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As If…

November 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment

the people of Kafranbel understand the game far better than most professional analysts

the people of Kafranbel understand the game far better than most professional analysts

In an article for the National, the wonderful Amal Hanano writes against the illusion that perpetuating the Assad regime can lead to anything other than continuing and expanding war.

In Ambiguities of Domination, political science professor Lisa Wedeen examined the Syrian regime’s rule of domination under then-president Hafez Al Assad.

She noted a dual role for Syrians: both propping up the regime’s propaganda and at the same time subverting its power via the symbols and rhetoric of everyday life and popular culture. This seminal work, published in 1999, a year before Al Assad junior took power, explained to outsiders the inner mechanisms of an authoritative regime. Its relevance is significant today under the shadow of Hafez’s son Bashar and with the fate of a blood-soaked Syria, now in ruins.

In a particularly powerful chapter entitled Acting As If, Wedeen writes: “Power manifests itself in the regime’s ability to impose its fictions upon the world.” The complicity of the people within this imposition enforces the regime’s power of domination. In other words, the regime’s power is mainly constructed by the people’s enacted participation in that very construction.

According to Wedeen: “The politics of acting ‘as if’ carries important political consequences: it enforces obedience, induces complicity, identifies and ferrets out some disobedient citizens …”

Indeed, one of the fundamental ways the Syrian people functioned in the police state was by “acting as if”. Acting as if nothing was going on as Hama was pummeled in 1982. Acting as if they loved the leader even though they were terrified of him.

The tragedy of Bashar Al Assad’s rule is that his father’s construct of complicity has, over the past 32 months, bled far beyond Syria’s borders to encompass the entire region and international community.

As world leaders discuss the merits of the Syrian opposition attending Geneva 2 peace talks without preconditions, they flip the narrative of the revolution. A narrative in which Mr Al Assad is upgraded from a brutal dictator that deserves no more than a cell at The Hague to a potential “partner” in the transitional peace process.

The latest demeaning analysis offered to Syrians is to act “as if” Mr Al Assad maintaining power would end the brutal war that was unleashed by Mr Al Assad himself. Governments act as if dragging the Syrian opposition to the negotiation table without any preconditions will result in a political solution to a raging war. World leaders act as if Mr Al Assad’s cooperation in dismantling his chemical weapon stockpiles is reducing the amount of bloodshed, even as the cluster bombs and scud missiles continue to fall onto civilian populations.


Kafranbel amplifies Amal Hanano's words

Kafranbel amplifies Amal Hanano’s words

As the slated 2014 Syrian presidential election approaches, “Syrians will have their voices heard at the ballot box” is the current refrain of Assad loyalists. As if presidential elections can even be a possibility in a country where over seven million people are displaced. And Mr Al Assad himself acts as if his nomination is not even problematic, to say the least.

For what purpose is all of this acting “as if”? To save Syria from the very regime that created this catastrophe in the first place?

The act of “acting as if”, like the fable about the emperor and his non-existent clothes, twists lies into elaborate truths to the point where even well-intentioned people, including Syrians themselves, are left to wonder: “Should Assad stay?”

Faisal Al Yafai, writing in these pages, approaches the “unthinkable question” of Mr Al Assad remaining in power to save Syria, arguing “all of that could be worthwhile if it ends the conflict”. True, but the most important word in that sentence is “if”.

While Al Yafai rightly points out that no one has any good ideas to end the protracted bloody war, the idea of Mr Al Assad staying in power may just be the worst one.

Most Syrians are worn out by the gruelling violence that has taken a toll on all aspects of life. Most Syrians want peace and stability. If faced with a sincere choice – Mr Al Assad remaining in power in exchange for a ceasefire, the release of all political prisoners, opening humanitarian and medical aid corridors into Syria, and beginning the long process of refugee return – most Syrians would swallow the bitter pill and choose Mr Al Assad. This choice is the result of being left alone to fight two enemies armed by foreign forces with virtually no support. It is a choice of despair.

It is also an unfairly framed choice for one simple reason: Mr Al Assad will never uphold his end of the bargain. Syrian history, old and new, is a reminder of how the Assad regime deals with the people’s dissent. Both father and son have displayed their relentless tactics of retribution. (See Hama, 1982. Or Syria, 2011-2013.)

Making a judgement call based on the grim Syrian present – well over 100,000 dead, thousands in torture cells, millions of displaced and refugees, foreign fighters and extremists battling for foreign ideologies and agendas, mass destruction of cities, towns and villages, an out-of-touch political opposition that is corrupt and impotent, and millions of exhausted Syrians who just want it all to end now – is simply a convenient and careless cop-out.

It’s easy to look at this list of tragedies and claim that saving what’s left of Syria should be the only priority and argue that preconditions to the negotiations will only ensure more stalemate and bloodshed.

Merely glancing at the present is not only naive, it’s immoral. History tells a different story. Stories of mass murder and destruction 31 years ago in Hama, stories of thousands of torture and rape cases, stories of boys whose fingernails where ripped out because they wrote “freedom” on their school walls, stories of enforced policies of “Assad or we scorch the country”, and more recently “Kneel or starve”. Those stories document the despicable and undeniable truth of this regime.

We live in dark times when tyrants are hailed as saviours and martyrs are called terrorists.

History repeats itself – as Hama did before Daraa, and Hafez before Bashar. History also bears witness to the simple fact that sooner or later, every tyrant’s rule ends. In fact, tyrants have fallen over the centuries of our collective civilisation, on this very land called Syria.

Perhaps we will not be able to rejoice soon (or not even for decades) that the Assad regime is finally finished. That will not change one fact: asking for him or his regime to stay will not save lives. Instead, this decision will take more Syrian lives. Thousands more lives.

