Sunday, December 22, 2013

Feast of Syria war kids’ stories

Christmas is a few days or hours away, and my thoughts somehow keep going back to the more than 1.1 million Syrian children refugees.
The magic of Christmas lives on in children. But so many will not have the opportunity to enjoy it and will miss out on its boots, branded toys, traditional games, decorations, cards, and more.
That is why I was deeply touched when I came across this piece, posted on December 17, by blogger Maysaloon on the experience with Syrian refugee children and their stories in Reyhanli, a town and district of Hatay Province, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, a stone’s throw away from Syria.
* * * * *
On Sunday I sat down in Hatay airport feeling tired. The weather conditions were abysmal and I wasn't looking forward to the next forty eight hours of travel before I got home. Then I rummaged through my satchel and found a folded piece of paper. A little girl called Rime had given it to me two days earlier, and I had put it in my pocket without reading it. I figured I had the time now, so I took it out and unfolded it carefully.
As I read her neat handwriting, with hearts and little flowers drawn upon it, I felt myself choking up and my face lit up with a bright smile. It was a story about a bee and a sheep and a turtle and how they all decide to go together for a picnic and play beneath a tree in a magical castle and when they were all done they got back home and went to sleep.
This last week I was volunteering with the Karam Foundation to help cheer up Syrian children at the Salam school in Reyhanli. I was running a journal writing workshop and also helping out with a storytelling workshop, and one of the things that I was constantly telling the children was that stories needed a "secret" password before being told, otherwise they wouldn't be nice, like tea that had gone cold.
The children would remind me when I pretended to forget, and they would chant out the words "Kan ya Ma Kan Fi Qadeem al Zaman" -- "It was or it was not, in a time long ago" before each recital.
At the end of every story we would end with the cutesy "Hilweh wala fatfouteh?" (Is it nice or is it not?) phrase. I must have told a thousand stories before the week was through, and the children were mesmerized by each one. It was as if something magical happened when a story was being told, and we were all engaged in something old and familiar.
I told stories of a magical giant who helped a little girl find her way back home, of a hunter who rescued a boy lost in the woods, and of how the boy helped his father reclaim his land from a thief.
There were stories of turtles travelling to the pyramids and of a little beetle that helped people to finally drink from a magical fountain of happiness that was protected by a mean caretaker.
In the diary writing workshops I asked the children to write twenty lines about the worst day in their lives, and another twenty about the best day. Anybody who reached twenty lines for the best day of their lives got to pick a special sticker to keep in their notebooks. It was just a sticker, but when they were finally given the opportunity to pick one their eyes would light up in glee and they wouldn't know which one to pick. They would take what seemed like ages to choose which one they wanted. I don't know how it happened, or when exactly, but I fell in love with each of those children and was able to tell their personalities apart even in the short time we had available.

