On the 27th of April, I had the honour of being able to assist to an event called: ‘WE WERE THERE: the conflict café’ regarding the Syrian war, at the Imperial War museum in London. There, several people who have experienced the conflict ongoing in Syria, were talking about their experiences and contributing with their own perspectives. Syrian citizens, asylum seekers, journalists from the BBC who have covered the conflict, aid volunteers and staff, documentary filmmakers. Everyone was there for one reason, that is share their views with us, the people from outside of the conflict.
When I arrived, I noticed there were several tables around the terrace. I thought it would be a kind of a conference, where the different individuals would give a speech and after it, maybe answer a few questions. It was a far more casual event. You were invited to sit in any spare chair you could find and hear what the speakers were sharing. One of them will be sitting at each table. My heart jumped. I was expecting to hear from the safety of the ‘audience’ role but now I needed to interact and ask questions. I was a little bit afraid of asking a question that could be rude, or maybe a little bit intimidating. However, the experience was beyond anything I could have expected.
I do not even know where to start. I talked with four different people: two asylum seekers, one from Aleppo and the other one from Damascus. One British teacher, who taught English in Syria from 2006 to 2007. And a German researcher who visited Syria for one of his studies in 2013.
All of them contributed with their experiences, the fear, the pain and the sorrow. As I do not want to miss out on any single bit of all what I heard, I am going to write this in a sequence of events. This first part is what Ahmad and Bassel have described for me about the Syrian history and the development of the war. They were answering my question ‘How has it started?’
Firstly, Syria finally became an independent country in 1945. But there were several conflicts between Syria, Turkey and the Arab countries, as well as Palestine and Israel. In 1958, they have a brief coalition with Egypt which only lasted until 1961. The tension and military conflicts remain as a constant threat in their country until 1970, when Hafez al-Assad came into the limelight and, in 1971, when he became president. He won with the majority of votes and for the first time since 1946, some political and economic stability helped Syria to move on and become a developing country. The regime, as they call it, had promised a social-democratic model for the country and seeing the results of the first years of its work, people believed him. Until the repression started.
During the 80’s and 90’s, the regime started to oppress protests asking for freedom of speech. al-Assad exceeded the time that allowed him being in power and people were not allowed to choose or vote. Although, people had jobs, homes etc., the inequality, the corruption and the oppression was too much to bear and the Syrian people wanted what he promised: a democracy.
While sharing their stories, although both accepted, people were angry about these issues, they were also afraid of the repercussions that rebelling against the regime could cause. Not just to one’s safety but also towards protesters’ families, friends and their social circle. The majority of the affected people were the ones who lived in the small towns outside of the big cities. The division between the wealthy and the poor. The next chapter of the story is when Hafez al-Assad died in 2000.
The next candidate to hold power was his son Bashar Hafez al-Assad. ‘We voted for him because we thought he would be different’ Ahmad said. ‘He studied in London, He experienced multiculturalism and development in other country, in other culture. His wife is British. He promised us a fresh start. He shared knowledge and said we were ready for a change’ The reality is, he was lying. Once he became president, little changed in Syrians’ lives. The oppression, the corruption and the inequality remained. The wealth was shared just between upper class and his friends and acquaintances. The rest of the people were left behind. ‘I guess we should have predicted it’ Bassel told me ‘The Syrian constitution established that only people older than 40 years of age could become president. Bashar and his MPs at the time had a closed-door meeting. In one day, they changed it to 34 so he could become president. But we needed hope, and he gave us hope’.
After three years of his governance, people started to complain as they were afraid and angry. ‘We have been fooled’, that’s how Syrian people perceive the new regime ‘But he was pretending that everything was ok, that we were doing great. At the same time, he was repressing protests and silencing people who dare to question his leadership’
Here is where Kate’s story, the English teacher volunteering in Syria between 2006 to 2007, was a key fact which corroborated Ahmad and Bassel’s one.
