“The Syrian revolution is a baby – it needs nourishment”

Ewa Jasiewicz reports on the plight of the relief efforts in Syria.

We're in Ma'arrat al Numan, a front-line liberated town in Idlib province, Syria. Once home to 120,000, the population is now between 4-10,000. Families who couldn't afford to flee live in ruins, makeshift shelters and even caves. Destruction is everywhere; piles of rubble daunt the streets between bomb-axed minarets and burnt out shops. Part-collapsed apartment blocks reveal gaping living rooms. Shelling echoes daily from the Wadi Deif regime military base close by. It's mostly local Free Army fighters holding the line, along with Ahrar al Sham, and Jabhat al Nusra playing a smaller role. The scant weaponry ranges from regime-raided machine and hand guns to the "Cannon of Hell" – a launcher made out of a tractor, with cooking gas canisters for missiles. The city's sub-station, water plants and pipes have all been destroyed. Repairing the pipes is impossible due to their proximity to Wadi Deif.

The injured are ferried by fighters or medical volunteers to a "hospital in hiding" – far back from the frontline, where operations are carried out in a basement with a lamp made out of a satellite dish with half a dozen light bulbs stuck in it. The service runs on a drip-feed of aid sourced in Turkey and round-the-clock volunteer hours spread between a few dozen exhausted doctors and nurses. Ma'arrat al Numan is still a city at war.

We're in the gloomy garden of widow and mother of six Om Abid. Ahmad*, an activist and volunteer with Basmat Amal (Smile of Hope), a home-grown relief organisation, has brought us here. He's doling out cash donations of 500 Syrian pounds sent from a wealthy Syrian woman living in Saudi Arabia. It's a drop in the ocean. Cooking gas costs £S3,000 per canister up from £S1,000 two years ago, bread is £S25. water needs to be delivered by truck and costs £S500 a week and a box of thirty candles, which once cost 70, is now hitting £S300. The dark takes over at night.

Relief doesn't feel revolutionary but keeping it coming is a means to stay put and keep up the front. Basmet Amal are one of four local aid organisations feeding into a relief co-ordination committee that feeds into a broader council including military-security, social affairs, and media-comms committees.

Basmat Amal recognise the role aid can play in buying loyalties according to a donor's agenda, and how depoliticising desperation can be. Self-sufficiency is key. By opening the first primary schools in Ma'arra since the revolution began, a low priced products supermarket, cash for widows and a soap and shampoo factory in the pipeline, they hope to create autonomy and strength for the community. They still see themselves as part of a revolution that began with unarmed demonstrations, but was met with bullets, then bombs, and then warplanes, until street-protest-as suicide was no longer an option. According to Basmet Amal, 850 people have been killed, and 2,000 houses, 20 schools and 15 mosques destroyed since November 2011. 'We are fighting for our dignity' we hear again and again.

But what is the scope for people – especially women - to participate in their own relief? Can people come together and make collective decisions? "Everyone is locked in their own homes," starts Ahmed. "Everyone just cares about their own problems". "But there are always shared problems, no?" we suggest. "I suppose so, but just to get people together in one place, to feel safe, is a struggle." Shelling and gunfire rattles in the distance as he speaks. Neither landlines or mobiles work in Ma'arra, but there is internet if you have a satellite and generator. Otherwise comms are face to face, and door to door. Kinship and neighbourhood networks have been fractured by the town haemorrhaging so many residents. Who will look after your children? Who will drive you home, when fuel and cars are in such short supply? And even if you put together a group, with 90 per cent of your town in exile, who are you representing?

It's an ongoing conversation throughout our trip, "How to build participation?" If Basmet Amal have 30 volunteers now, how can they reach 100 and more? Particularly under the lengthening shadow of militarisation and sectarianism, and external regional and global interests "all wanting to eat from Syria". How do you keep up a revolution which you keep being told is a civil war, that it's gone, it belongs to 'warlords' eating the hearts of their opponents and shooting children in the face, that is going to break Palestine, and will be Iraq mark two, is something you should never have started. This is not your revolution is the message. For many of us in the West it's the same, that it's too complicated, leave it to the big boys, you can't relate to this, there's nothing you can do, this is not your revolution. Isolation and disposession creeps and the work of creating spaces of resistance and reclamation is eclipsed by a what-bleeds-leads agenda.

It's a burning hot afternoon and we're in the languid garden of the Kafranbel media centre talking solidarity with local organisers. The centre is famous for its' viral banners. For UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's visit, locals raised: "BRAHIMI: 'NEVER MIND BURNING THE WORLD WILLINGLY THAN HAVING ASSAD FOR ONE DAY MORE' GO FUCK YOURSELF." And "USA – YOU LIVED SEPTEMBER 11TH ONCE, WE LIVE IT EVERY DAY." "We never get visits from activists, only journalists," says local fixer Amer.* "We want to show them our demonstrations but they just say, 'Take us to the fighters'." It's a common obsession. This May Al Jazeera reported from Raqqa, central Syria but focused squarely on Al Qaeda chopping three peoples heads off and not demonstrations by public sector workers demanding wages from money looted from the central bank or protests against Sharia courts. 

We discuss the idea of a joint news-behind-the-news project that can profile struggles that mainstream media ignore. Mona* a local feminist activist working on a children's support project called Karama Bus (Dignity Bus) is lukewarm. 'Everyone in Syria knows what is going on. It's a good idea but we do not have the capacity. We literally do not have the people on the ground. Too many Syrian activists are outside in Turkey or Lebanon. They need to be here'. We talk about skills-sharing on facilitating meetings and organising but stress unequivocally that this is dangerous territory for foreign activists because it reproduces colonial dynamics of white Westerners telling Arabs what to do and how to organise; the NGOised "facilitator" that conducts, regulates and wields power over locals. But co-training with Syrian and Arabic speaking activists, is agreed, could be useful...

The thread continues back in Ma'arra. We eat breakfast with a young medic who treats fighters on the Front. "You were in Kafranbel? They have three functioning hospitals there, we only have one and we are on the Front! I don't understand why they don't help us," he says. Emergencies take up energy. "Our revolution is a baby," he explains. "It needs milk, it needs nourishment, it needs to grow. Of course we want people to be organising their own representation, but that's walking, that's further down the line. For now, we need to survive." As if on cue a war plane tears through the sky above us. He starts to utter prayers. His wife, an organiser, but still unable to go to the internet café without a male relative, begins to breathe shallow and fan herself. It passes over. We sip our tea in silence until we can find our words to talk again.

*Names changed to protect identity

A shorter version of this piece appeared in last week's New Statesman magazine

People walk past damaged buildings in Ma'arrat al Numan, Idlib province in March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.