الرحيم) – The Most Merciful: Be merciful to others and you will receive mercy. Forgive others and Allah will forgive you.” (Sahih Ahmad)
  3. As Salam (السلام) – Peace and Blessing: “O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace [Islam].” (2:208)
  4. Al Ghaffaar (الغفار) – The Ever Forgiving: “Show forgiveness, enjoin in what is good, and turn away from the ignorant.” (7:199)
  5. Al ‘Adl (العدل) – The Utterly Just: “God does not love corruption.” (2:205)
  6. Al Latif (اللطيف) – The Subtly Kind: “He who is deprived of kindness is deprived of goodness” (Sahih Muslim)
  7. Al Ghafur (الغفور) – The All Forgiving: “The reward of the evil is the evil thereof, but whosoever forgives and makes amends, his reward is upon God.” (42:40)
  8. Al Karim (الكريم) – The Bountiful, the Generous “[…] But whatever thing you spend [in His cause] – He will compensate it; and He is the best of providers.” (34:39)
  9. Al Hakim (الحكيم) – The Wise: “Invite to the way of  your Lord with wisdom and fair preaching […]” (16:125)
  10. Al Wadud (الودود) – The Loving, the Kind One: “Those who believe and do good deeds – the Gracious God will create love in their hearts.” (19:97)
  11. Al Muhyi (المحيي) – The Giver of Life: “[…] and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (6:151)
  12. Al Barr (البر) – The Most Kind and Righteous: “Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith.” (Muslim)
  13. Ar Ra’uf (الرؤوف) – The Compassionate, the All Pitying: “And good and evil are not alike. Repel evil with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity will become as though he were a warm friend.  But none is granted it save those who are steadfast; and none is granted it save those who possess a large share of good.” (41:35-36)
  14. An Nur (النور) – The Light: “O Allah! Make for me Light in my heart, Light in my vision, Light in my hearing, Light on my right, Light on my left, Light above me, Light under me, Light in front of me, Light behind me, Light in my hair, Light in my skin, Light in my flesh, Light in my blood, and Light in my bones. O Allah Grant me Light!” [Tirmidhi]
  15. As Sabur (الصبور) – The Timeless, The Patient: “Those who spend (in Allah’s cause) in prosperity and in adversity, who repress their anger, and who pardon men, verily, Allah loves the al-Muhsinum (the good-doers).” (3:134)

Please enlighten me and explain how by controlling one’s anger, being just, truthfulhonest and resorting to self-defence only when required in time of necessity (always excluding women, children and animals and not even harming a plant!) as Islam teaches, one is permitted and even obliged to carry out bombings, shootings and other acts of violence against unarmed innocent civilians? Such acts can only be described as terrorism and are completely forbidden.

Have you no respect for your fellow brothers and sisters in faith: Jews and Christians (The People of The Book) – forgetting that Allah permits marriage amongst Christian/Jewish sisters and Muslim brothers? Have you no respect for your brothers and sisters in humanity and Allah’s Creation? He created each and everyone of us the way HE intended.

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Perhaps I need to remind you of these key points:

  • Sectarianism, racism, (overt) nationalismgreed and corruption are haram [forbidden] and have caused endless suffering within and amongst Muslim nations: “And hold fastAll together, by the rope Which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves” (3:103).
  • Millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and Yemenis (the list of nations goes on) – innocent victims and your brothers and sisters in Islam – have fled and are continuing to flee war, violence, torture and persecution or what’s more: continue to remain trapped in their own country where they are subject to ongoing bombing, famine and starvation due to repugnant violence, intolerant extremism, abhorrent politics and relentless military campaigns by the likes of ISIS, Al Qaeda and “Muslim” dictators/regimes who are harming even innocent babies and children.
  • For those of you enjoying your freedom in Europe, do you not think that ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ is sheer hypocrisy? Islamophobia is wrong, racial abuse is wrong, wars are wrong – no one is denying that but if you hate Europe so much, why are you here? Oh the irony of hating democracy when Allah himself has given us free will, stating: “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned” (2:256)….
  • The more you commit terrorist atrocities, the more likely Muslims in the ‘West’ risk facing potential Islamophobic attacks. You risk making life harder for Muslim communities in non-Muslim majority nations. Fortunately, there are many many non-Muslims out there that have educated themselves on Islam, shown tolerance, understanding, compassion and stand united in solidarity against such hatred and inhumanity, refusing to be beaten down and divided as a society.

Finally and most simply of all: Islam isn’t dogma. Islam is spirituality, peace and a way of life. If you’re not in tune with that, then it’s all pointless. Picture this: how can you violently shoot others one minute, then pray in subdued peaceful silence in tune with Allah the next? I must therefore ask: who is Allah to you? I suggest you review Allah’s 99 names and the Qur’an and look at the bigger picture…

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Credits:

Images: Brian Jeffery Beggerly (feature image), Anuradha SenguptaBengin Ahmad

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‘In Our World, You’re Either Born With the Right Passport or Not’

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A few weeks ago, French President François Hollande announced the “Calais Jungle” refugee camp would be dismantled, leaving thousands of destitute refugees, including unaccompanied minors, in northern France with nowhere to go. Although many have since been able to submit an asylum claim, it still remains that for months on end these refugees from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea relied on the help of small-scale NGOs and the public, with no assistance from the French government.

Amélie Jacques, a famous French blogger who grew up in Paris and Rome, has lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and now resides in Soweto, South Africa. Following the tense situation with refugees in Calais, in a short essay on her blog “Ubuntu” she voiced her concerns about the French government’s harsh policies limiting refugees’ entrance into the country. She also contrasted how easy it is for her to travel with a French passport with how difficult it is for people from other countries: 

No matter whether they’re refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, if they’re fleeing war, persecution, or simply looking for a better future … all migrants should be able to come to France and to elsewhere in Europe. There’s no moral reasoning not to allow people to come and live in another country.

My country refuses visa and asylum claims submitted by men, women, and families who come in search of peace, work, and so on, yet nobody’s ever stopped me from crossing the border to go on a family holiday, to study abroad, or even to work. Each time I travel, there are a few formalities — a bit of paperwork, exchanging or paying a few euros, and last of all getting a vaccination — and then it’s off and away! I’ve been able to come and stay for several weeks — up to several years — in England, the United States, Italy, Burkina Faso, Iran, and now South Africa…

What’s this prejudice and inequality based on? French people are no more worthy of rights than other men and women. More than rights, these are privileges. What’s more, such privileges are based on where you’re born because in our world, you’re either born with the right passport or not. Such inequality of rights is devoid of all morality. We either take a step down on the ladder of privilege and confine each person to the country where they were born, or we allow every human being the right to migrate and move out of their own land.