Deceptive options and skewed choices can be framed as powerful persuasions, as the “last hope” and the “moral choice”. These “solutions for the Syrian conflict” mock the Syrian people’s heavy sacrifices, bloody history, and desire for a peaceful future of freedom and dignity.

If the world has now decided to act “as if”, this complicit world should know that the Syrian people ended that charade 30 months ago. That was their unambiguous choice.

Beyond the dead, tortured, and displaced people; beyond the destroyed cities and scorched landscapes; beyond all what we have lost; does the world really expect Syrians to go back to acting “as if”? As if they loved the illegitimate leader in Damascus? As if the tyrant’s clothes were not soaked with the people’s blood? As if the lies had become the truth? As if history had never unfolded in the terrible ways it did?

As if nothing had happened at all?

Amal Hanano is the pseudonym of a Syrian-American writer

On Twitter: @AmalHanano


The shared struggle for Syrian freedom

September 11, 20131:30PM ET

Commentary: A Syrian-American argues that the U.S. should take sides against the Assad regime
 note: The author has decided to write under a pen name, to protect associates in Syria from possible reprisals.

To Americans following the news on Syria:

This is not how we Syrians wanted to introduce ourselves to you. We did not want you to meet us via a television screen split between Secretary of State John Kerry speaking about America’s newfound duty to stop Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons on his own people and the piles of dead children who were gassed on Aug. 21, 2013. We did not want you to feel the need possibly to embrace a proposal from Russian President Vladimir Putin — a dubious plan to recover Syria’s chemical weapons from an active war zone without a strong enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance— to find a political settlement that would avoid an unpopular military strike.

We would have rather you met us 30 months ago, when this turmoil began, on March 15, 2011. That day Syrians decided that they would no longer accept oppression in silence and that they were willing to die to live with freedom and dignity. And die they have — more than 100,000 and counting. To their chants for reform and cries against tyranny, the Syrian regime responded with bullets and cluster bombs. And for more than two years the world watched and said nothing.

As an American, I want to remind you that we have been here before, at this very crossroads in the struggle for freedom and justice. Though we did not live that history ourselves, still we feel its ripple effects on our lives every single day. Although our democracy is flawed, would you dare ask if the freedom won from the American Revolution, the Civil War or the civil rights movement was worth it? Such a question would offend the memory of the countless Americans who gave their lives for those causes.

As a Syrian I want to tell you that we have been here before. Syria has thousands of years of history, with its share of violent wars as well as the flowering of religions, cultures and ethnicities. In recent years, we suffered the consequences of the Iraq War seeping through our borders. We are entangled in the unending regional conflict between Palestine and Israel. But in the last two years, we have also witnessed the citizens of neighboring Arab countries rise up against their tyrannical governments.

As a citizen of the world, I want to tell you that we have been here before. We have witnessed chemical weapons attacks, ethnic cleansing, torture and genocide. We also have watched peoples overcome unimaginable losses and survive mass violence and destruction.

You may be able to live with your inaction, but will you be able to forget what you have seen?

What is happening in Syria is not new. It is one of humanity’s oldest stories: a people fighting to free itself from a brutal regime that is willing to massacre foes and innocents alike to stay in power. For the past two and a half years, Syrians have asked the international community for support. No answers have come save excuses: The opposition is too fragmented; extremists have made the conflict too messy; there is no good to be gained from intervening in a protracted sectarian war; there are too many other more important problems at home to get involved in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. These excuses have prolonged Syria’s agony and bought Assad and his allies many months to kill tens of thousands of innocent people.

In the spring of 2011, Syria’s revolutionaries believed that it was time to join the millions of people across the region chanting, “Freedom!” for the first time, without fear. Aren’t all revolutionaries naive optimists? How could it not be silly to think that thousands of people could dismantle a brutal regime with hopeful chants? To take up small arms against tanks and warships? To try to remake society while Scud missiles and mortars rain down? To face the horror of toxic gas attacks like the one that killed more than 1,400 people last month? They are paying a heavy price for their ideals.

The Obama administration sold military intervention in Syria as a moral and humanitarian choice. We were told that the strikes would be “limited” and will “degrade” Assad’s ability to launch another chemical weapons attack. And now that plan appears to be stalled. But Syrians are not naive. Like you, we have grown jaded since 2011. The staggering numbers — including 2 million refugees, 6 million internally displaced and the loss of a third of all Syrian homes by last spring — will harden any idealist. Syrians know that intervention, if it ever comes, is not about a moral choice. It is about America’s credibility, a president’s legacy and maintaining authority in the global power struggle.

It would be very easy for America to avoid being involved in Syria. It is easy to ask, “Remember Iraq? Remember Afghanistan?” It is easy to say, “It’s too messy, too far away, too complicated.” But you will never be able to say that you did not know what was going on, that you did not see the devastation with your own eyes. This revolution has been thoroughly documented. The videos of the suffering will never be erased, the images of corpses will never disappear, and the bloodstains will never wash away from the clothes of those who looked the other way, toward the wrong side of history. You may be able to live with your inaction, but will you be able to forget what you have seen?

You have been here before, faced with difficult choices. But you should not forget that at one time, other nations made these same choices for you — back when you were a colony of naive, idealistic revolutionaries who believed you could build a new world with sheer determination and calls for freedom.

Now Syrians stand at a similar crossroads. What does Syria mean to you? Whether you have watched Syrians die for the past two and a half years or have just been introduced to the horrors of parents wrapping their children in white shrouds, you must ask yourself where you stand. Would you deny to Syrians the same freedoms you have claimed for yourselves? Or do you see Syrians participating in the same struggle — one that we all share together?


Seven Minutes and Nineteen Seconds in Aleppo

    Amal Hanano  –  August 24, 2013

It’s August 16. A man holding a camera runs between tall concrete buildings. A dark gray cloud breaks the blue summer sky of Aleppo. He moves towards the smoke while men run in the opposite direction. A man carries an injured man on his shoulder. A horse pulling a cart trots by. A man leans on a comrade, cradling his injured arm.