‘When I arrived in Syria in 2006, I started to teach in Aleppo, at the British Council school. All my students were upper-middle class or wealthy students. All of them well educated, with quite good English.’ She said while taking some handcrafted cards and draws from her former students out of her purse. She keeps all of them ‘When I overheard their opinions about politics, all of them seemed to be quite happy with the government. No complaints whatsoever. Good views about the future of Syria, positive opinions about the government’.
She sights ‘Then I volunteered to go and cover some months out of the city, to the more remote towns. Everything was completely different’ and it hits me, I feel like I can relate with this part of her story ‘As soon as I arrived at the new school, I could notice the enormous difference between the infrastructure. Poorly built, not enough equipment. The principal warned me -You must not engage or encourage political debate, here we are not allowed to discuss it with the children- The difference was not just economical but also, the freedom for the poor and working class was being restricted’
She told us the kids of these schools will talk and complain about the regime between them. They will hide to be able to complain and explain to her how much their parents were struggling for money. How the government promised more opportunities and better living conditions but only gave more inequality and injustice.
Ahmad told me that in 2011, the violence towards protesters escalated. People started to get jailed just because they would march and complain. Although movements were peaceful, if the police or army caught you, you will have ended up in jail. For two years, all the demonstrations against the regime were silenced until the people thought it was enough. In 2013, a group known just as ‘the rebels’ unified and started attacking the regime’s army. The problem was they were not well organised and their lack of training and knowledge was not helping them, but it has started. The civil war.
The first severe attack was committed by the regime. A chemical bomb killed hundreds of civilians and rebels in Damascus, in 2013. The regime was supported from Russia. They said that Russia always had military bases in Syria and neighbouring countries. Also, it has always supported Al-Assad, Iran and the Kurds. At the same time, United States and other Allies from Europe like France, United Kingdom and Germany were ‘on the side’ of the rebels.
In 2015, the regime liberated a lot of criminals from their jails, this in order to have them on their side. They will attack civilians and find out who the rebels were, like spies working for the regime.
Then matters started to get worse, the group known as DAESH emerged. Out of the blue, and with a very strong army, DAESH or better known in Western countries as ISIS, started to attack everything and everyone. The real meaning of its name is ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham’ translated as ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’. Both told the following, in different words but it was the same idea: ‘We do not know why they got involved, how they started. We believe it is similar to Al qaeda. They are against everyone. The regime, the Kurds, the rebels. Every single group who does not support their extreme views and their sick version of the Islam must be killed’. They also told me something that I consider very important to share: ‘They are more dangerous for Muslims than for other religious groups’. Although, they are against every single group or community, the maximum betrayal for them is being Muslim and do not follow their views. Then you cannot be converted, you must die.
They believe, and a lot of people in Syria agree, that DAESH is supported by the black market and the drug cartels in the Middle East. This is because the rebels, for example, not even with the support of a large part of Syria’s population have the resources that they have.
At this point, the regime has as their main ‘enemy’ the rebels, then ISIS, who is also attacking their schools and their supporters. The rebels have to fight against the regime and Daesh. And Daesh just want to fight against all of them and convert as many foreigners as possible as they want to create fear and racism around the world. A very interesting fact is 50% of the soldiers of Daesh are foreigners, born and raised as Christians, Atheists, Catholics, Jews, etc. People who found about them in their own countries and travelled to join them.
I think there is no need to explain what happened next. We all have heard it. The bombs, the refugees, the hate, the racism, the fear of the different. Now I want to share the personal stories of each of the persons I talked to.
Bassel was a junior doctor in Aleppo. Before the civil war started, he was doing his practices at a local hospital. When he was threatened by the regime however, this is because he was known for disapproving al-Assad government and he had to flee. This was after the first attack to Aleppo. He escaped by crossing Turkey and then went to Greece. After that, he applied for asylum in the UK, as he can speak perfect English.