France has long been a nation of immigration with debates surrounding assimilation and secular identity, in particular concerning migrants from former colonial nations such the Maghreb region of Algeria, Morocco and North Africa. However, in the light of the recent refugee crisis, France’s response has been rather poor, unlike its European neighbour Germany.

The French government originally committed to welcoming refugees from Syria, but in practice is not a main recipient of refugees from Syria. The UK and France have in fact been locked in a battle of wills in an attempt to pass off responsibility for welcoming refugees. France maintains that these refugees want to reach the UK, whilst the UK government neither wants to fully open its doors.

As a whole, Europe remains divided on the issue of resettling refugees from war-torn countries, and some members of the European Union continue to express hostility to the idea.

Credits:

This article was first published via Global Voices (08/11/2016)

Images: Kevin Walsh, feature image – CC BY-SA 4.0

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Daraya, Symbol of Non-Violent Revolution and Self-Determination, Falls to the Syrian Regime

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Daraya: “[…] peaceful protests were subjected to violent repression. Flowers were met with bullets, protesters were rounded up en masse and detained.” Photo credit: Non-violent protests with protesters holding roses in Baniyas, May 6th 2011 – Syrian Freedom (CC BY 2.0)

By Leila Al Shami

Four years following its liberation, the predominantly agricultural town of Daraya, strategically located near Syrian capital, Damascus, has fallen to the regime. A deal was reached to evacuate the 4,000-8,000 civilians remaining there, out of a pre-uprising population of 300,000. The local fighters who defended their town so courageously will go to Idlib and join the resistance there.

The Daraya residents being evacuated know that they may never return to their homes. Photos circulated on social media showed people gathered at the graves of loved ones to say goodbye. Fears abound of a plan to cleanse opposition strongholds permanently, and in previous evacuation deals—even those carried out under UN auspices—many were detained by the regime, never to be seen again.

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But Daraya’s residents are desperate. A few days ago a group of women published a open letter to the world. They described the horrific conditions in the town. A regime-imposed siege, ongoing for 1,368 days, had blocked the entry of food and medical supplies. People were starving. They described the daily regime assault which has seen over 9,000 barrel bombs dropped on the town, as well as internationally prohibited poisonous gas and napalm. The hospital had been targeted and was out of operation. Agricultural land, the sole source of food, had been deliberately burned and destroyed. The women called on the international community to take action to end the violence and lift the siege. This letter followed months of protests held by women and children with the same demands. The first, and only, aid convoy to reach the town entered in June 2016. It contained medicine, mosquito nets and baby formula, but no food. ‘We can’t take medicine on an empty stomach,’ read a banner at a protest soon after.

Those who leave Daraya leave as heroes. Daraya is an iconic town for Syrian revolutionaries. It’s been a centre for the development of the thought and practice of non-violent resistance and has inspired civil disobedience across the country. And despite the horrific repression inflicted on the town, it’s had remarkable success in practicing local, autonomous self-organization. Revolutionary activist Razan Zeitouneh, who was herself kidnapped in 2013, said: “Daraya was a star before the revolution and a star during. What the young men and women of the city built took immense efforts and resulted in a small exemplary model for the future of Syria, the one we dream of. The activism in the city never ceased to amaze us for a minute… In Daraya, the signs calling for co-existence continued to be held high even when the entire country was falling into despair following every new massacre.”

In 2011, when the uprising began, a local coordination committee quickly emerged to organize anti-regime protests. The committee emphasized the importance of non-violent struggle and handed out leaflets calling for a democratic Syria and for equality between all religious and ethnic groups. As church bells rang in solidarity, protesters marched holding flowers, and handed bottles of water to the security forces sent to shoot them. ‘The army and people are one,’ they chanted.

One of those involved with the local coordination committee was a 26-year-old tailor called Ghiyath Matar. He earned the nickname ‘Little Gandhi’ for his commitment to peaceful resistance. Ghiyath was arrested by security forces on September6, 2011. A few days later his mutilated corpse was returned to his family and pregnant wife. In one of his last Facebook posts, Ghiyath said: “We chose non-violence not from cowardice or weakness, but out of moral conviction; we don’t want to reach victory by having destroyed the country.”

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Daraya

The principles of non-violent resistance that influenced Daraya’s youth had a history in the town. Unusually for Syria, a police state that ruthlessly suppresses independent organization, a group of young men and women aged between 15 and 25 established the Daraya Youth Group in 1998. They had been studying Quran under the religious scholar Abdul Akram Al Saqqa. Al Saqqa promoted social and political freedom and encouraged free thinking amongst his students. Because of his liberal views he was controversial amongst the Syrian ulema (religious authorities). He called for women to choose their own husbands and argued that women’s education was more important than whether or not they wore the veil. He introduced students to the work of Jawdat Said, an Islamist scholar who promoted non-violent thought and practice through the Quranic traditions as well as the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Al Saqqa’s work attracted the attention of the authorities and he was imprisoned in 2003 and 2011, but under his mentorship, the Daraya Youth Group organized actions such as cleaning the streets of their town, boycotting American products, and risky campaigns against bribery and corruption. In 2002 they demonstrated against the Israeli invasion of Jenin refugee camp and in 2003 they organized protests without government permission against the US invasion of Iraq. This activity led to the arrest of 24 members of the group. A few were released soon after, but the majority were sentenced to between three and four years in prison.

The peaceful protests were subjected to violent repression. Flowers were met with bullets, protesters were rounded up en masse and detained. In August 2012, following intense shelling, Syrian army troops stormed the town and committed one of the regime’s worst massacres. Some 400 men, women and children lost their lives in execution-style killings. Those attempting to flee were hunted down and shot. The bodies of the dead littered the streets or were thrown into mass graves.

In a scene that would be endlessly repeated, some Western commentators sought to exonerate the regime from wrongdoing. The celebrated journalist Robert Fisk visited Daraya shortly after the massacre, embedded with regime troops. He reported that the situation was the result of a Free Army hostage-taking and a prisoner exchange gone wrong, quoting sources saying that victims were relatives of government employees. Daraya’s local coordination committee issued a strong condemnation of Fisk’s report. They had never heard of the prisoner exchange story, questioned whether interviewees would be free to speak the truth in the presence of regime soldiers, and criticized Fisk for not meeting with opposition activists. Meanwhile, the American war reporter Janine Di Giovani also entered Daraya—without regime support—a few days after the massacre, and gave a harrowing account in her excellent book ‘The Morning They Came for Us’.

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Daraya: the spirit of the Syrian revolution, and the heartbeat of every rebel

Daraya was liberated by local rebels in November 2012. As the state withdrew, residents set up a Local Council to run the town’s affairs. One of those involved was anarchist Omar Aziz, who encouraged revolutionary Syrians to organize their communities independently from the Assadist state, and work towards advancing a social revolution.

