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 / 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.”
What we heard from the refugees were traumatic memories of loved ones lost and grinding hardship in the camps; but there were also stories of survival, empowerment and common purpose. In fact, the camps were in many ways models of the co-operative society under a benign authority that Syrians were aspiring to create when they rose up against Assad. It seems a far-off prospect, but one day Syrian society will have to rebuild. Some of the people in these camps will play a part in that renewal and to listen to their voices is to glimpse the future of Syria.
Bar Elias is a pollution-choked Lebanese town half-an-hour’s drive from the Syrian border. Behind the main streets are tracts of fallow land that Lebanese farmers rent out to refugees for $80 a month. Wooden structures covered with tarpaulin run round the fields marked with the logos of the organisation or country that donated them: the UNHCR, Germany and, on a black wheelie bin, the UK.
The experience of Syrians arriving here is shaped by the attitudes of their Lebanese hosts, which are decidedly mixed. For idealistic young locals—like SAWA officer and Bar Elias native, 23-year old Doha Adi—the side of the border people hailed from made little difference. “Growing up,” she said, “if you wanted to have some fun you didn’t go to Beirut, you went to Damascus. It’s a very similar culture: members of my family are Syrian.” Other Lebanese, however, feel divided. “I half hate them and I half love them,” said our driver Ziad, a baseball-cap wearing heavy metal fan, who sped us from Beirut to the Bekaa. He sympathised with the refugees but still resented the Syrian occupation of his country, which only ended in 2005. He worried, too, that the sheer numbers—officially 1.5m but more likely two million—would destabilise his country’s fragile political balance.
Anthony, the owner of an electronics company in a mountain village, shed light on the unhappiness of local workers. Officially, Syrians don’t have the right to work, though many do so on the black market. Anthony boasted how he could hire Syrian labour for $25-$30 per day—half the usual price—with free rein to “lay them off.” But when he rented his basement to Syrians, “at first there were only three or four, but then 10 and then 14. We had to tell them to leave.”
Halfway through 2015, the Lebanese government pressured the UN into halting the registration of new refugees who arrived in the country. This meant that all new Syrian arrivals were denied official refugee status and the small UN stipend that comes with it. Many such “illegals” are subject to police harassment, and often need to scramble together the money to bail out a family member from prison.
Ahmed was lucky to arrive from Syria when the UN was still registering. A wizened Bedouin in a red-checked scarf, he invited us into his tent. The place resembled a typical Syrian home: the front room was bordered with striped cushions. Ahmed’s wife brought us a tray of thick Turkish coffee. A fuzzy television played the news from Syria—none of it good.
Ahmed and his family had been in Bar Elias for four years. Originally he was from Homs, where life had been “sweet.” When the Syrian regime besieged the rebel-held city in 2012, he feared that his children—six boys and four girls—might get caught up in the violence. “Already they were seeing things that no children should see,” he said. He raised $500 and took his family across the border. His family survives on charity from the UN ($27 per person, per month), and his children go to the nearby camp school.
He was proud to have been appointed his area’s shawish or leader. SAWA encourages Syrians to take up such roles, to maintain some autonomy in a situation where it would be easy to sink into total dependence. His job is to prepare for the coming snow. “Sometimes the tents collapse during the winter,” Ahmed said. “There is no running water—there are tanks for drinking water. It’s a really harsh life.” Yet his dedication to his task showed the kind of committment to civic society that Syria will need when the conflict ends.
As we left the tent, Ahmed’s eight-year-old daughter Nadwa shyly said hello. She was joined by her headmaster, Sami, an avuncular man in a blue short-sleeved shirt. “What’s your favourite subject?” asked Nabeelah. “English,” she replied. “Of course she will say that,” said Sami, who teaches her the subject.
Education is an urgent priority. Many children in Bar Elias have lost three or four years of schooling. Lebanese schools are expensive (we heard the figure of $1,500 a year) and taught in English and French, while Syrian education is in Arabic. To help the children make the transfer, the charity has set up an “educational support centre” for pupils up to 13, though the authorities don’t allow its courses to be accredited. “The centre was once a tent,” Sami proudly explained, “and now it’s a rented building. It’s official, solid, suitable for a human being.” He stresses to his mainly Syrian teachers that the illusion of normality is important, “from a psychological view as well as an educational one.”
Art therapy and counselling are available for the children. “Some of them have seen horrible things,” said Sami. “Their games are all about war: ‘I killed you, I killed you!’” Many families have smartphones, a precious link to relatives back home—but they also get images of slaughter which, Sami feared, would traumatise the children a second time round: “Even if we have a ceasefire the war will continue in people’s minds.”