Signs of normalcy are scattered among gorier scenes: a voice reciting the Friday prayer, a cart piled with yellow cantaloupes, a scale and a tray of green cactus fruit, a red umbrella covering street fare for sale. These are signs of lives interrupted.

The man with the camera gets closer to the scene, and the screams grow louder. A man is dragged by five others. I don’t know if he is dead or alive. Another holds a child to his chest. Bodies are scattered on the street. Watermelons are scattered on the street. The honking of cars merges with the collective wailing. Bodies are covered with colorful woven tarps. The dusty street now has crimson stains.

Three minutes and 25 seconds in, the man holding the camera finally arrives at the source of the chaos. He calls it a Scud attack. Others think it was a surface-to-surface missile attack. Still others claim it was an air strike. There is no argument, however, about what it has done.

There is a gap between the multistory apartment buildings in the rebel-controlled area between the two neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr and al-Kallaseh. Bustan al-Qasr is the center of regime resistance in Aleppo, and home to peaceful protests against both the regime and the extremist militia groups. A space that was just occupied by residential buildings is now reduced to two massive hills of rubble, dust and stacked concrete floors.

Men scale the mountains of debris. They try to rescue victims trapped underneath. Who are these buried people? Families who’d simply been preparing Friday lunch? Perhaps they felt lucky that they were still safe. That they were not refugees. That they still had roofs over their heads – until those roofs crushed them on a sunny afternoon.

Now the camera focuses on a group of bare-handed men lifting stones and clearing pieces of concrete. Something white appears in the gap they’ve opened. It’s a body. I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman, dead or alive. The shirt has been stained dark pink. The body is dragged away.

Children cry. Men hold their heads in despair. “Climb to the top.,” a man screams, referring to the rubble. “Climb to the top.” A man’s silhouette appears in the dust, carrying a body on his own. I think that person is still alive.

A man addresses President Bashar al-Assad. “Is this bravery?” he yells, “to strike civilians?”

In a shorter 20-second video from the same day, a father holds his head and cries for his lost children. “The children are gone,” he wails, “the children are gone. They are under the earth. What can get them out now?”


Syrians attempt to analyze the attack on social media. Most agree that it is the regime’s retaliation for a deadly car bombing in southern Beirut the day before, widely thought to have been carried out by rebels. But after many months of the same attacks on Syrian towns and cities, does Assad’s scorched earth policy have a rational explanation?

Over 30 dead have been counted on this day in Aleppo. The rest are still buried in the concrete rubble.

By nightfall, civilian rescuers were still digging with their bare hands. In any other country, these men would have been treated like heroes. But here, they aren’t even noticed. No one watches these videos from Syria anymore. They have become the norm.

Heartbreaking pleas for machinery, ropes, floodlights and first aid kits saturated online platforms after the attack shown in the video. They didn’t ask for weapons or food; they begged for ropes to pull out their dead. Activists shared plans to train civilians on rescue missions to prepare for the aftermath of the next attack. They know there will be a next time.

One week later, rebels claim that over 1300 are dead from a chemical weapon attack on the eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus. The media is moved once more to share the images of our dead children. And the men in Bustan al-Qasr still dig in the rubble, unnoticed. Twelve more bodies are excavated, only to be buried again. There are still more to be retrieved. The men continue to dig.

Remember three years ago, when we watched the fate of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground? Remember how the world united in that moment? We rooted for survival, for humanity, for an ending that somehow proves our collective resilience. For an ending that somehow defies all odds. In Syria, such an ending was written off long ago.

There is nothing left to prove in Syria anymore. Nothing to offer but cowardly ambivalence and cold political calculations. World leaders know that the words “never again” are mere words, empty promises reserved for the sanitized spaces of memorial dedications or an exhibition on genocide years after it comes to an end.

Maybe one day, decades from now, an American politician will stand on the ruins of Aleppo, at the opening of a museum dedicated to the bloody memory of the Syrian revolution. Maybe this seven-minute video will be playing in black and white on a screen behind him as he looks straight into the cameras and solemnly swears: “Never again.”


A Turkish hotel that hosts all Syria’s pains and memories

Amal Hanano

Jul 4, 2013

The town of Reyhanli is the Turkish capital for revolutionary activities in northern Syria, and the Hotel Ali Ce is the heart of those operations. Here the abstract concept of “regional spillover,” so popular in analytical articles about Syria, becomes real and personal. The hotel was once a safe haven, as was the town. But now Syria’s violence touches everyone you meet, from the concierge to the guests.

Unlike the lavish hotels that the Syrian political opposition has become accustomed to, the pink and yellow Ali Ce building on the main Reyhanli road is not known for luxury. It is almost impossible to make a reliable reservation, they don’t take credit cards, their showers are extremely moody and you have to ask for your room to be cleaned.

But from morning till well past midnight, dozens of characters gather around the white plastic tables: FSA fighters and generals, aid workers, activists, journalists, Syrian expatriates and refugees and weapons dealers. Once a sleepy hotel in a sleepy town, the Ali Ce has witnessed it all: tortured prisoners, strategic political meetings, secret weapons deals and scandalous stories: “What happens in the Ali Ce, stays in the Ali Ce”.

The out-of-touch political opposition, a world away in Istanbul, is forgotten and ignored here. The connection to Syria and the Syrian people is tangible in border towns like Reyhanli and Killis. Reyhanli’s population has doubled to 60,000 since the revolution began. The town suffered deadly twin car bombings in May but concrete apartment buildings are sprouting up everywhere and the local economy is booming. The fact that the Syrian tragedy is behind this growth is never forgotten.