Despite enormous challenges, Daraya’s local council has had remarkable success. It has established numerous offices to provide services to civilians, including media services, legal services and public relations (they maintain an excellent website). A relief office runs a soup kitchen which began providing three meals a day, although this frequency was reduced due to the siege. The council also tried to build self-sufficiency, growing beans, spinach and wheat. A medical office supervises the field hospital which provides for the sick and wounded. A services office is responsible for opening alternative roads when the main ones are inaccessible due to airstrikes or collapsed buildings.

The local council also aimed to unify civil and military efforts. Daraya is one of the few communities where the local Free Army brigade is part of the council’s organizational structure and subject to civil administrative control. Revolutionary women set up the Enab Baladi magazine to discuss events happening in their community and Syria more broadly and promote civil disobedience. Activists built anunderground library so residents could continue their education.

The people of Daraya have paid a heavy price for their dream of freedom. For four years they defended their autonomy from the Assadist state and kept going despite the bombing, despite the starvation siege. Their struggle will continue to be remembered and honoured by Syrian revolutionaries everywhere.

Leila Al Shami is a British Syrian who has been involved in human rights and social justice struggles in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East since 2000. She is the co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” with Robin Yassin-Kassab, and a contributor to “Khiyana-Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution”. A version of this story was originally published on her blog.

Credits:

Re-shared from Global Voices (26/08/2016)

Additional imagery taken from Leila’s original article and blog

Feature image: Poo.243 (Flickr)

‘When They Took Me Inside’ Syria’s Saydnaya Prison, ‘I Could Smell the Torture’

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Screenshot from ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International (YouTube)

Written by: Joey Ayoub

At least 17,723 Syrians have died in custody since 2011, a new damning report by the international human rights group Amnesty International has revealed. The report, entitled “‘It Breaks The Human’: Torture, Disease and Death in Syria’s Prisons”, started of with what is common knowledge by now, namely that:

Torture and other ill-treatment have been perpetrated by the Syrian intelligence services and other state forces for decades, fostered by a culture of impunity that is reinforced by Syrian legislation. However, since the current crisis in Syria began in 2011, the situation has become catastrophic, with torture committed on a massive scale.

But one particular prison highlighted by Amnesty International’s report may be the most notorious of them all. In a Facebook post, the well-known Syrian intellectual and dissident in exile Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, who has himself spent 16 years in regime prisons for being a member of a communist pro-democracy group, described it as “the most horrible place on earth”. Eyal Weizman, director of theForensic Architecture agency of Goldsmiths, University of London, even told British newspaper the Guardian “that the building is, itself, an architectural instrument of torture.”

Al-Haj Saleh and Weizman are both referring to Saydnaya prison, a military prison facility located 30 kilometers north of Damascus. It was this prison that Amnesty International attempted to expose in collaboration with Forensic Architecture and backed by first-hand testimony of 65 torture survivors.

Their accounts bear witness to some of the horrors endured by dissidents of the regime inside Saydnaya since the start of the revolution in 2011. Tales of the many methods of torture, including rape, were featured in the short documentary ‘Inside Saydnaya’ released by Amnesty International to coincide with the publication of the report.

One man, named ‘Jamal A’ by Amnesty International to protect his identity, was arrested for helping civilians displaced by the fighting and sent to Saydnaya in October 2012, where he stayed until January 2014. He recalls:

When we first arrived, they put us all in the shower [area of the cell], on top of each other. We were naked of course. My penis was touching [a fellow detainee’s] back. I got cramp and had to move my leg, and my friend took the space that I made. Then I accidentally put my foot down on his penis. He screamed. For this, they were beating us with a steel bar on the front of the palms. I had had an operation on my hand earlier, and we told them [but] they just concentrated on that spot, and beat it harder. The surgery meant that I had 10 times the pain.

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Salam featured in ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International YouTube

‘Salam’, a lawyer from Aleppo, was arrested in September 2011 and sent to Saydnaya from January 2012 to June 2014 for taking part in peaceful demonstrations. He told Amnesty International that he could ‘smell the torture’ as soon as he entered the prison:

When they took me inside the prison, I could smell the torture. It’s a particular smell of humidity, blood and sweat; it’s the torture smell. They took me three floors underground. There were seven of us after the beatings. We were taken into our cell. It was about 2.5 meters by 3 meters. There was a big wall at the end of the room with a hole. There is no shower, just a toilet. It’s dirty and wet; water is leaking from the roof of the cell. It’s totally dark; there is no light; you can’t even see the other people in the same room with you.

Another activist, ‘Shappal’, who advocated for the rights of Kurds in Syria, said he was repeatedly beaten while the guards yelled ‘Bashar is your God’, referring to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad, who has clung to power throughout the last five years of civil war:

They brought the food, but it was very little. They spent two hours beating us and saying ‘Bashar is your God’. They did the same for the detainees in the other solitary cells – we could hear them coming to us, cell by cell, and going down the row after us. Of course the other solitary [underground] cells were next to each other in a row, but the sound of beating was so loud that it could reach the sky.

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Screenshot from ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International YouTube

‘A testimony to hold the mass-murdering Syrian regime accountable’

These testimonies follow a report released by the UN Commission of Inquiry in February 2016 in which the killings of detainees occurring between 10 March, 2011 and 30 November, 2015 were examined based on 621 interviews. It concluded:

Detainees held by the Government were beaten to death, or died as a result of injuries sustained due to torture. Others perished as a consequence of inhuman living conditions. The Government has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts. Based on the same conduct, war crimes have also been committed.

In a statement released with the report, Philip Luther, the director at Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, stressed that the international community, specifically the governments of Russia and the US, must commit to ending these practices

The international community, in particular Russia and the USA, which are co-chairing peace talks on Syria, must bring these abuses to the top of the agenda in their discussions with both the authorities and armed groups and press them to end the use of torture and other ill-treatment.

Speaking to Global Voices, Yassin Swehat, a Spanish-Syrian blogger, journalist and co-founder of the commentary site Al Jumhuriya, reflected:

Although Amnesty’s report does not contain new information for Syrians who have lived and are living under the threat of arrest every day, subjected to the mechanism of authoritarianism surrounding the issue of detentions, worsened by rampant corruption (to know the prisoner’s conditions, to locate him, to deliver clothes or medicine, or to know if he’s even alive), it is a very important report that documents how the second Assad era, the era of Bashar, created its private iconic prison that followed the iconic Tadmur prison of the first Assad era, the era of [Bashar’s father] Hafez al Assad.