The teachers have tried to make the classrooms as welcoming as possible for the troubled pupils, putting up colourful posters and sorting out proper desks and chairs. On the first floor assembly hall, we saw the props for a show. Sami playfully put a paper crown on Nabeelah’s head and insisted that I take a picture. For a moment, we could have been in any school.
In his office, Sami offered us cold water and saj—a hot, cheesy sandwich that sustained me during my Arabic classes in 2006. He grew up in the Syrian city of Daraa. After studying education in the capital, he worked as a journalist for a government agency and spent time in Saudi Arabia, before moving back to Daraa and taking a job with the exam board. “There was no poverty in my area,” said Sami, whose cheerful energy was infectious. “I had a good job, I had a wonderful house. I left Syria two years ago only because of… some problems.” He was hesitant to go into details.
Just then his assistant Mohammed came in. Sami cajoled him into telling us his story. A handsome, lightly-bearded 23-year-old, Mohammed came to Lebanon three years earlier with his mother and seven siblings. His father was a builder, Mohammed said, and had nothing to do with the opposition. But travelling back to his home city of Homs from Aleppo, he was stopped at a checkpoint and taken by the regime. Despite paying thousands of dollars in bribes, the family had no idea if he was still alive.
His father’s disappearance was the last straw. Homs was under siege, and Mohammed was part of a team rescuing people from destroyed buildings and ferrying the injured to hospital. “I had kids dying in my arms as I carried them,” he said quietly, recalling that their skin was burning from phosphorus bombs. He had mopped blood from the floor of a hospital bombed by the Russians. “That dog-man Lavrov,” said Sami, referring to Moscow’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. “They say they are killing Daesh [IS] but they are just killing the Syrian people.”
IS is the focus of western attention but in Sami’s view “Daesh is nothing… we are facing terrorist militias, Iranian intervention, Russia.” Mohammed followed up: “You know the Syrian people,” he said to me, “they are friendly and welcoming, they don’t have these ideas of Daesh.”
Mohammed’s biggest fear was being conscripted into the Syrian Army. “I left because I didn’t want to be a killer,” he said. He had hoped to become an engineer, but his education was on hold so he could support his family. His wife was about to give birth but because healthcare is so expensive in Lebanon, she had returned to Homs. The city was now mainly peaceful, he explained, and women on their own could get through checkpoints. Still, it was risky. We heard stories that women were being kidnapped by the army to force their husbands and sons to fight for Assad.
Thousands of Syrians—mainly young men—have risked their lives to reach the west. But Mohammed wasn’t interested. “Instead of taking us to Canada and Germany, I hope the leaders of the world will help bring about a ceasefire in Syria,” he said, although he was quick to add thanks to “Mr Justin Trudeau and Mrs Angela Merkel for the help they have given our people.”
Mohammed had learned new skills in Bar Elias. Through a camp project that refashions old tin cans into jewellery to be sold in posh Beirut boutiques, he had discovered a talent for designing bracelets and necklaces. Doha told us the boutiques were astonished by his creations. Mohammed now trains others in this art, which is at once a creative outlet and a source of income. It also encourages camaraderie. Many who have lost relatives forge close friendships here. “Mohammed considers me like his father,” Sami said. “Although God willing he will soon see him.”
Later, when we spoke to him alone, Sami said he might be moving to Australia: his cousin was raising the $20,000 demanded by its points-based immigration system. But it was an agonising decision. He did not want to leave his school. His mother had died three weeks earlier and he had not been present to bury her. He showed me a picture of his village on his phone—not the trashed war zone it had become, but from a time when the olive trees still flourished in clean courtyards. His screensaver was a map of his country with the word “mother” in Arabic. “Syria is now my mother,” he said.
Sara got straight to the point: “OK. First of all, my husband is dead.” She spoke in a calm, matter-of-fact tone, occasionally tucking strands of hair beneath her brightly patterned headscarf. A striking woman in her mid-thirties, Sara is one of Sami’s teachers. Two years earlier, she had been living in a village near Damascus with her husband and two children. She had liked teaching in a primary school, but shifted her focus to her son and daughter when they came along; her husband Murad supplied farmers with feed and machinery. After the war began, she hid her children at the back of the house during bombing raids.
She remembered with burning clarity the moment she heard about her husband’s death. Standing at her kitchen window, she saw her brother-in-law hugging her cousin. “What’s going on?” she said. “Go inside, Sara,” he said, but she refused and he had to tell her Murad had been struck by a bomb while working in the fields. She paused her story. “Maybe this is the first time I have talked about my husband dying,” she told us, “but people need to understand that this is real people, real lives, real situations.”