During his trip to the UK, he met a group of refugees and volunteers who were working with war orphans living in Lebanon, kids from Syria. Although he has settled in the UK, he is usually travelling to Lebanon to work with the kids. ‘They live in such poor conditions’ he said. ‘They have no routine in their lives, they are alone and sad’. He talks with them and tries to help them to open and share their feelings. He told me about one kid, eight years old. He barely speaks, he is always alone. But once he managed to engage in conversation with him, the kid said, ‘I feel like an old man’ Bassel asked what he meant, ‘I do not know’ he replied ‘I just feel old. Old and tired, I am looking forward to nothing, I do not expect anything’. This hit us all. There should be no eight years old kid feeling without hope, feeling in that way.
Bassel also shared one girl’s experience with racism. She saw on the one tv that they have in the refuge, that people in other countries do not want them to live there. They do not want them because they will bomb their families and destroy their cities. She just stared aside and said ‘I just want Syria to be peaceful and go back to my home, to my country. And I hope they never have to suffer what we are suffering’.
Ahmad is an engineer, he was working at Damascus before coming to the UK. As he applied for a scholarship before, he got a student visa and avoided applying for asylum. He has two siblings. One younger brother and sister. His brother is an accountant and he also came to the UK. His sister finished a degree in arts but she did not want to leave Syria. The reason is the following. Ahmad’s parents are nearly 70’s years old, retired, a bit ill and even though, all of them tried to convince them, they won’t move out. They are scared, they have seen how much people hate ‘refugees’. They do not speak other languages and they prefer to stay in their country. His sister said she could not leave them alone, and chose to stay with them.
Then someone asked the question that everyone has heard and read on the media ‘Why are just men fleeing? Why do they do not stay and fight for their country? Why do they leave women and kids behind?’.
Bassel answer was ‘if just men are fleeing then why I have a refuge full of orphan kids?’ and Ahmad explained: ‘As dangerous as Daesh is for women, because they kidnap them and sexually abuse them. The truth is that a man, between 18 to 45 in Syria, either the rebels, the regime or Daesh will try to force you to join them or worse, they will kill you as you are not being useful’.
It is so easy to judge without being in the situation, without seeing the suffering of others. It is so comfortable just sitting at home, read a bunch of fake media and watch videos that talks about agendas instead of listening to the people who are being murdered and who are going through such gruesome situation. It is so easy to be a ‘Internet revolutionary’.
Bassel said ‘something that I noticed is people believe Syrians are a kind of savage community. We were not. We had tv, internet and books. I was training to be a doctor, we are not ignorant, or savage or religious extremists. We are people like you, like British, like every single country in the world’.
Ahmed also supported that view ‘People from other countries think we are a kind of second class citizens. That we lack values and development. That is just unfair and racist. We had our lives, and our jobs. I was an engineer, my brother worked in a company and my sister teaches art. We are humans, not beasts or -crazy Muslims whom want to take over other countries- You want me to go back? Fine, stop bombing and killing my people’.
Ahmed lost one cousin during a protest against the regime. They heard on the media that the protesters were jailed as they disobeyed the government warnings. His family tried to find him but never heard of him again.
Now, I must apologise because I forgot to write down the German researcher’s name. When I was sitting at Ahmed’s table, he arrived a few moments after me. He sat next to me and listened carefully, until he had the opportunity to talk. First, he shared with all of us that he spent five months travelling around Syria for one of his researches about local resources for green sustainability. Then he told us the reason why he was there, ‘I have been travelling around Europe because of my job. But every single time I hear there will be an event where refugees and asylum seekers will take part, I always make some spare time to attend’ he continues, ‘when I was in Syria, in 2013, I went to Damascus for two days. The first day I was visiting the main Mosque at the city centre. There I met this artist. He was sitting on the floor selling his work. Paintings and handcrafted souvenirs. I asked about one of them and we started to talk. I wanted to learn about Syrian culture and he was so amicable and easy going. After a long chat, he asked me where I was staying and I answered that I hadn’t booked anything yet, so I needed to find a place’ a pause, his eyes look to the ceiling and continues ‘He offered me his home. Till that moment, I was very surprised with how friendly and generous Syrian people were. Still, this was beyond everything. I won’t find a person in the middle of London or Berlin who will offer me to stay at their home without knowing me. But I did find one in Syria. I stayed that night and, the next day, I had to keep going. He gave me his card and we changed emails. Later that year, I heard about the chemical bomb near to Damascus. I emailed him. But there was no answer’.