Unfortunately, I worry that the fate of this report will be similar to the [2014] Caesar leaks [detailing the torture and execution of prisoners by Syrian authorities], as the world proved its indifference towards human rights violations practiced by the regime and its allies.

But this report is a very important document, and will have importance in the Syrian historical memory without a doubt, and I hope that it carries legal importance one day, like a testimony to hold the mass-murdering Syrian regime accountable.

Luna Watfa, the co-founder of Woman Organization for Syrian Prisoners and a former detainee herself, who spent 13 months in Syrian government prisons, asked her Twitter followers to read Amnesty’s report:

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The Committee to Protect Journalists took this opportunity to remind us of a journalist for Palestine Today, Bilal Ahmed Bilal, who died in December 2013, nearly two years after being sent to Saydnaya:

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Credits:

Article written by: Joey Ayoub, first published via Global Voices (19/08/2016)

Feature image: Surian Soosay

 

 

Donations needed for Calais!

Stop The War Coalition along with Stand up to Racism, People’s Assembly Against Austerity, War on Want, Unite the Union, Communications Workers Union, Momentum and the Muslim Association of Britain are collecting donations and looking for volunteers for their Convoy to Calais. They are leaving next weekend.

Priority needs include: food (fresh, tinned and dried), men and teenage boys’ clothing, hygiene items and certain women’s items.

A full list is available via the PDF link below:

Convoy Donation List (please also read the sorting guidelines)

Fore more details about the convoy including the timetable and link to register click here. You can also download their leaflet here.

Salam!

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Image credit: Malachy Browne (Flickr)

Ramadan Mubarak – how to support six humanitarian causes this month

Ramadan – the holy month of fasting for Muslims worldwide – is approaching. This is a month of religious devotion, charity and remembrance of those less fortunate than ourselves. Muslims abstain from eating and drinking (amongst other activities) during daylight hours in remembrance of the poor. For many of us, no matter hungry you feel, you know you will eat at sunset. Yet imagine not having anything to break your fast with. Imagine every day being a constant struggle. Many people – Muslim and non-Muslim – around the world are suffering due to poverty, natural disaster, war, persecution and much more. In your very home town, there may be those who go to work hungry, having fed their children but gone hungry themselves as there’s not enough food to go around. You may switch on the TV and thousands of miles away you may see starving refugees fleeing war. People carry on suffering and aid donations are all the more essential, both locally and internationally. Additionally, there are various Muslim (and non-Muslim) groups who continue to be persecuted, discriminated against and even killed. Whether victims of war or persecuted religious minorities, many face difficulty in finding safe shelter and in practising their religion.

So whilst Ramadan starts and we wish fellow Muslims “Ramadan Mubarak” (Happy Ramadan), let’s remember the following people and causes (in no particular order) and call one another to action.

1. The Syrian crisis

Muslims, Christians, Yazidis… millions of Syrians have and continue to suffer due to the Syrian crisis of civil war and religious extremism. Rape, torture, starvation, bombing…the suffering is ongoing. For the displaced Syrians still inside Syria, those living in controlled areas and the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled Syria, the situation in Syria is sad, complex and shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.

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Syrian refugee – Image credit: Bengin Ahmad (Flickr)

You can help by donating money and resources to provide aid both in Syrian and in refugee camps. You can also read more about Syria through my interview with Syrian-Palestinian asylum seeker Khaled – click here.

2. The conflict in Yemen

The Saudi bombings and the Sunni-Shia conflict in Yemen – already the poorest country in the Middle East – have led to more instability for this nation in which men, women and children are continuing to suffer. The war has been going on for over a year and so far more than 3000 civilians have been killed:

[…] the conflict in Yemen […] continues to take a terrible toll, with more than 3000 civilians killed, and 5700 wounded, since it began a year ago. If the violence and fragmentation continue, the people of Yemen face a very bleak future. The war has devastated an already weak infrastructure, with multiple attacks on hospitals and schools. It has opened vast opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda and so-called ISIL to expand their grasp. Most tragically, the ongoing political unrest, violence and air strikes have created a massive humanitarian crisis. This could trigger refugee flows, further destabilising the region.

Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (10/03/2016)

The lack of public uproar against the Saudi led bombings is deafening and shocking. Innocent children are starving and the world remains shockingly quiet.

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Air strike in Sana’a (11/05/2015) – Image credit: Ibrahem Qasim (Flickr)

To get involved and help innocent Yemenis:

  • Sign the following petitions calling to end the violence: Oxfam, MoveOn
  • Donate: your help can provide essential aid for the Yemeni people

For more information on the war in Yemen, see:

3. The Palestinian crisis

Palestinians face immense ethnic, cultural and religious discrimination, manifesting itself in difficulty in attending school, water shortages, humiliation, torture and even death.

You can support the Palestinians in many ways:

  • Boycott Israeli goods and investments: brands/businesses include Nestle, Marks and Spencer, Starbucks and Coca Cola
  • Support the #CheckTheLabel campaign: make sure you check the label when buying dates to break your fast – don’t buy Israeli dates! You can order the campaign leaflets via the Friends of Al-Aqsa website to hand out at the mosque and raise awareness amongst fellow Muslims and interfaith activists when attending events etc. You can also share the message via social media – get tweeting, posting and sharing!

4. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims

Whilst the media has gone rather quiet, the persecution of the Rohingya people – “the most persecuted refugees in the world” – is ongoing. A report by The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic (Yale Law School, October 2015) concluded that the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar constitutes genocide:

The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have suffered serious and persistent human rights abuses. Myanmar authorities, security forces, police, and local Rakhine actors have engaged in widespread violence, acts of torture, arbitrary detention, rape, and other crimes causing serious physical and mental harm. The scale of these atrocities has increased precipitously since 2012. […] the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya have been confined to villages in northern Rakhine State or internally displaced persons camps. […]conditions in both northern Rakhine State and the IDP camps are dire: Rohingya lack freedom of movement, access to food, clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care, work opportunities, and education. They live in conditions that appear to have been calculated to bring about their destruction. The acts committed against the Rohingya, individually and collectively, meet the criteria for finding acts enumerated in the Genocide Convention […]

Persecution of Rohinyga Muslims: Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State? A Legal Analysis, p64

To help this persecuted minority, you can:

For more information, check out:

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Around 90,000 Rohingya’s live in cramped shelters in camps near Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine State – Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO (Flickr)

5. The oppression of Uyghur Muslims in China

China’s Muslim minority, the Uyghur community who live in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, have been facing increasing discrimination over the years. The Chinese State has banned face veils, forced certain shopkeepers to sell alcohol, introduced restrictions on beards and in the past banned fasting during the period of Ramadan. This year, the State has declared that there will be no restrictions regarding Ramadan – yet one can never tell given the secrecy and human rights abuses that go on in China.