Sara decided to join her parents in Lebanon. Her in-laws put her in touch with a people smuggler. Too distraught to take care of her children, she sent them ahead with a friend also going across the border and joined a group of 30 making the arduous night-time trip through the mountains. “Imagine a steep slope,” she said. “You’re walking down a tiny path and on one side is a river and waterfall. The moon was shining so brightly.” We asked if she had been worried about getting caught. “Maybe I was shocked. Maybe I fooled myself. I don’t know why but I couldn’t stop laughing.” After eight hours, she slipped out of Syria.
That was two-and-a-half years ago. Sara showed us Murad’s picture. Nabeelah asked if she looked at it often. “No, only sometimes,” she said, briskly putting it away. “Nowadays, I don’t have the time.” She resisted any appearance of victimhood, focusing on practical obstacles rather than dwelling on her emotions. “It became more difficult because I had the responsibility of two children.” As well as working full time at the school, she has a second teaching job. She lives in a caravan shared with her parents and children about 20 minutes from Bar Elias.
It is far from easy being a single woman in the camps. Men are a source of trouble—both Syrian and Lebanese—and a few have sent Sara inappropriate messages or harassed her. Widows are stigmatised as loose women. The pressure of living in the camps has broken down the taboos and religious boundaries that once offered some protection.
Desperate parents are marrying off their daughters—and sons—at 13 or 14. One 17-year-old boy Sara knew married a 15-year-old, divorced her within a year, and married another girl. “In my village we didn’t see that,” she said disapprovingly. Camp weddings are common: we saw one take place beside the school, musicians playing traditional music, the bride in a white dress.
“This is the first time I have talked about my husband dying, but people need to understand this is real”
In a society such as Syria’s, women taking on traditionally male responsibilities can prove disruptive as well as liberating. When it became impossible for men to leave the house, women had to negotiate with soldiers and stand in queues to buy food. Sara told us she was sustained by her faith. During her first month in Bar Elias, she read the whole Koran. Her situation was, she said, a test from God. Nonetheless, she told us, “we are all persons—not Muslims, not Christians, or something like that. Leave the Muslim aside, and treat us as humans.”
I wondered how her children were coping. For the first time in our interview, Sara relaxed her formal posture and leaned forward to show us pictures. She said her four-year-old son resembled Murad but does not remember him. His older sister, now six, kept on asking Sara: “I want my dad, when is he going to come back?” Then, she said, “she tried not to call me mum, but to call me dad.” Her son then began copying his sister.
If we had heard more Syrian voices before the war, we would be less surprised at the resulting conflict. A conversation I once had with a grey-eyed Damascus shopkeeper now haunts me. It was 2006 and Israel was battling Hezbollah in Lebanon. I asked him whether Syria might get involved. He smiled. “Sameer, the army is not for defending Syrians,” he said. “It is for defending the regime. One day it will turn its guns on us.”
But not even he could have imagined the scale of the disaster. What began in 2011 as peaceful protesting has flared into a brutal, multi-party war. At the last count, 4.8m people have fled the country and 6.8m are internally displaced, out of a pre-war population of 22m. The death toll is approaching half a million.
Everyone in Bar Elias we met had fled government violence, but not all supported the revolution. Sara had seen rebel violence: “I hate both sides, because no one is right. I don’t know—maybe some people are right, some people are not. But I hate both.”
Yet some still keep the faith. We met 28-year-old Hana in one of Beirut’s hipster coffee shops. Hana played an important role in early anti-Assad protests and keeps up with the democratic opposition. She fitted in well in the coffee shop with her thick-rimmed glasses and white T-shirt. She asked us to change her name. When a friend outside Syria wrote an anti-regime song, she said, “they arrested his family and treated them in a very bad way.”
While Sara was all practicality, Hana wanted to talk about ideals. After independence from France in 1946, Syria endured decades of instability before Hafez al-Assad seized power in a coup in 1970. His regime was as authoritarian as any in the region. “For years we dreamed of freedom,” she said. “Bashar’s father Hafez was president for 30 years. When his son came in, I was 12 years old. My parents said ‘he is young, he studied in Britain, he will do something good for the country.’ But I knew the changes were for show.” This was the “Damascus Spring” of 2000-01, when internet restrictions were lifted and political discussion allowed. But it turned out that Bashar’s few months training at the Western Eye Hospital in London had not made him a model liberal and the regime soon returned to repression.
In March 2011, during the Arab Spring, Hana took to the streets to demand “freedom and dignity.” She organised strikes and published pamphlets condemning the regime’s abuses. It was a heady but dangerous time. Unlike in Jordan, where King Abdullah sacked his government and promised reform, Assad only knew the language of force. “The hardest moment was when I was closing my door, telling my family, ‘maybe I will come back, maybe I will not.’ They were shooting at us like it was a video-game.” Hana’s family were worried, but supported the cause.