One seven-year-old girl drew me a pretty picture with patterns and a large heart. Written in the heart were the words, "Baba". The cynic in me would have smirked, but after reading what some of these children had written about their lives, or what they had told me over the past days, I almost cried. How could I possibly be a Baba figure to anybody? But for those short days I was.
I remember one boy who looked just like a writer, whatever that may look like. I saw him pick up his pen and stare at the page as I asked him to write about the worst day of his life. He paused as if to think about it, sighed as if he had pulled it up from deep within himself, and then began writing. He then wrote on and on and on. He also wrote over thirty lines for the happiest day of his life, and so did many other boys and girls.
They all whistled when they heard me ask for a mammoth twenty lines, but when they started, many of them went far beyond that. In fact, I had trouble stopping them writing. Some of them even let me read the entries, on condition that I don't read it aloud to the other children. It was a privilege for me to have looked into their memories. They were all good kids, beautiful kids.
One girl who wore a red scarf and matching woolly cap was a know it all and quickly became my very own teacher's pet. She fussed and tsk'ed when she saw me write the date on the board. She said "Sir, I can tell you don't know Arabic. That's not the way we write the date on the board." Then she got up and wrote it on the whiteboard in her very best handwriting. I asked her what her name was and she told me. I told her that that was the name of somebody very dear to me, to which she straightened up in her seat and replied almost instantly with an answer that was the very best that Syrian polite society had to offer. It was all I could do not to burst out in laughter in front of the class.
The next day I saw her running around madly with paint on her cheeks and fingers as she helped the artists in our groups paint the new mural on the school wall, full of life and mischief.
There were countless children throughout the week. There was the young boy Hassan who wanted me to play with his new ball in the playground on our last day, there was young Aisha who let me sit next to her in a class whilst one of my colleagues taught them about photography. She told me all about her family and of how her father was a vet and of how she loves all kinds of animals except cats. She told me she wasn't afraid when the volunteer dentists pulled out one of her teeth and that she had been brave, and I believe her. In spite of everything they had been through, these children had found a way to remain cheery, alive and curious about life.
I do love them all dearly. But there were also moments of sadness. Like when I met an eleven-year-old boy who didn't know how to read. I have never met someone who can't read, and I stood there stunned for a moment as my mind raced through ways that I could help him in the one hour I was spending in his class. There were none, so I asked him to draw the best and worst days of his life. He drew pictures of the planes that Assad had sent to bomb his village.
One boy told me how he had locked himself in his room for three days when his cousin was killed as he fought for the Free Syrian Army -- I asked him to write about that.
Another boy told me his father had been killed, and that that day was the saddest day in his life -- he went on to write about that too.
One girl spoke of how her brother had been captured by the regime, and of what they had done to him.
Everybody had a story to tell me.
And in spite of that they all retained the greatest of warmth and hospitality. They constantly offered me sweets and biscuits after our classes.
For one boy, the best day in his life was when his friends came to visit him on the Eid and his mother had cooked his favorite dishes. They then had tea and he was given 100 liras to go and buy chocolates and biscuits from his uncle's corner shop. I told him to write that down too and he got one of the stickers for his efforts.
So much more was seen and done in this week, of which I will be writing, but as I sat there in that busy airport with the world walking by, I thought of a pretty little girl with a pink woolly cap who had gone home after my storytelling workshop to write me a story in her best handwriting albeit with spelling and grammar mistakes.
She even remembered the magic words and when I reached the end of the story she asked me "Hilwe wala fatfouteh?"
I paused for a moment and mouthed my reply back to her silently.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Set Syria’s Razan free