On my first night, bleary, jet-lagged and relieved that I had a room, I took some dollars from my wallet to tip Mohammed, who had lugged my bags. I was surprised when he refused to take the money, saying with pride “I don’t want your money. I am Syrian”. I learnt later that he had been tortured in one of Bashar Al Assad’s prisons for a year and a half.

Later I opened the window – there was a distant view of olive-trees on Syrian hills, and listened to the morning athan. Everything about this place reminded me of Syria. Sadly, Reyhanli had not been spared my country’s misery. Women and children begged for money on the street, in Arabic.

At Galaxy, a fast-food restaurant, Syrian-style chicken with white garlic sauce was our group’s favourite meal. When I complained that food was much better in Antakya, my friend joked: “Wait 10 years, you’ll eat here like you used to in Aleppo.” We did not laugh.

The Turkish people we interacted with were sources of protection and loyalty. Ahmet, our tough driver, had delivered food to his Syrian friends who could not leave the house for days after the car bombings. He claimed he changed his former “sinful” ways after working for the refugees. He said that he used to commit “2,000 sins a day but now only 1,000”. Ahmet suffered a massive heart attack and had bypass surgery during my trip. When we visited him on our last night in his modest home, he told me: “We are one people. One people.”

At Nazli’s, a hairdresser across the street, I learnt that the Turkish mother’s brother-in-law had been killed in the bombings. I was quiet as she moved the brush through my hair and said over and over: “Why the bombs? Why the bombs?”

Moustafa, a Turkish hotel manager, surprised me one night when I walked in after being out for 12 hours: “Where were you? No one stays in the camp that late. I was worried.” I explained we had dinner before coming back to the hotel. He made me promise to let him know every time we came back from Syria.

One Turkish man in particular affected the lives of everyone who crossed into Syria via the Atmeh border. Hussein, a skinny man with a pudding-bowl haircut that made him look like an ageing Beatle, went from holding a boring government job at this remote outpost to becoming one of the most important men in Reyhanli. He is responsible for signing every person in and out of the Atmeh border. Everyone tries to be on his good side to ease entry and exit, which is not easy because of his flaring temper. For instance, if your name were Bashar, he would change it to Bashir, yelling: “I haven’t written the name Bashar in two years and refuse to start doing that now.”

The last day I crossed into Syria, he learnt my personal information by his heart. He asked jokingly without looking up: “So when are you coming back? I hope you’re not staying for a long time.” Surrounded by dozens of people waiting for hours in the heat to get into Syria – some without papers, others separated from their families, each face etched with the same pain of uncertainty – I burst into tears. He consoled me: “I pray for this nightmare to be over every day. I pray for all of these people to go back to their homes. I pray that you will never have to cross into your country from here again.”

Leaving the hotel after 12 nights, the broken shower head, the hard beds and the quilts and carpets on the plastic partition, were all but forgotten as I looked back at the unlikely group that had gathered on the side street to say goodbye, smiling Syrians and Turks wishing us safe travels and safe returns.

I realised we were part of another kind of regional spillover, one that no one writes about, perhaps because they would be accused of “romanticising” the revolution. Or perhaps in the feverish quest to hunt down and write about the revolution’s horrors instead of its hopes, they just had not experienced it. This spillover was real and personal too – a bond between people and that bleeding land that was within hiking distance. A bond of compassion, determination and love.

By every conventional review standard, Ali Ce fails miserably. But it does what only the best hotels can do: it makes you feel at home. When a hotel or a town can make you feel at home, while you have become estranged by force from your real home, that’s just pure magic. And just like in The Eagles’ song, you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.

Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian-American writer

On Twitter: @AmalHanano

Maher Almounnes + Amal Hanano: Hallucinations of War

Amal Hanano (@amalhanano)  –  April 13, 2013
This post, called “Hallucinations of War,” was originally published in Arabic on the blog “Overdose”, which is written from Damascus by journalist Maher Almounnes. It is translated here by Syria Deeply associate culture editor Amal Hanano.Before this war, I used to be described as the smiling optimist. Maybe it was a blessing to be known to my friends as a good listener, because I would simplify situations and solve problems and so forth. However, I still, despite all the pain, continue to smile. And I still, despite all the weariness, find meaning within every tragedy.My first sorrows were losing loved ones, one after the other, as they left the country. But I would console myself with the belief that we would meet again and that our reunion will be sweeter after our separation.

Then we started losing loved ones who would never return. Their martyrdom was both a source of mourning and solace, as “the afterlife is better and everlasting.”

And when we left our home, I told myself that we were leaving one home for another, while there were thousands who had left their homes to live without shelter.

Then my father lost his job. I soothed my mother and told her there were others who had lost their eye or their leg or maybe even their life; thank God my father had not been harmed.

Then one of my best friends was abducted. The silver lining was that he returned with his head still attached to his body and that all that they had given him were a few bruises and slightly swollen soles.

Between these events are countless details, from having to postpone my sister’s wedding dozens of times to losing so many friends because of politics.

However, these details and others, like watching scenes of death in repetition, are details that every Syrian knows well. Death has come so close to each one of us that we no longer even see it.

All we see now is that we are political commodities or material for the media, or at best we are a number that scrolls on the red ticker on a television screen proceeded by the word: Breaking!


Two years. They seem like 20 years of wisdom and 50 years of sorrow. They made me change how I think about a lot of things. (By the way, I write now because I feel like it, not for any other reason.) But they did not stop me from taking advantage of this miserable reality and conspire with the girl I love.

The irony is, I forced this war to bend to my demands and serve my personal interests.

I claim to be the greatest lover in the dirtiest war. I claim to love her as much as the sorrow in Damascus, the number of the bullets in Aleppo, the destruction of the neighborhoods in the old city of Homs.

Every explosion is another reason to listen to her voice with the excuse to make sure she is alright. Would you believe that I now love the sound of explosions? Just so I can rush to call my love even though I know with certainty that she is safe at home.