How you can help:

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Men praying at Id Kah Mosque on Eid al Fitr – Image credit: Preston Rhea (Flickr)

6. The war in Ukraine

If you’d like to help towards the crisis in Ukraine you can:

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Image credit: Guido van Nispen (Flickr)

So there’s six causes that we are all aware of and of course there are many other worthy causes, many groups facing persecution and many more campaigns and petitions. This is simply a brief guide to current urgent and perhaps not so well publicised causes which we can all help towards.

So – brothers and sisters in Islam: Ramadan Mubarak!

And to all readers: check out the tips and get going!

Salam!

 

Image credit:

Feature image: Amila Tennakoon (Flickr)

“I just want to be seen as a normal human being and respected” – an interview with Palestinian-Syrian asylum seeker Khaled

IMG_1321.JPGI recently had the honour of meeting Khaled – a Palestinian-Syrian asylum seeker living here in Málaga.

Khaled – 44 years old – is a sculptor, previous owner of his own factory, trained psychologist and human rights activist active in Syria. Khaled used to live in Yarmouk (in the south of Damascus) in Yarmouk Camp – a refugee camp for Palestinians in Syria. Khaled is now living as an asylum seeker here in Málaga (southern Spain) after leaving Syria in November 2015.

As a Palestinian refugee in Syria and human rights activist, Khaled had a lot to say on the war, sectarianism, life as a refugee and life in Syria.

Human rights in Syria

Khaled is originally Palestinian and comes from a large family. His parents fled Palestine to Syria – where Khaled was born – when the state of Israel was created. For the last three years his nephew has been imprisoned in Syria for helping protesters in demonstrations which started in his city Daraa. They visited him after two years and he is now condemned to stay in prison forever. His brother with his wife, their little baby and mother-in-law are under embargo by the Syrian regime.

When I ask Khaled about campaigning with NGOs around human rights issues, he makes it perfectly clear of the oppression in Syria:

In Syria, there isn’t such humanitarian activism because it’s oppressed by the regime but there are lawyers who are active, such as Michael Shamas – he is a very very good man. […] There is also a famous humanitarian activist his name is Khalil Maatouk – he contributed a lot towards humanitarian issues in Syria but unfortunately right now he’s been imprisoned by the Syrian regime for more than two years. There are a lot of lawyers, a lot of activists but there activism is very limited because of the amount of repression.

Even being a family member of somebody who’s in prison or being associated with somebody who’s in prison makes you subject to harassment. In Khaled’s own words: “Society was highly manipulated with sophisticated political and social tools, for example there are 12 universities and there are 16 security departments around the universities.” However, people were “conscious”. The massacre in the city of Hamah in 1982 resulted in the death of 50,000 people. A lack of social media at the time has meant that this went largely unpublicised:

The people of Hamah so far are still scared, traumatised due to the experience they had. At that time it was Margaret Thatcher in government and […] the international community didn’t react at all.  [… ] All they had were economic sanctions – an economic embargo for a certain time.

Thanks to social media people have been able to raise awareness of human rights abuses – something Khaled did himself. However, people remain oppressed, threatened and scared.

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A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the rubbish in al-Qsair (10/02/2012) (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

Syria and the Palestinian issue

What is particularly shocking regarding human rights in Syria is the way that Palestinian refugees are treated in Syria. When I asked Khaled about the approach of the government and if they had been welcomed it became clear that the government had an agenda. Whilst he found that Syrian people were originally welcoming on a social level, the government exploited the Palestinian issue:

[…]  Whenever they had economic problems, they would use the Palestinian issue as a justification to silence people. They would tell them […]: “We’re not providing you with enough jobs or with enough socio-economic solutions because we are contributing a lot to free Palestine” which is a total lie. They are not doing anything for the Palestinian issue. They convince ordinary people. They blame all their problems on Palestinians. […] The numbers of Palestinians in Syria are manipulated by the government […]. They claim that they have two million Palestinian refugees

According to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, there are 526, 744 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria (and Palestinian refugees within other Arab states – see here for more information). Not only are Palestinian refugees limited in terms of future job potential but also in socio-cultural terms. This is an issue across the Middle East, when sadly one would expect brotherhood:

[…] Palestinians in Egypt […] don’t have the right to say “We are Palestinians”. They have been told, “As long as you’re here to have to say ‘I’m Egyptian'”. You don’t have the right to be Palestinian. And in Lebanon […] they are not entitled to do certain jobs. For example, you cannot be a doctor. They are limited; they have a quota. They can do only 70 specific jobs/professions.

In Syria, even after 50 years they cannot vote or run as candidates in elections. Palestinian refugees are not even given citizenship. Khaled shows me his Syrian Palestinian refugee travel document. He’s legal but he’s not Syrian – and that’s the way the Syrian government wants it: “People are not aware of the issue of Palestinian refugees at all. It’s a structured aimed ignorance that the government wants everybody to forget about them. Moist of the people wonder that a Palestinian is doing here […]”. Any hope of a brotherhood of Arab states is a fail – which Khaled refers to as not fully fledged states but simply “gangs of mafia” who came to power with force after the former colonial powers of Britain and France quickly left. Yet despite all of this, Khaled sees himself as Palestinian-Syrian and Syria is his home.

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Yarmouk (Damascus) – (c) 2013 EC/ECHO/Dina Baslan (Flickr) (CC)

Sectarianism and conflict

Despite the obstacles facing Palestinian refugees in Syria, Khaled says he had a good life in Syria before the war. Khaled left Syria due to war. He – like the others feeling conflict and oppression by both ISIS and/or the Assad regime – is not seeking money, but simply peace, security and a better life. Khaled had been offered a way out of Syria when he participated in a language exchange with other Europeans but rejected this. Back in Syria he had a stable life, friends and family and in fact; he didn’t want to go. Post 9/11 he felt how anyone from “The East” was given the tag of “terrorist” – for every Arab, even those who are “tolerant or the most peaceful of people”. He enjoyed his life in Syria and was fully integrated into a society which boasted around 72 minorities – including the Alawi, Druze, Shia and Kurdish populations – in which everyone lived peacefully and cohesively. Yet such a  diverse rich nation became married by sectarianism – the most horrible of which Khaled confirms was of the Alawis who controlled the system. The “Godfather” was Hafed Al Assad:

Before he came to the regime, the level of or the ratio of corruption was a certain percent and when he came to power it became 98%. He got rid of anything to do with transparency or with fairness or justice and the government is literally just full of Alawis – people from his sect. […] There is corruption […] in different European countries, but the level of corruption in Syria and the Alawi system was so high.