Razan Zaitouneh
With the Christmas and New Year holiday season just a week away, it is a time for families to be united. Not so, however, for the thousands of prisoners of conscience who have been languishing in Syria’s jails.
The latest are four Syrian activists abducted in the Damascus suburbs for their human rights and humanitarian work.
They must be released immediately and unconditionally, said a statement released last week by no less than 16 human rights organizations. The statement was carried by Reporters Without Borders.
Award-winning Syrian human rights defender and writer Razan Zaitouneh, her husband, Wa’el Hamada, and two colleagues, Nazem Hamadi and Samira Khalil, were abducted by unknown individuals on 9 December 2013.
They were snatched from a joint office for the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) and the Local Development and Small Projects Support (LDSPS) in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Douma is part of Eastern Ghouta -- an area under the control of a number of armed opposition groups that is being besieged by Syrian government forces.
In a joint statement issued on 10 December 2013, the VDC and the LDSPS attributed Razan Zaitouneh’s abduction to her activities as a founding member of these organizations.
The VDC is an independent non-governmental organization that has been mainly documenting human rights abuses committed by the Syrian government in the context of the conflict.
The LDSPS provides humanitarian assistance, particularly to medical centers in areas like Eastern Ghouta.
Like many other human rights activists perceived by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to be involved in pro-reform protests, Ms Zaitouneh was forced into hiding in 2011 after receiving threats from the Syrian authorities. In the last few months, she received threats from at least one armed opposition group in the Eastern Ghouta area.
The statement said civil society activists, writers, journalists and lawyers have borne a heavy price during the ongoing war in Syria, falling victim to unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of government security forces and, more recently, becoming targets for armed opposition groups that disapprove of their endeavors.
All parties to the conflict should adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law, which prohibits the abduction of civilians, hostage taking and torture, it concluded.
The co-signing organizations in alphabetical order are:
1. Alkarama Foundation
2. Amnesty International
3. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
4. Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network
5. Gulf Center for Human Rights
6. Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos)
7. Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
8. International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)
9. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) -- in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
10. International Media Support (IMS)
11. Lawyers for Lawyers
12. PEN International
13. Reporters Without Borders
14. SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom
15. Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
16. World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) - in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Human rights defender
Ms Zaitouneh was last November awarded the 2012 Ibn Rushd Award for Freedom of Thought by the Ibn Rushd Fund for Freedom of Thought.
The Ibn Rushd Fund has since 1998 been recognizing people who have sought to stimulate change with their thoughts and who have suffered the consequences of imprisonment and torture. It recognizes those who broke new ground for many others and who are fighting for freedom.
Ms Zaitouneh committed to the struggle for the rights of political prisoners in 2001 and co-founded a society for human rights in Syria. 
She has been reporting on the violation of human rights since 2005 on Syrian Human Rights Information Link, a database for human right violations committed by the Syrian regime.
The 36-year-old activist supports families of political prisoners.
In April 2011, she also co-founded the local coordinating committee of the revolution in Syria. 
Since the outbreak of the war in Syria in March 2011, Ms Zaitouneh was forced to go into hiding.
In May 2011, Air Force Intelligence broke into her house in Damascus. Many of her documents and personal belongings were seized.
Additionally, her brother-in-law, Aburrahman Hamada, who was just visiting, was taken hostage in exchange for the fugitive couple.  Air Force Intelligence then arrested Razan’s husband, Wa’el Hamada. The brothers spent three months in solitary confinement before they were released. 
Since 2004, Ms Zaitouneh has published dozens of articles and reports in the press and on the Internet about the human rights situation and the freedom of speech in Syria.
Ms Zaitouneh was recently the recipient of the 2013 International Women of Courage Award.
She received the European Parliament’s Anna Politkovskaya Prize for the defense of human rights and the 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought -- together with renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat.
The Ibn Rushd Fund says Razan’s commitment to human rights and her non-violent opposition make her a true representative of a young generation that is prepared to risk personal freedom, security and even life for social change.
She is also representative of women in the Arab Spring, who -- especially in Syria -- are often at the forefront of the struggle for freedom and democracy but ignored by most Western media.
Will Ms Zaitouneh, her husband and colleagues be reunited with their families for the holiday season? My thoughts and prayers are with them and their families and the thousands of others who are still behind bars.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Does Santa exist for Syria’s children?