Our new home that we fled to is located on the outskirts of Damascus, in a conflict zone. It’s wonderful for your home to be in a “hot” zone, because you have a daily appointment with death. And that’s another opportunity for her to worry about me and to call me every morning to make sure I woke up in my bed, still alive.

I work in a neighborhood where people are often detained. Amazing! A little bit of fear in exchange for more chances to be indulged and receive a few sweet words from here or a warm message from there.

And so what else is there in this war? Snipers? Suicide bombers? Mortars?

How beautiful they all are.

Because of them, I made a pact to never upset her no matter the reason. Because my fear is that death will come quickly, leaving a melancholy gaze between our eyes forever.

I owe our neighborhood sniper a rose. Because of him, I call my love every day, a few meters from my home, and each time it feels like our final phone call. I don’t know how I invent the words of endearment. I’m surprised by the beautiful words flowing out of my mouth that melt her and in turn melt me. Until I arrive safely to my doorstep.

I owe this war: 2,000 text messages; tens of handwritten letters; more than 4,000 “I love yous”; hundreds of kisses, embraces and tears of joy when we meet; and hours of pining and waiting.

Who said this war is all bad? I made the most beautiful love story out of this war.

Forgive me darling, our love story is written in steel and fire.

I swear by the blood of martyrs that spilled over my land that I love you until the last bullet, the last bomb and the last drop of martyr’s blood.

Not only because you are my angel, but because I believe: love is mightier than war.

You are mightier than war.

Syria : Yakzan Shishakly


Yakzan Shishakly – Credit Amal Hanano

It was early March 2013, and over 200 Syrian-Americans had gathered in a ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston. The gala was a benefit for the Maram Foundation, a nonprofit organization operating out of Reyhanli, Turkey, providing humanitarian aid for Syrians – namely, the thousands of internally displaced people near the Syrian village of Atma.

Maram was founded in October 2012. Its physical presence on the ground has made it prominent among the dozens of nonprofits started in the last two years, as Syrian expats scramble to alleviate their homeland’s humanitarian crisis.

But being on the ground in war-ravaged Syria comes with a price. Maram’s founder, 34-year-old Syrian-American Yakzan Shishakly, knows this all too well. Now living full-time on the Turkish-Syrian border, he runs his foundation’s humanitarian and medical relief programs, which includes managing the Olive Tree Camp, near the town of Atma. Just over the Syrian border, it’s the country’s largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), housing more than 20,000 men, women and children.

Although he is a firsthand witness to the plight of thousands of Syrians and has become an expert on relief work in the region, Shishakly did not get onstage at his foundation’s Houston benefit. He watched the event like an outsider, shy and keeping his distance from the spotlight. Clean-shaven and wearing a suit – a departure from his camp uniform, pants and boots – he seemed to be a transplant in that ballroom, a world away from where I had seen him at work two months before in the hills of Idlib province.

The day after the benefit, Shishakly speeds along wide, smooth, Texas highways just a bit slower than he had on the bumpy Turkish roads leading to Olive Tree camp. “Did you feel out of place last night?” he asks. I know exactly what he means. Though it has been two years since the revolution began, we still find it difficult to maneuver between the roles we have assumed. We fundraise, deliver aid, practice activism and media awareness and, of course, lead our “normal” American lives.

Our stories are similar to those of so many other Syrians, whether inside the country or living abroad. From the tailor picking up a gun to the beautician training as a sniper, to expats across the ocean taking crash courses in aid relief and political lobbying, we are taking on responsibilities for which we were not prepared. All the while, men and women like Shishakly know that our people’s lives are at stake.

Shishakly grew up in Damascus in a family with deep political roots. His grandfather Adib was a military leader and president of Syria in 1953. His older brother, the grandfather’s namesake, Adib, is a prominent figure in the current Syrian political opposition. Yakzan, who owns an air-conditioning company in Houston, situated himself far from the world of political conferences and settled instead in the trenches, as close as
possible to the people who had lost everything.

Many people close to Shishakly express surprise at the role he has adopted. His involvement in the revolution began by organizing protests and planning fundraisers in the US, but during a trip to southern Turkey last year, he visited the few thousand stranded people across the border who had fled their homes and were denied entry to Turkey as refugees. They were living among the olive trees, without tents, water or food. Shishakly and his friends delivered the aid that they could and came back to the U.S. But he knew that he had to return. “We can do much better as Syrians for our people,” he said then.

In Houston, he raised money for tents and registered Maram as a nonprofit organization. He named it after a 4-year-old girl who was paralyzed after being injured by shelling in her village. Shishakly began to move back andforth between Reyhanli and Houston. Slowly the trips back to the U.S. became shorter and less frequent until, as he says, “I realized that I live here now,” on the outskirts of his homeland.


Shishakly’s day-to-day life is a continuous loop of fulfilling the camp’s never-ending demands and needs. In addition to the basic necessities, including food, water, shelter, medical care and educational programs,
Shishakly also provides security for the IDPs.

It is a struggle to balance the inside-outside factor even from the ground. Aid profiteering has become a booming business in towns that border camps. Shishakly is often in a situation of negotiation and confrontation with the villagers surrounding the camp, who eye the aid coming through the
border as rightfully theirs.

His role is difficult and can be dangerous. But in the months since he arrived, he has slowly changed from the Syrian-American outsider to a trusted advocate for the people in the camp. In helping them, he became “one of them.”

Olive Tree Camp -First Aid Graduation – Credit Maram Foundation

Long-term planning is almost impossible when nothing is static in the camp. The number of displaced arrivals grows by about 100 people every day. Aerial bombardment is constant, even in the liberated northern territories. And the flow of aid is erratic. Each day brings a wave of new people seeking shelter, new tents to erect and new mouths to feed. As time lags on and new arrivals rest among the olive trees, the camp’s earlier settlers grow weary and demanding.