Notwithstanding the vast religious diversity in Syria, this was not a religiously motivated conflict. Before the onset of war, around 10 families (not the Alawi population as a whole) were “taking advantage of this situation and taking advantage of their family member being in the regime” – including the al-Bayt family (equivalent to The Rothschilds). As a Palestinian refugee, Khaled did not witness sectarianism in mainstream schools as Palestinians were segregated from primary school until university. At university they were finally merged together. Khaled admits there was segregation but “it was hidden. People didn’t know. It was not expressed.”

Educated people outside of the elite introduced activities to try and combat such sectarianism and division. Khaled belonged to “Towasil” (‘Continue‘) – a group which would organise team building activities for people from different religious backgrounds, including walks in the mountains. This was a great “bonding” initiative to break down barriers between people. Even within the working class there were many initiatives but such sectarianism came to light with the outbreak of war which became further manipulated by the political system: “Bashar Assad is very intelligent in his game and he knew how to manipulate”. Going back to the sources of different sects, religious preachers did not preach unity. We all know in history how easy it is for differences – no matter how small or large – to be exploited for power and towards the oppression of others.

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Mazzeh 86 neighbourhood (23/11/2012) – a bomb went off in a mostly Alawite area according to the regime (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

From protests to war

A politically corrupt system engulfed by a religious sect, economic and social inequality and a dictator able to manipulate sects and citizens against one another, stirred conflict within Syria, which was later marred by Islamic extremists. As socio-economic political demonstrations started, the government’s response encouraged protests to become a full scale revolution and war. Khaled was more than clear in his desire as a human rights activist to express the fact that the initial protests were not an attempt to overthrow the regime:

It started totally as a civil revolution, social, economic […] innocent, peaceful […]. Then the regime started oppressing […] shooting down the protesters. I was one of the participants in the revolution. I was arrested and held for four months. I was hit [Khaled shows where his missing teeth have been replaced with small dentures]. I was beaten and tortured. […] The intention of the revolution was not to overthrow the system but just to make major economic political reforms and it started first in Daraa […] What happened is because of the level of control of the system and using the security system to control every small detail in people’s lives. It got to the level that [nobody] would trust the other. They would always feel suspicious that probably one of them is a spy or works as a security agent. [..] Kids were kidnapped […] and their nails were cut off. They were tortured. When the parents went to […] bring them back, the security officials said “we are not going to give you your kids back, bring us your wives […] then we will give you your kids again.”. So people felt so humiliated, so oppressed, they revolted – they had to revolt.

As Syrians witnessed but the Tunisian Revolution, within the context of the Arab Spring, Syrians fought back against their own injustices. Khaled recalls how they symapathised with the people and supported the revolutions and toppling of the regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Yet what people may not be aware of is that before the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, there as the Rabi’a Damasq – the Damascus Spring:

In 1988/89 there was a left wing party started to develop and I was part of it. It was a communist party but it was also oppressed by the regime – a lot of people were killed. There were also individual cases and kidnappings. On an individual level […] it was  not recorded because there were no humanitarian NGOs at that time in Syria. A family member of mine was kidnapped 30 years ago. He disappeared. We know nothing about him up to now. This is in the time of Hafez Al Assad- the father of Bashar. When Bashar came into the system he was so young – he changed the constitution to suit his political ambitions. At that time there was a political uprising – the Rabi’a Damasq […] People protested against Bashar Al Assad because the way he took the regime was illegitimate – it was not constitutional. […].  Bashar […] waited until it calmed down then he kidnapped most of the people – the leaders of that movement against him.

Such family style dictatorships are spread across the MENA region – hotbeds of corruption and nepotism: “Rami Makhlouf [part of Assad’s mafia – his cousin from his mother’s side] makes decisions in every small detail. […] It got to the level that you couldn’t breathe without his consent.” This small family – in effect a “gang” – were “taking control over everything.” We’ve all heard the expression: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”- well all the more here. Khaled informed me about a sculpting competition in Damascus which he participated in. Those who stood a chance of winning were those who had contacts and knew people working within the system.

In other words, the reality was this: deep nepotism vs. frustration and inequality. We all saw how quickly such reforms led in to a full scale war. As the Syrians took the opportunity of the Arab Spring to start their own reforms, I asked Khaled if he believes whether the war would have started had there not have been an Arab Spring elsewhere: “The components and factors of the revolution were already there. Maybe it would have started but it would have taken a long time – longer”. Longer – in light of a deep prolonged conflict – is definitely what describes the sad reality of the crisis in Syria today…

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A house destroyed by a Syrian army tank shell in Al Qsair (25/01/2012) (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

ISIS and Islamic extremism

One element intertwined with sectarianism and the war in Syria is the emergence of ISIS (a.k.a. Daesh). Khaled assures me that the revolution was purely political, social and economic but later exploited by Islamic extremists. What started as a legitimate movement later became an “extremist movement”. He is particularly keen to explain that ISIS is a result of the war not the other way round: “There is still a legitimate position but nobody cares about it and all that we see in the media are the extremist groups and now anything to do with such positions is labelled as extremism.” In fact, when I asked him if he expected the war to get this far, he explains how he didn’t and that it was with the involvement of extremist groups that the future started to look bleaker:

[…] As soon as Al Nusra and Daesh […] started rising I knew that it would get this way. The reason we had jihadi and extremist groups is because the international community and the West betrayed the Syrian revolution. They saw and they witnessed that the regime was oppressing the revolution in the most horrible ways. I even witnessed some of that. […] One of the parents saw […] their son being killed in front of them and then the body was used as a trap to get people to go there to pick it up. So you’d go and pick up that dead body – […] you’d be shot by a sniper and killed. There were even gang rapes where they [Alawi groups] would bring Sunni girls to a public place and rape them.

So you think that you were betrayed because the international community did nothing? How did they betray you?

Yes, it’s because of the negative and passive way in which the international community reacted. They didn’t even respond – they didn’t care about what was going on. They saw the videos, they saw the pictures but nobody wanted to support them so that’s how it got to the extreme level. The revolution was manipulated and they stared using Allah and the word of jihad – giving people hope.

Khaled is pessimistic about the war and whether it will even come to an end at all. He doesn’t believe that anyone intends to “come to a peaceful resolution” and is particularly conscious of the lack of action or “good intention” on behalf of the US and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of the countries supplying arms to ISIS.

The backing of ISIS by foreign nations is not the only shocking disappointment. What is particularly disturbing is the number young Europeans and non-Europeans travelling to Syria to join ISIS. Young, naive, bitter or misguidedly enthusiastic, these jihadists – young and old, male and female – believe they are entering an Islamic utopia or the land where they can fulfil their religious duties and make a difference for the Islamic ummah (community). The reality is that they fuel, support and even engage in rape, torture, slavery, murder and barbarity. Once you are these it’s very hard to escape. Even if you do, you’ve pretty much ruined your life and hopes of a future back home. I asked Khaled what would he say to young jihadists – young Europeans wanting to go to Syria. This was his reply:

Integrate into society – going there is not a solution. You’ll be treated like animals. You’ll be brainwashed. You’ll be dumped.