Despite the freezing cold, children will be children... (via
Most people, especially children, hope for a White Christmas. It is certainly not the wish of over 1.1 million Syrian children, now scattered across their own country or taking refuge in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
With Christmas just over a week away, most families are now filling bags of gifts for their children, decorating their homes, putting up Christmas trees and stocking up on food for the festive season.
In the Middle East, and especially in Syria and Palestine, children will not even know it’s that time of year.
In Syria, in particular, where over half of all 2.3 million refugees are children, will this shameful milestone of conflict deliver more than headlines?
Nowhere else to sleep...
Why is it that the human heart and conscience remains blank and cold in the face of the tragedy of these kids? Why are there no more initiatives such "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in 1984 and Live Aid in 1985?
The UN refugee agency UNHCR is stepping up measures to protect the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including 120,000 living in flimsy tents, as they face the onslaught of a massive winter storm in the region dubbed “Alexa.”
"For the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Lebanon, as well as those in neighboring countries and the displaced in Syria, a storm like this creates immense additional hardship and suffering," said Amin Awad, director of UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa Bureau. "With Lebanon's help, we're doing everything we can to get rapid additional help to people who most need it. This is on top of the winter preparations already done over the past months."
A host of other humanitarian agencies are working on the winter response in Lebanon, including the World Food Program, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Organization for Migration, Oxfam, Medair, Save the Children, World Vision, Humedica, Mercy Corps, Caritas and Handicap International.
Lebanon is now the largest Syrian refugee-hosting country in the region, with almost 840,000 Syrians either registered as refugees or awaiting registration, according to UNHCR. Unlike other countries neighboring Syria, there are no established refugee camps. Instead people are living in the community in nearly 1,600 different areas.
Before the storm hit last week, UNHCR undertook a research project, conducted over four months, on what life is like for Syrian children in the two countries hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees -- Jordan and Lebanon.
The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis found that Syrian refugee children face a startling degree of isolation and insecurity. If they aren’t working as breadwinners -- often doing menial labor on farms or in shops -- they are confined to their homes.
Perhaps the statistic we should pay the most attention to, says UNHCR, is: 29 percent of children interviewed said they leave their home once a week or less. Home is often a crammed apartment, a makeshift shelter or a tent.
Too many have been wounded physically, psychologically or both. Some children have been drawn into the war -- their innocence ruthlessly exploited.
A grave consequence of the conflict is that a generation is growing up without a formal education. More than half of all school-aged Syrian children in Jordan and Lebanon are not in school. In Lebanon, it is estimated that some 200,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children could remain out of school at the end of the year.
The Arsal makeshift Syrian refugee camp in northeast Lebanon
Another disturbing symptom of the crisis is the vast number of babies born in exile who do not have birth certificates.
A recent UNHCR survey on birth registration in Lebanon revealed that 77 percent of 781 refugee infants sampled did not have an official birth certificate. Between January and mid-October 2013, only 68 certificates were issued to babies born in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.
How is this allowed to happen? (via
Much more needs to be done if a catastrophe is to be averted, says UNHCR, including:
Keep the borders open: For all the problems identified in the report, children have access to protection because countries like Lebanon and Jordan have welcomed them. No effort should be spared in supporting Syria’s neighbors to keep their borders open. Further afield, in the past few months, many adults and children have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe. States must do more to ensure the safety of people attempting to cross water and land borders.
Help the neighbors: The unwavering commitment of neighboring countries to tackle the monumental task of supporting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children must be matched by international solidarity. Overstrained school systems must be built up, health services expanded and local communities reassured that support is available for them too.
Stop recruitment and exploitation of children: Children should never be drawn into conflict. All parties should make every effort to end this practice.
Expand resettlement and humanitarian admissions programs for Syria’s children: Countries beyond Syria’s borders should also offer a home to Syrian refugees. These programs are important lifelines for the most vulnerable, including people who continue to be in danger and families with seriously wounded children. Unaccompanied and separated children are only considered for these programs after a careful examination of their best interests.
Provide alternatives so children do not have to work: We urge individuals and businesses to help fund UNHCR’s financial assistance scheme that targets vulnerable refugee families and call on governments to explore alternative livelihoods opportunities for Syrian refugees.
Prevent statelessness: Lack of a birth certificate or related documentation can increase the risk of statelessness and expose children to trafficking and exploitation. Returning home may be impossible for children without the necessary documentation. Progress is already being made in neighboring countries, but it is vital that host countries continue to improve access to birth registration.
A few of the 1.1 million Syrian refugee children trying to keep warm
Of the 1.1 million Syrian children registered as refugees with UNHCR worldwide, some 75 percent are under the age of 12. Children represent 52 percent of the total Syrian refugee population, which now exceeds 2.2 million. The majority live in Syria’s neighboring countries, with Jordan and Lebanon combined hosting more than 60 percent of all Syrian refugee children. As of 31 October 2013, 291,238 Syrian refugee children were living in Jordan and 385,007 in Lebanon.
The war in Syria has torn families apart, with over 3,700 children in Jordan and Lebanon living without one or both of their parents, or with no adult caregivers at all. By the end of September 2013, UNHCR had registered 2,440 unaccompanied or separated children in Lebanon and 1,320 in Jordan. In some cases the parents have died, been detained, or sent their children into exile alone out of fear for their safety.
UN agencies and partners help to find safe living arrangements for unaccompanied and separated children, reuniting them with their families or finding another family to look after them. Despite living in already crowded conditions, Syrian refugee families continue to open up their homes to relatives or even strangers.
The unrelenting exodus of Syrian refugees to Jordan and Lebanon is having a dramatic impact on these small countries. Lebanon, with a population of a little more than 4 million, has received more than 800,000 Syrian refugees in two years. The economy, essential services and stability of the country are all suffering.
Jordan, one of the most “water poor” nations in the world, with a population of a little over 6 million, is now home to more than 550,000 Syrian refugees. It is also buckling under the pressure on its services, infrastructure and resources.
While many Jordanians and Lebanese display kindness and generosity towards Syrian refugees, tensions between the communities -- and even within refugee communities -- have put refugee children at risk.
Has the world changed so much since the 1980s? Have we become immune to suffering, even that of children?
Maybe Santa doesn't exist after all…

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Journalists as a Syria war casualty

As the Syria war enters its 1,000th day and Syria is labeled “the world’s most dangerous country for journalists,” Syrian media have united for the first time to demand an end to the crimes and abuses committed against all journalists and media workers in their country.