Shishakly and his growing team of volunteers have begun to implement programs to alleviate people’s sense of helplessness and restore their dignity and pride. Recently, a group of 40 women and 20 men completed a first aid course and were awarded certificates. For some of the graduates, this was the first “diploma” they had ever received. “They felt like they existed again,” Shishakly said.

This group will continue their first aid education while working as paid volunteers inside the camp. Shishakly maintains a “help the people help themselves” philosophy. When the violence ends, he hopes to transition people back to their homes as equipped citizens ready to rebuild the country.


One of the devastating symptoms of the displaced is that they themselves have become outsiders to the world. They are hardened by the violence they have suffered and witnessed. They are frustrated with the journalists who visit, take pictures and conduct interviews to write yet another report on the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, while their desperate situation remains unchanged. Many of them, now jaded, simply turn away from the cameras and notebooks.

Shishakly is similarly disappointed  – in the political opposition, the endless power plays, empty talk and false promises. As the camp grows, so does his frustration as a result of watching glacial political developments and the trickle of aid. But walking Atma’s dirt lanes, Shishakly seems to be immune to the misery. Among the tents, he is usually surrounded by people, blending in with his beard and rugged clothes.

During my visit in late December, I would come back from the camp and tell him the stories I had heard inside the tents. He only partially listened. He has heard too much and seen too much. When I told him about meeting Manar, a woman who lost her two children in a tent fire last year, he told me that he had taken the children to the hospital, later claimed their burned corpses, and then arranged their burial. He had done the things that their mother couldn’t, and performed the duties of their absent father.

I asked him how he dealt with these responsibilities. He responded with a sentence that has since become his trademark: “Even when your heart is breaking with pain and sadness, you have to keep a smile on your face because your smile may be someone else’s hope.”


A few weeks ago, we are on the phone. It’s early morning at Olive Tree. Mid-chat, Shishakly receives a call from the camp. There has been another fire, this time in a village nearby. Because the official Bab al-Hawa crossing is closed, the injured family is rushed through his camp to receive emergency care across the border in a Turkish hospital. Men are yelling for an ambulance. “Come fast!” someone screams. “They are my family. They are dying in front of me.”

Shishakly tells me that he has to go. He’s frustrated. “I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be anymore,” he says, before he hangs up. “Am I a camp director, crisis manager, emergency operator, counselor? I don’t know.”

I sit holding my now silent phone, facing the glowing laptop in my living room. As usual, it’s past midnight here in the West. Upstairs, my own family is sleeping. In a few hours it will be time to assume my “normal”role in the U.S. and live another day pretending that I don’t feel out of place.

I know there are hundreds of Syrians across the world sitting just like me, with Skype messages pouring in and the emails that don’t stop. Screens glow with stories to be written, videos to be watched, news to be shared, funds to be raised, skills to be learned. Another child needs a prosthetic limb, another activist needs political asylum, another contact has been martyred.

The list of duties piles up; they are responsibilities that were not supposed to be ours, but now they are. Each day we convince ourselves that if we just hang in there for a little bit longer, these duties will be crossed off and we can finally close this brutal chapter of our lives. But with each day, the opposite seems to be true. This is our new reality.

Although Shishakly can’t hear me, I answer his question: Neither do I.

In the darkness, I think about my friend across the world, beginning every morning with 20,000 hungry mouths on his mind. Today he started with another fire, and he may end it by collecting scorched bodies of dead children. I know that, despite it all, he will find some way to place a smile on his face.

We have been reduced to frantically placing Band-Aids over our country’s hemorrhaging wounds. Somewhere along the way, we were pulled in and morphed from spectators to actors. We now bear this destiny of personal and collective scars as we navigate between roles and identities. A rare few rose up to the challenge, bluntly sacrificing one part of themselves for another. In the process, they found their unquestionable place.

A few days after the Houston benefit, I messaged Yakzan, asking if he was home yet. His answer came moments later, from Syria: “Yes. :)

*For more information on the Maram Foundation and the Olive Tree Camp, please visit *


Her Voice

Her Voice

On the eve of the second anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, I watched a single video: footage of an early expression of resistance recorded in central Damascus on March 15, 2011. After watching thousands of videos for the last two years — protests, funerals, destruction, bombs, and countless corpses — I was surprised that this video was as difficult to watch as the horrific ones. It’s a video that accidentally recorded an act of unparalleled bravery: one voice that pierced 41 years of a nation’s voluntary silence.

The scene opens in the bustling Hamidiyeh commercial center. In the background, men’s robotic voices thud like war drums, “With souls. With blood. We sacrifice for you, ya Bashar.” With each moment, the deafening beats grow louder. Another crowd forms out of what had appeared to be random pedestrians. Their words “silmiyeh, silmiyeh” (peaceful, peaceful) mesh with the men’s chant. The demonstrators arrive to our vantage point and as the new crowd joins in, they replace Bashar’s name with “Souriya.” With souls. With blood. We sacrifice for you, ya Souriya.

One woman appears in the frame. She yells, “It’s coming nearer to your Abu Hafez,” referencing the season of revolutions that had ignited in the region. Syria’s flag is proudly draped over her shoulders like a cape. The bright red pops in the muted sea of black, brown, and gray. She carries the only flag in this demonstration. This is not surprising, as the mob is chanting for a person and not a country. The mob’s chant represents the typical fear, submission, and humiliation of Assad’s Syria.

Moments later, the crowd breaks apart and she slips off the incriminating flag and slips on her sunglasses as a few thugs surround her, pulling her out of the march. She screams, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to,” walking away from them back into the demonstration. But they pull her out again. She screams, as a few women try to hold her back, try to save her from her own voice, “Freedom, in spite of your Bashar.” The people around her begin to chant “peaceful, peaceful” once more. She walks away, waving her flag in defiance, calling “Where are the men? Where are the men?” Then, “peaceful, peaceful” switches to “freedom, freedom.”