I must admit, my heart broke when I heard that. He continued ‘I have been looking for him. I do not know if he is still alive. But if he is, I want to know if he is ok, if he got a job or a place to stay’.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep listening. I went outside for a little bit of fresh air. I was feeling like crying, but I could not. The tears won’t come out. I went back and sat in another table. That is when I heard Kate’s memories.
‘I taught kids between 7 to 8 and teenagers between 15 to 17’ She said while sharing the goodbye cards that her kids made for her before leaving. ‘I finished my work during the summer of 2007. I wanted to stay for a month to explore as a tourist, but one night the British Council director went to the bedrooms and said -We are leaving now, the situation could turn dangerous around here- and we had to fly back home the next day’ She stared at the cards for a moment. The one that I was looking at, had a beautiful sunset draw in one of its sides ‘I have never seen more beautiful sunsets than the ones I saw in Syria’ she said ‘You can see the three colours blending together on the horizon. It was a magical experience’ then someone asked, ‘do you have contact with any of the students?’ her face glooms ‘No. I couldn’t contact any of them’ she opened one of the cards and held it between her hands ‘Sometimes I wake up and remember them saying -Good morning teacher- in a choir. Other days, I remember my little ones learning how to say in English what they wanted to be when adults. I can remember each of their names and their dreams. One wanted to be a doctor, a teacher, a fireman, an engineer. They were drawing and painting how they portrayed themselves doing that job and then they will write the name of the profession in English’ I felt the necessity of leaving the table again, but I did not ‘the older ones shared with me their plans. One of them wanted to do a degree in pharmaceuticals in France, so he could learn another language. Every day I wonder if they are alive. If they are safe. If they escaped or if they are still trapped there. Sometimes I can’t sleep’.
The event finished at 4 p.m. But before leaving, I wanted to ask Bassel and Ahmad one more question ‘What is your opinion about other countries’ involvement in the war?’. I asked this to them separately. Both replied in a similar way.
They believe that even though, these countries claim to be doing it for the sake of Syria, there are economic and political interests influencing the side they take and hoping to gain something in return. Moreover, if they were really interested on contributing, they would be helping the people seeking refuge, not bombing them.
When I left the building, I was feeling a bit dizzy. All the experiences, all the sadness. I needed to sit down and remain calm. I found a garden next to the museum, which was opened by Dalai Lama. I saw this quote which I want to share:
‘We human beings are passing through a crucial period in our development. Conflict and mistrust have plagued the past century. Which has brought immeasurable human suffering and environmental destruction. It is in the interest of all of us on this planet that we make a joint effort to turn the next century into an era of peace and harmony’.
I sat there for a while, thinking about what I just heard. About what is also going on in my own country, the impunity that exists in Mexico. Thinking about how I could possibly be able to share all that I just heard. It was a must for me to share what I learnt and whilst pouring my heart out, I want to say this to you. Please do not be judgmental. Please do not be racist, please do not think down about other people, other cultures, other religions. There are bad people all over the world. This does not mean that everyone who shares the same skin colour, beliefs or nationality is the same.
If you do not like others, then just respect them. And more importantly, do not take your human rights for granted. People usually blame the victim because it is easier to say, ‘they are savages’ ‘bomb them all, they are all the same’ ‘she deserved because she was a whore’ ‘he deserved because he was gay’ but remember that an extremist will think ‘this person deserves to die because he or she does not believe the same ideas I follow’. Can you see the similarities now? I beg you, do not be like them. Be a better human being. Educate yourself. Read, meet people from other backgrounds and religions. We, as global citizens, have a huge responsibility of taking care of each other and seek for a more equal and fair world. We will never have a utopia but, I do believe that we can be more humane. Take a better path.
I know this was a very, very long post. But if you are here, reading it, thank you.