Indeed, your life is over. Behind the eyes of these lost souls or barbaric animals, they are dead inside. Being in tune with humanity, with Allah, with good; one cannot live such life. Muslim and non-Muslim communities need to engage and work back home and not keeping fuelling the fire back in Syria. Jihadists go, whilst refugees come for a better life. There could not be a simply clearer message. Khaled, like myself, believes that to defeat ISIS, you have to go back to the roots and know the causes: “It’s not an action – it’s a reaction” as Khaled so rightly sums up. Indeed, I agree with him that there are multiple factors – as is visible from the variety and diversity of its members. Where social economic hardship lies, lie the seeds to brainwash and manipulate young naive Muslims. One thing for sure, is that bombing Syria will not achieve anything – which Khaled affirms himself: “If the “solution” for extremism and terrorism is going to be just with bombing and such military interventions; well I don’t believe that this is a solution. It will never end”.

Whilst many Europeans are concerned about the threat of ISIS on European shores, as a refugee, Khaled is clear to reiterate that integrating and understanding individuals are key. He sees refugees frustrated and depressed with the six months waiting time for papers. Amongst cultural differences, new freedoms and social norms, he believes refugees’ talents should be “cherished” and assistance should be given to help refugees contribute towards the overall progression of society:

ISIS is an idea. It manipulates people through their fears – the fear of death. I didn’t come here to get cars, to get girls.

So for lack of a better word, you feel a bit dumped and isolated?

It’s a ghetto. In the Arab world, people are sociable. You’ve got your neighbours, you’ve got your family […]. So far I didn’t see any, but there is racism. In my case, because I’m conscious and aware of things; I could never be radicalised. In other situations, there are people who could even be a project of a terrorist.

As a refugee, Khaled has been looked at with suspicion but the idea of ISIS members coming over to Europe is simply scaremongering: “ISIS members would never come here. They have a better life than any European”. It has already been proven that videos with so-called refugees chanting “Allahu akbar” and rallies in the streets are lies as they are misrepresentations or the result of edited material. It is indeed jumping on the scaremongering wagon – just like the Cologne story as Khaled points out.

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ISIS (Credit: Day Donaldson – Flickr – CC)

From one country to another – Khaled’s refugee journey 

As originally Palestinian, Khaled’s journey is an interesting one. Khaled lived in Syria as a Palestinian refugee and was living in southern Damascus – an area under embargo by both the Syrian government and the Shia militia. There were only two ways to get out: either you go to security officials and gave information about the opposition (revealing names of people they would later shoot) or you bribe your way out. Khaled paid a million Syrian Lira to an army official to let him out. Once you’re out though, you face being killed or arrested by other security personnel. Khaled hid in Damascus for 12 days in the officer’s house before the officer took him to the airport and directly on to a plane heading to Algeria, where his mother had fled to before her son. One of Khaled’s brothers is also now living in Holland and another in Libya is hoping to leave with his son and daughter. Algeria as it stood was the only option open to Khaled offered by the security official. On the other end, other people weren’t as fortunate as Khaled. He told me about one of his friends who went missing:

Nerez Sayed is a Syrian journalist. He’s famous. I know him, he is my friend. I […] used to take photos and videos and upload them onto social media to raise awareness with the international community and to show the real picture […]. My friend tried to do the same thing . He hid for two months in Damascus. He was then kidnapped and arrested. I don’t know where he is now.

Khaled had managed to escape a war zone of oppression and misery. He told me that he felt like it was a “miracle” when he left Syria. Yet, he found the treatment and facilities in Algeria lacking. Just like the disappointment of Arab so-called Arab “brotherhood” regarding Palestinians, he was met with suspicion in Algeria: “I always felt under control in Algeria. My family was always under control. Always under suspicion. But not in your face.” His mother – aged 75 – had already been there for three years and “was not being looked after very well”. As a result they left – in his words – “to go to a better place, where there was a good health system , where we could lead a good life.” Feeling concerned about the Algerian government, he did not apply for asylum:

I didn’t even go to the authorities. I was worried. I didn’t feel alright. I know that the Algerian system is pro the Syrian regime. I knew that there was even cooperation between both armies.

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Khaled’s journey (Original map credit: Namelesss23)

So, a month after he arrived, Khaled and his mother crossed the border into Nador into neighbouring Morocco where they were met with hostility by the Moroccan security forces:

I hated the experience in Morocco because the Moroccan security officer treated us really badly and he was telling us: “What are you doing here? Why don’t you go back?” I even heard him talking about giving orders to one of his soldiers to just go and get rid of us [kill us]. I told myself: why doesn’t the world care about us? Our blood is no longer valued. Nobody cares about us. […] We don’t mean anything to the world…

From the hostility in Morocco, they left Nador and fled to Melilla – where they were then officially on EU soil and that’s where his Spanish journey began. After staying in a refugee centre in Melilla, he was later brought to Málaga –  where he is currently based.

Living as an asylum seeker in Spain and beyond

Khaled’s story is one of suppression and shock, yet survival. From the miracle of leaving Syria, where civilians had to eat cats and leaves to survive and the population faced political persecution, Khaled told me of his disappointment:

I’m totally disappointed with getting to Europe. I feel like I’ve lost 44 years of my life in Syria. I didn’t come here for money. I already had money in my country. I came here to be valued as a human being to feel safe to feel secure but unfortunately I still have to prove that I’m not a terrorist. I still have to always be under check and control. I still have to prove that I’m a human being. I thought that I would come here to contribute towards society, to be part of society – to be an active part of  society – but unfortunately in this so-called “developed European society” that made technology, that had The Renaissance, that had this and that – all that I see is total disappointment. […] I love Spain, I love Britain. I didn’t come here to beg or to ask for money – I just want a better life; a safer life, a peaceful life.

That is the reality of refugees and asylum seekers. Regardless of what the media says about the “boat people” and “(economic) migrants” and the stretching of our resources – these people are human beings who simply want respect, peace, security and stability – a life like many of us have. Khaled after his experiences in Syria and Algeria, came to Spain as the closet European country and a country which he loves, where he doesn’t feel “foreign” or “strange” as he finds Spain similar to his own country within the Mediterranean bracket. People take note of this. Syria is not a million miles away – it’s simply another country like ours. Spain is beyond similar to a variety of North African and Middle Eastern countries – except that in Europe we are offered a greater deal of social, economic, religious, cultural, and political freedom and security. What is sad is that Khaled found the Spanish authorities more welcoming than in other fellow Arab countries. However, despite the warm welcome, they are rather disengaged and apathetic here in Spain. His brother in Holland is very well integrated – but is engaged in doing so. His mother in Germany has not been affected by racism, but a friend in Eastern Germany has.