We are left at the intersection where the two groups have split into different directions. But as the video ends, only one chant can be heard, a chant that has become a roar, “Allah, Souriya, hurriyeh w bess!”

People reference multiple starting dates for the revolution: February 17, March 6, March 15, March 18. But all of them began with a moment like this one. All of them began with a voice.


The day after this event, Suheir Atassi and a group of protesters stood in front of the courthouse in Damascus demanding for the release of political prisoners. They were in turn imprisoned for their dissent. Two days after that, on a Friday, a protest emerged from the Hamzah and Abbas mosque in Daraa demanding that their tortured children be released from prison. Two men, Mahmoud Jawabrah and Hussam Ayyash were shot dead by security forces. The day after that, more men were killed while burying the revolution’s first martyrs. And the day after that, there was a protest to protest the funeral deaths. And the day after that there was a funeral for the people who were killed in the protest the day before. More violence and more deaths. More deaths and more violence. And here we are, two years later with over 70,000 dead, over a million Syrian refugees, and a country that has become a landscape of destruction.

Some people talk about the heavy price of the revolution. Some people talk about their fears of the future as if a viable, secure future under Assad’s rule is even possible. And some people ask, “Was it worth it?”

We have all lost. Sometimes it seems we have gained nothing but loss. Sometimes, even we watch the bloody videos and silently wonder, “Was it worth it?” It is the weakest question to ask; the question of despair.

Would you dare ask that woman “Was it worth it?” or “Is this the freedom you want?”


That voice lived within us. We hid it and never dared to speak it aloud. Not because we feared the unknown, on the contrary, we feared the known. Dissent meant torture, exile, death. That dormant voice became words spoken aloud in the street and scribbled on a school wall. Words that broke the fear. Words that became actions and actions that ended with rivers of Syrian blood.

That woman’s voice represents all of ours. Each of us knows the specific moment when our voices joined hers. For some, the moment arrived later than others. For some, the moment never arrived, as relentless fear still grips their vocal cords. And for thousands of Syrians, that voice cost them their lives.

Rami Jarrah always reminds me, the ones who start revolutions are not the ones who see them through. Maybe that is the greatest unknown that we should have feared. That good will eventually be broken. That hope will eventually die. That what we will be left with is less than what we had when we started. But then, I remember this video and imagine the courage of one woman’s voice against a sea of cowardly ones. I remember so many Syrian voices: the tortured man whose final words were, “my wife is my crown,” the boy who was shot in a protest and fell into his father’s arms saying “Forgive me, dad,” citizen journalist and martyr Mohamed Masalmeh, who declared that he was blessed to be one of the first protesters in Daraa, and Raed Faris, the Kafranbel artist, who said after Jabhet al-Nusra took over their town square for a recent Friday protest, “Let them take the square. The real square is where we are.”

There is no real celebration this year. There is no joy. The regime killed it many months ago. There are no more expectations. The Syrian political opposition killed those many months ago as well. There is no waiting for the world to act. We know that this is an unfair battle that Syrians will fight while everyone else watches in silence.

All we have left is what we began with: sheer awe at the resilience and determination of the Syrian people who despite their orphaned revolution and against all odds still stand shoulder to shoulder in now unrecognizable streets with nothing but their voices, their flags, and their chant: Freedom.

What is left is hope. And the knowledge that they will be there tomorrow and after tomorrow and the day after that … until the end.

I hope that the woman from Damascus is still alive. I hope I will meet her one day and tell her: Thank you for freeing our voices.


March 15, 2013, Aleppo, Syria


Syrian Stories: Armed with a Mic and Camera

Amal Hanano  –  February 22, 2013

On April 25, 2011, a man held up a video camera in Deraa. He was not an experienced videographer and he did not have a tripod.

He stood in front of a group of Syrian army soldiers with tanks and filmed them shooting their machine guns towards civilian targets. Each time he watched the clip on his laptop, he noticed the footage was shaky due to his trembling hand, so he would go back to his exposed vantage point to film once more.

He did this 24 times before he made this passably stable clip:

His name was Mohamed “Abu al-Nimer” Masalmeh.

On January 18, 2013 – after 22 months of reporting as a citizen journalist from Deraa – he was killed by army snipers in the village of Busra al-Harir.

He was armed with a microphone and his camera.

Once, before the revolution ignited from his home city, Mohamed, 32, had been detained for four months in the Air Force intelligence center in Damascus.

He was released during the first weeks of the Arab Spring in time to witness an ousted dictator in Tunisia and a roaring Tahrir Square threatening Mubarak.

A group of underground activists, including Mohamed, began meeting at a farm to discuss how to begin a similar revolution in Syria.

As they did, 15 schoolboys — influenced by both their older brothers’ secret discussions and the protests in Egypt and Libya — famously wrote on school walls in Deraa, an event many call the official start of the uprising.

“The people want to topple the regime,” they scrawled. They were arrested and tortured.

On Wednesday, March 15, 2011, Mohamed joined a group of 30 men to protest the schoolboys’ arrest in Deraa’s main square, in front of the courthouse.

Intelligence officers had already heard about the plan, and swarmed the area. The protest was silently aborted. On March 18, they tried again, this time emerging from the Hamza and Abbas Mosque after Friday prayers, chanting: “freedom, freedom, freedom!”

Thousands joined them. Security forces opened fire, two protesters were killed, and a revolution was born.

Mohamed picked up a camera to film the events unfolding in the city. He joined the growing Sham News Network (SNN) as a citizen journalist.

His reports were tributes to the destruction of his city. He took to wearing disguises during his television reports: a black wig; a scarf; large sunglasses.

