One day, the war in Syria will end and its society will have to rebuild. The stories of its ordinary citizens show that there is a way forwardby Sameer Rahim / January 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Think of Syria and what comes to mind is a stream of gruesome images: the ruined streets of Aleppo, bombed into the dust by Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies; the grotesque spectacles served up by Islamic State (IS); the dead children, the destroyed hospitals and the tide of refugees—whether victims of the regime or the rebel forces which have, at times, also unleashed indiscriminate violence. Even as yet another ceasefire is announced, this time brokered by Russia and Turkey, it broke down within hours.
But when I think of Syria, I remember voices speaking in a melodious Levantine dialect—greeting, inquiring, joking, discussing. When I was a teenager, my parents ran tourist trips to the Middle East, and I visited Syria half-a-dozen times. I returned in my mid-twenties to study Arabic at Damascus University and travelled all over the country, including the (now ruined) antiquities of Palmyra and the bustle of ancient (and latterly besieged) Homs. I developed a strong affection for the country’s mosaic of cultures, epitomised by the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, built on the ruins of a Roman temple and the Christian mausoleum of St John the Baptist. Most of all, though, I loved the people I met, with their humbling hospitality, quiet dignity and that accent I loved to imitate.
Yet now it seems we can only see Syrians as either crazed killers or helpless victims. Not only is that a gross distortion, but it stops us from making sense of how Syria lapsed into its current disaster—and how it might emerge from it. I wanted to bring the voices of ordinary Syrians back into their country’s tale and allow them to tell their own stories. So in September, I headed to the refugee camps in Lebanon with my wife Nabeelah Jaffer, also a journalist.
We had been invited by Rouba Mhaissen, a 28-year-old Syrian-Lebanese woman who heads the refugee charity SAWA for Development and Aid, which helps thousands of people with food, water, shelter, education and health in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Mhaissen made a speech at the Syria conference in London last February berating Ban Ki-moon, then UN Secretary General, which went viral among Syrians. She wanted to show us the reality of life in a refugee camp. “People aren’t just numbers,” she said, “we see them as human beings, not just as beneficiaries.”