They issued a statement jointly signed by Syrian media, Syrian NGOs, leading international NGOs and high profile personalities.

The statement says:
On October 1, forces from the armed group the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) raided Radio Ana offices in Raqqah.
On October 15, they raided the office a second time, taking possession of all radio and communications equipment.
This example of abuses against the press shall not remain unnoticed, nor should it be considered as an isolated case. The “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) is targeting the newborn independent Syrian press in a deliberate strategy to crush press freedom and to impose a renewed and constant censorship upon the Syrian people.
We, the undersigned,
Refuse any form of intimidation against journalists, citizen journalists, media activists or media organizations, by any group, in any context, and under any pretext.
Press freedom and freedom of expression are inalienable and universal human rights. Any abuse against these universal rights must be condemned and opposed.
We call on the whole Syrian civil society, its political institutions and its media groups to take relevant action to expose these practices, to oppose them, and to protect the media from these dangers.
We demand the immediate release of all detained journalists and citizen journalists held by the regime, ISIS or any other group.
Additionally, we call on international media and those organizations in support of press freedom to join this initiative and to take relevant action for the safety of journalists and freedom of speech in Syria.
Signed by: Ibrahim al-Jabin, Syrian writer; Aktham Naisse, director of Sham Center for Democratic Studies and Human Rights; Burhan Ghallioun, Syrian politician; Bassam Ishak, member of the Syrian National Council; Rasha Omran, writer and poet; Salameh Kaileh, writer; Suheir al-Attasi, political activist; Subhi Hadidi, literary critic; Ammar al-Qurabi, Syrian politician; Ghassan Mouflih, member of the Syrian National Council; Faraj Berakdar, poet; Mohamad Dughmosh, journalist and Al-Arabiya reporter; Hadi al-Bahra, Syrian politician; Mouaz al-Khatib, mosque preacher and Syrian politician; Molham al- Drobi, member of the Muslim Brotherhood; Nouri al-Jarrah, poet; Robin Yassin-Kassab, writer; U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal Democrats (European Parliament); Koert Debeuf, European Parliament.
You can also add your signature here.
Impossible job?
In a November 6 report, Reporters Without Borders says Syria is now “the world’s most dangerous country for journalists.”
More than 110 news providers have been killed in the course of their work there since March 2011 and more than 60 are currently detained, held hostage or missing.
Reporters Without Borders released the report -- Journalism in Syria, impossible job? -- as Edouard Elias and Didier François, two French TV journalists who were abducted on June 6, began their sixth month in captivity in Syria. Two other French journalists, Nicolas Hénin and Pierre Torres, have been held hostage for five-and-a-half months.
It examines the growing perils of journalism in Syria. It also analyzes the evolution in the dangers and identifies the origins of the threats and difficulties Syrian and foreign news providers have encountered during the 33 months of the conflict.
At the start of the uprising, the Syrian army and its civilian thugs retaliated against journalists covering the anti-Assad protests and the government’s crackdown. Now, the report notes, Syrian and foreign journalists are targeted not only by the regular army but also by Jihadist groups in the “liberated areas” in the north, and by the security forces of the PYD, the main political force in the regions with a mainly Kurdish population.
Bashar al-Assad was Syria’s only representative on the Reporters Without Borders annual list of “Predators of press freedom” in 2011. But Jabhat al-­Nusra was added to the list in 2013 and now, Reporters Without Borders says other Jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), deserve to be included.
Aside from the human toll, the report also shows that news coverage is one of the war’s collateral victims. The regime uses the state media in a propaganda and disinformation war, while the new media that quickly emerged after the start of the conflict have tended to turn into puppets of the “revolution” even if some of them strive to be professional.