She spent three years dodging the authorities but in 2014 she was arrested. During her interrogation she was told to identify fellow activists, but “the only things I told them were lies.” Her supporters protested and after three days she was released. Straightaway, she returned to her underground activities. In late 2015, a policeman friend tipped off her father that Hana was going to be arrested again and wouldn’t be released so quickly this time. Hana left for Beirut, where she keeps a low profile. Lebanese intelligence has links with Assad and she could be picked up at any time.
We asked where she got her courage from. She said she owed it to her country and her comrades. One friend had spent the last two years in Mezzeh prison in Damascus, and she didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. (I lived in the Mezzeh area in 2006, unaware that for Syrians the place was a byword for torture.) At the end of 2015, Human Rights Watch published a report based on the 53,275 photographs of corpses smuggled out of a Syrian prison by a defector code-named Caesar. He was an official photographer whose macabre job was to record each death. “Every day between 10 and 50 people died in those
prisons,” Hana said. Caesar moves all the time, his location a secret.
Still the world does not want to open its eyes. “Nothing happened,” Hana said bitterly. “No one in the UN or the United States did anything.” In August 2013, the regime launched a chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing 1,429 people. (In the camps we spoke to a woman whose two sons had died in that strike. She said that women who survived had later given birth to deformed children.) The US looked like it might intervene; but in a decision President Barack Obama later described he was “very proud” of, the US pulled back and nothing was done. Since then the regime has carried out further chemical attacks.
Did she hope for western intervention? Hana laughed. “The whole world is lying when they say they care about Syrians. I don’t know what we did to be treated like this.” What if America wanted to help now? “It’s too late,” she said simply. “The US wants Assad to stay. They’re protecting him. Protecting Israel [which has not taken any refugees] because they want him to stay.” And this was before the election of Donald Trump, who excuses and indulges Assad.
Despite everything, Hana still believes that the revolution will succeed. When I described the conflict as a “civil war” she corrected me. “It is not a civil war,” she insisted, “it is the people fighting the government.” She seemed implacable in her view that this was a straightforward battle between good and evil. Yet, when I asked her whether she had lost anyone close during the war, we heard something more complicated. “Yes,” she said. “I lost someone close to me. He was fighting with the regime.”
Hana had met him as a student. “We were different in our thoughts, in our dreams and our situations, but we were best friends. We used to talk all the time on the phone. I’d say: ‘Are you still with the regime?’ and he’d say, ‘Yes! Are you still against the regime?’ I’d say, ‘Of course!’” We asked her how she could be close to him. “Not all the people in the regime are bad. He told me it was his duty to protect his country, not protect Assad. He wanted to keep Syria together.” He was killed in a rebel attack.
Despite her hatred of Assad, she mourned her friend. You could find no better evidence that what is happening in Syria really is a civil war, pitting families against each other and friends against friends. Yet in her testimony of grief across the political divide you could also see how Syrians might, one day, build bridges again.
Syria’s tragedy is that the revolution turned violent. Hana did not believe in taking up arms, but she understood why it happened. “Put yourself in their shoes: the regime killed your family in front of your eyes—in front of your eyes! Just for organising a protest. At the beginning people had weapons buried in the ground. But you reach a point when you find yourself… you don’t have a choice.” It seemed surreal talking about war while sitting in an over-priced coffee shop seeing couples flirt and parents play with children. Yet 25 years ago, this same street was on the frontline of the Lebanese civil war.
Before saying goodbye, Hana ended our conversation the same way each of our interviewees had done—by sincerely inviting us to their homes in Syria. And each time we said that we would visit them one day.
The gunmen are in control now and may be for some time. But when the war ends—and all wars end—the hope must be that the co-operation and support learned in the diaspora and especially in the camps can be applied on a wider scale back in Syria.
In her London speech at the February conference, Rouba Mhaissen said there was more to the refugee crisis than “sad stories.” She was right. The refugees we spoke to were far from passive victims. They were people with real struggles—and harrowing stories—but also incredible determination and courage.
People cannot help but look forward. One pregnant woman told Nabeelah, “our generation is lost—so we must create a new one to replace them.” I thought of Mohammed’s wife, who made the journey back to Bar Elias in November with her newborn daughter Sham (the name means Damascus). No one would choose to lose their home but Sham will be brought up by her parents in as loving a community as you could wish for. They are the lucky ones.
Some names have been changed and identities disguised. If you want to donate to SAWA please email firstname.lastname@example.org