Video appeal to Asma al-Assad: will it really work?

A YouTube video calling on the dictator's wife to stand up against bloodshed in Syria has good inten

In a slightly unexpected twist in the deeply depressing Syria story, the wives of the British and German ambassadors to the UN have launched a video appeal and petition to Asma al-Assad, British-born wife to the Syrian dictator, urging her to "stand up for peace" and "stop being a bystander" to the violent repression. 

"Some women care for style and some women care for their people" the video begins, juxtaposing Asma in big Hollywood shades and blow dry against a woman in hijab cradling a baby. Asma al-Assad must have grown elephant hide by now, but even so, this probably stung. 

"Some women have forgotten what they preached about peace," the slightly robotic voice continues. "Some women pretend they have no choice." Against a backdrop of gruesome, horrifying, heart-breaking photographs of dying children, the narrator appeals to Asma to stop her husband.

Their motivations are worthy, undoubtedly so. How wonderful it would be if Asma watched the video and defected. If she, Marie Antoinette-style, had up until now lived in ignorance at the bloody events unfolding beyond her palace walls. If a few pictures of bloodied children would finally nudge her to take action. 

But in the age of the internet, it’s simply impossible that Asma isn’t aware of the atrocities in Syria, and even if she does watch the footage and risk her family’s wrath by defecting, this might be a blow to Bashar al-Assad but it would hardly convince him to stop. And the Syrian president is not acting alone; there are many thousands of people in Syria with an interest in preserving the status quo. 

For all its good intentions the petition is desperately naïve. Asma is merely a well-coiffed figurehead; she can’t take on the strong vested interests in the Assad regime. Her support for her husband may be puzzling, particularly given her British upbringing and her previous lip service to human rights, but it’s far from decisive.

Perhaps like the Kony video, this appeal will start "trending" on YouTube – when I checked this morning it had over 30,000 views - but even with ten million hits and hundreds of headlines, the gesture will still be futile - tragically so.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spears

 

"Some women care for style"... Asma al-Assad was profiled in American Vogue last year. Photo: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

iStock
Show Hide image

Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org