In terms of entitlements, he is provided with food, drink, a room he shares and €30 per month. When I asked him about the refugee centre where he stays, he confirmed that there is no prayer room but halal food is available for Muslims. So far, he states his experience is positive and he is happy with his treatment there despite the lack of engagement. Those living in the centre get on well and there is a sense of community among refugees and, Spanish people have been kind. The only obstacle is language which is hindering socialising with locals but there are four Spanish classes a week and Khaled also goes to another school. CEAR – the organisation which accommodates refugees here in Spain offers language classes as well as the governmental  Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (EOI) here in Málaga as well. Activities are run with refugees and Spaniards offering excursions around the city, yet when I ask Khaled who he spends most time with his answer is… himself. With his mother and sister in Germany, alongside other family members abroad – the life of a refugee can be lonely.

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Life as an asylum seeker without your family can be lonely (Credit: daniMU – Flickr – CC)

With any luck, Khaled will be reunited with his loved ones in the not too distant future. As soon as he gets his papers, his dream is to work for a humanitarian NGO and help refugees perhaps in Germany or in Turkey. He already has several years’ experience in NGOs and I can see his passion for helping others. He needs to stay in Spain as he is hoping to marry his Palestinian girlfriend who is a refugee from Jordan living in Syria. She has no papers – not even a travel document to prove her identity. In the meantime, as he waits for his papers, he describes the experience of being an asylum seeker as boring on a day to day basis. In his spare time Khaled loves reading and downloads books on his phone.

As anyone would hope, his long term hope if for the war to end and to be able to return to Syria. Despite the anti-refugee pleas, he makes it abundantly clear that Syrians are not here not to drain the system: “I’m sure that if the war ends, the international community will be surprised by the Syrians – that they will not have to kick them out, that they will go themselves to their land, to their country to rebuild it and to help its progression for the better. Khaled does not want to be seen as a “victim”. As a Palestinian Syrian he has witnessed things many of us take for granted but all he wants is to be respected, to be seen and treated as a normal human being and to be a able to live a decent life:

I blame all this situation not just on the Syrian war but as a Palestinian; I blame it on Israel because they are the reason behind my family and I going to Syria – living as a refugee in Syria and then coming here, living as a refugee here. I don’t want any material compensation. I want emotional compensation because I felt humiliated [..] for the suffering. the frustration I felt. […]

Do you see an end to the oppression… of the Palestinian people in the near future?

No solution. I don’t like playing the victim role. I just want to be a normal human […]. Respected.

So there we have it – so many issues and it’s in our hands to help as much as we can.

Building bridges – how can we help?

Whilst we all hope for peace in Syria and (I would hope) freedom for the Palestinian people, in the meantime – what can we do to help? For those in a similar situation to Khaled and locals, what can be done to create a better environment? For those wanting to help refugees and asylum seekers in their country, Khaled suggests cultural exchanges – exchanging national dishes and languages. I’m a firm advocate of such activities. Even amongst a climate of racism and Islamophobia here in Spain, people love couscous. Look at how the Balti in Birmingham forged a new British culture in which British Asians are just as British as a family with no migrant history. Beyond socio-cultural exchanges, we can do a lot to help the crisis: “Raise more awareness, be more sympathetic, because they ignored it [the war] for a long time – this is how it ended up, people coming here, flooding in”.

If you’d like to help with the Syrian refugee crisis locally or internationally, here are some suggestions:

  • Volunteer with local, national or international refugee and asylum seeker organisations – lend your time and skills. There is a great need for ESOL teachers, translators/interpreters, immigration specialists and medical personnel
  • If you are a linguist: join Translators without Borders
  • If you are a medical professional: get in touch with Doctors without Borders
  • If you are a professional counsellor or medical professional: get in touch with bodies which offer health care for those who’ve suffered trauma. In the UK for example, try Freedom from Torture
  • Get involved with groups going over to and helping in Calais – or further afield – Google and search via Facebook and Twitter, including the likes of CalAid for example
  • Donate to relevant NGOs working in your area or abroad: in the UK check out Refugee ActionIslamic Relief (UK, USA, Spain, Italy) and many more
  • Take part in or start your own food or donation bank/collection including your family, friends and other members of the community to give to Syrian refugees within your own country or abroad (this could include money, clothes, shoes, toiletries, maternity and baby items, children’s toys etc.)
  • Raise awareness: blog, tweet, post, lobby, petition, join or build workshops, conferences etc. – raise your voice
  • Check out groups and pages such as Free Syria Media Hub (caution is advised due to the photography) sign their petition to stop the bombing
  • Start a language/cultural exchange or buddy scheme in your area to welcome refugees – swap English for Arabic or bring your own national dishes (be careful of halal food requirements etc.- halal meat only, fish or vegetarian dishes otherwise, no alcohol – particular caution should be taken to avoid all forms of gelatine)

To help the Palestinian cause:

  • See the above activities and suggestions – most of these are also worthwhile e.g. donating, volunteering, raising awareness
  • For relevant NGOs and bodies see here
  • Join the boycott Israel BDF movement: avoid brands and shops such as Marks & Spencer, Nestlé and all forms of travel to Israel (for a more information click here)

If you’d like to help Khaled:

  • Khaled is looking for donations of art materials (for sculpting/painting). For more information, including photos of his art work, see here

So, there’s lots we can do in practical terms, but something I’d like to finish with is this: talk, befriend and build bridges, respect differences. See the commonalities and celebrate positive differences! It’s what makes the world interesting! As we finished the interview, I asked Khaled if he had  a message for the Spanish government or European people and he definitely does! His message is one of  peace, community and social cohesion:

Just to understand refugees and to not see that the opposition in Syria is just jihadist  – there is a real neutral opposition. I believe that there should be more dialogue between the two sides- the East and the West. They need to find a common  ground for them both, to understand each other and to get closer.

An important message that I for one definitely agree with. Let us reach out and remember that we are all HUMAN. Khaled could be your brother, your father, your uncle, your cousin… You don’t choose where you are born but you can choose what you do in life -where you go and what you do to help others.

Salam!

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Ahlan wa sahlan! (Welcome!) (Credit: opposition24.de – Flickr – CC)

Acknowledgments:

I’d like to thank Khaled for taking the time to do this interview and I wish him all the very best in the future.

Thanks also go to my interpreter and all those who helped to arrange this interview.

Image credit:

Feature image – Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘 (Flickr) (CC)