Activism and hope in the Syrian crisis

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Syrian women protest in Aleppo Photograph: Women Now for Development

During my recent trip to Lebanon, I spent time with various refugee-focused organisations, and had the privilege of meeting some inspiring Syrian grassroots activists. Here are the stories I wrote.

Syria’s ‘disappeared’: families demand to know fate of their loved ones (Guardian)

In Syria, over 60,000 people are missing – detained by the state or rebel groups. I spoke to a group of Syrian women – spread around the world – who are campaigning to find out what happened to their missing relatives.

Syrian feminists: ‘This is the chance the war gave us – to empower women’ (Guardian)

During my time in Lebanon, I spent time at the offices of Women Now for Development, a remarkable grassroots organisation. They and other feminist activists in Syria and neighbouring countries are challenging patriarchal norms, to ensure they have a place not just at the negotiating table, but in rebuilding the country after the war.

Our home became very far, very far”: how singing about Syria is bringing refugee children together (Prospect)

While I was in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – where many Syrian refugees live – I saw a children’s choir, where songs drawing on traditional themes of longing, migration and land are giving refugee children a voice.

Schools in Lebanon

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Dama school, Bekaa Valley (photo: my own)

I recently travelled to Lebanon, one of the countries where the Syrian refugee crisis is felt most acutely. There are well over 1 million Syrians currently residing in Lebanon, a country of only 4 million people. Around half of these Syrians are children, meaning a huge scale educational crisis as Lebanon’s already struggling public school sector.

In response to this crisis, Lebanon introduced a “second shift” for refugee students. This offered a lifeline to many families, but it also entrenches segregation. In a piece for IRIN, the humanitarian news service, I wrote about some of the complex challenges posed by the education crisis, and the importance of integration within the classroom.

Although the second shift system has obvious benefits, it comes with its own set of problems. By the afternoon shift, teachers are exhausted and learning time is compressed. “Human resources are stretched very thinly,” explained Oscar Wood, co-director of Seenaryo. “There are not always new teachers in the second shift, and core staff like heads and senior leadership have to stay all day.”

You can read the rest of the piece over at IRIN.

“Deradicalisation” in Britain?

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 15.49.58Much has been made of British citizens fighting in Syria and the problems they might pose on their return. (In November last year I wrote the first interview with a British veteran of the Syria conflict, for the Guardian). With high profile horror stories involving British jihadists, such as the videoed beheadings of British and American citizens, the emphasis in the UK has been on punitive measures: the stripping of passports, default criminalisation, and hefty jail sentences.

But what about people who may have joined ISIS or other militant groups, but haven’t been involved in active combat, haven’t committed any serious crimes, and want to reintegrate into society? I wrote an article for Al Jazeera looking at “soft” counter-terror programmes to exit people from extremist groups, which have been proven to be effective in other countries.

Some European countries, such as Denmark, are successfully running such programmes, whereby returnees from Syria and Iraq – who have not committed serious crimes abroad – are monitored, treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and given theological teaching and socioeconomic support. No such scheme is currently in place in the UK, but behind the scenes the Home Office is exploring softer measures to deal with the influx of war-experienced returnees.

You can read the full piece over at Al Jazeera.

 

The UK and Syria’s refugees

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Syrian refugees in Spain.

The Syrian refugee crisis has been described as the worst since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, with 6.5 million internally displaced and more than 2 million seeking refuge abroad. The UK has been reluctant to offer sanctuary to a significant number of refugees, a decision that should be seen in the context of a dominant anti-immigrant political mood. While the British government has agreed to rehome 500 Syrian refugees, a small number have claimed asylum here already. Two of them told me their stories.

Ruqaiya was in her final year of university when she realised she couldn’t go home. In London on a student visa, she had missed the worst of the fighting in her hometown of Damascus: after the revolution began in March 2011, her family had told her not to come back for the holidays.

In May 2012, gearing up for her exams, she received terrible news. “My brother, who works in Germany, called to say that our father had been killed in an airstrike and the house destroyed. My mother had fled with my aunt to Jordan. Suddenly I didn’t have a home.” On the advice of an uncle living in the UK, Ruqaiya claimed asylum.

You can read the full article over at the New Statesman website, and here’s the (shorter) version that appeared in the magazine:

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European fighters in Syria

AR-140329164 (1)My feature for the National (UAE) was published recently. It goes behind the headlines about young men from the west signing up to fight in Syria, asking how big the numbers actually are, and what this means for the conflict, other countries in the region, and for Europe.

The war in Syria is first and foremost a civil conflict involving Syrian fighters. However, the presence of foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere in the region has the power to influence the dynamics of the battlefield. “Even if the foreign fighters are still a quite small minority of the overall rebellion, as well as a minority of Assad’s forces, they often serve in particular areas and have local influence,” explains Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s website Syria in Crisis. “On the rebel side, the foreign fighters have very disproportionately joined the most extreme jihadist groups.

That has empowered these groups and contributed to the growth of Sunni Islamist radicalism in northern Syria in particular.

“Suicide attacks are very important to rebels in Syria,” he says. “They’re a weapon the regime has found it difficult to protect against, despite its vast technological advantage.”

You can read the full piece over at the National’s website, and the clipping is below.

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“My journey into a nightmare war”

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Damascus.
A Free Syrian Army fighter in Damascus.

How did a young British man with no combat experience join the Free Syrian Army?

In a piece for the Guardian, I interviewed a London student of Syrian origin who went to join his cousins to fight in Damascus. Now back in the UK, he gave a vivid insight into the bloody reality of war.

I don’t know how to feel. Part of me is relieved that I made it back alive, but I feel guilty that my relatives and my people are dying. I have only minor physical injuries, but the mental scars are still there. I don’t sleep well at night and I often wake up screaming. Most people in Syria don’t have the option of running away like I did. But I am glad to be alive.

You can read the full piece over at the Guardian, and the cutting is below.

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