But this son of Deraa, with his round face and kind eyes, was known to his city and to the circling shabiha. He was a wanted man.

Last year, Mohamed began reporting for Al-Jazeera. He felt Deraa had been forgotten in the media as violence raged across the country.

His reports from the ground exposed the suffering of southern Syria.

A week before his death, his wife returned to Deraa to visit him. They took walks on the snow-covered streets and he drew a heart in the snow.

Her name meant loyalty. Her husband was known for his generosity, often returning home with emptied pockets after walking the city’s streets.

Although he was the city’s most prominent media activist, he never upgraded his old Nokia phone.

“This phone understands me and I understand it,” he told people.

Mohamed once said that he thanked God “that I was blessed to be one of the men to leave the Hamza and Abbas Mosque chanting, ‘freedom.’”

He insisted on mentioning martyrs’ names in his reports, lest anyone forget, including the names of other sons of Houran: Ali Masalmeh, Mahmoud Jawabrah and Husam Abd al-Wali Ayyash.

When four Shaam journalists were killed in May 2012 in Damascus, Mohamed protested in Deraa, without a disguise, holding a sign that read, simply: “We are all Sham.”

In his last few weeks, his friends begged him to leave Deraa; it had become too dangerous. He replied, “I’ll leave, but first I need to go to Busra al-Harir so I can rest.”

Busra al-Harir, 50 kilometers east of Deraa, was the site of intense fighting between Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces and the Syrian rebels.

In his final video, below, he stands on a street corner with armed Free Syrian Army fighters.

He is unarmed, in regular clothes, holding a microphone with a makeshift Al-Jazeera logo. A fighter tests the situation and darts across the street first. He arrives safely to the other side.

Mohamed is next; he is visibly nervous. He puts his head down and runs. Three shots break the silence. Three bullets catch him before he reaches to safety. He falls; his body convulses. The video ends.

Mohamed was shot twice in the torso and once in his leg. There were no doctors or an adequate medical facility to treat him. He bled to death.

Deraa paused one day in January to mourn a man who had finally found a place to rest.

Inside Syria’s refugee camps, a harrowing tale of fire and ice


Amal Hanano

Jan 5, 2013

On New Year’s Eve, while the world counted down the minutes until 2013, celebrating with loud blasts of fireworks in the sky, a tent with seven sleeping children and a mother in the Olive Tree refugee camp near the Syrian village of Atmeh burst into flames. On the first day of the new year, five of the children were dead.

One day before the devastating fire, I visited the Olive Tree refugee camp. The four-month-old sprawling camp occupies a hill covered with olive trees on Syrian land along the barbed-wire Turkish border. Walking on the muddy path among the rows of the 1,200 tents that shelter between 8,000 and 12,000 Syrian refugees, I was surrounded by children. They gathered around and followed the visitors, asking questions, singing songs and explaining in simple phrases details about their everyday life. Most sentences begin with “we don’t have”: we don’t have water, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have food, we don’t have toys, we don’t have …

The children moved through the camp in groups, some carrying olive tree branches for firewood, others gathered around their mothers who were cooking weed-like greens picked from the land to supplement the dinner rations that are never enough to feed the families. Most are not dressed warmly enough for the cold and almost none of them still go to school. People in the camp that day told me over and over: “We left our homes for our children.” But looking at the underfunded, muddy camp with its open sewers and lack of basic services, you wonder what kind of home this is for a child?

The women were busy at the tent entrances, some cooking, some tending to infants, and others clipping wet, drab clothes onto lines stretched between the tents. A woman named Manar, dressed in her only outfit, a rust-coloured velvet galabiyeh, invited me inside to tell me the story of a fire that had happened just 15 days before.

I ducked into her tent and sat on the concrete blocks that separated the muddy entrance from the sparse interior with a few thin mattresses and blankets piled in the corner. Manar is only in her twenties but looks older, worn out. Her eyes filled with tears as she began, “What should I tell you? My heart is burnt, my heart is burnt. Everything I had was burnt.”

Two weeks ago, Manar left her two sleeping children, five-year-old daughter Fatima and three-year-old son Diya’, in the tent while she trekked to the women’s bathrooms across the camp. A few minutes later, on her way back, she saw clouds of smoke rising from her row and realised her tent had caught fire from a candle she had left burning inside. “I ran barefoot to the tent screaming, ‘My children, my children.’ The people didn’t let me inside. Within five minutes the smouldering tent had melted onto the ground. A man named Abdallah wrapped my son in his jacket. Pieces of my son’s skin are still on the fabric.”

The camp’s director, Yakzan Shishakly, later told me that Manar’s son was taken for emergency care in Turkey before he died the next day. Her daughter perished immediately.

Manar spoke slowly through her tears, holding her small Nokia phone in her hands, clicking between five photographs: two of her son, one of her daughter, and an image of each of their small graves. She paused between the images, crying, stroking, remembering.

“I fled with them here from so far away to be safe. We fled our home in Binnish because of the shelling. They were my entire life. I don’t care about my life any more. I lost my home, my children, my possessions, what’s left to lose? All I have is dirt; no Diya’ and no Fatima.”

Manar’s husband, who has left her alone in the camp, now wants to sell her phone for extra cash. She said, “The phone is my life. I won’t give him the memory card, I’m going to save the card and buy a new phone. If I don’t see them every day I’ll go crazy.”

She pointed to the children who had followed us inside the tent and said, “The entire camp reminds me of my children. I just want people to take care of these children. I lost my children but I don’t want any mother to lose hers. But the children here are dying a thousand deaths every day from cold and hunger.” Another woman in the tent said, “We don’t want the night to come because of the cold. The children fight over the blankets as they sleep. We wish the night would never come.”

Misery in the refugee camps inside Syria is a fact of life for thousands who decided this harsh life is better than living under the regime’s continuous shelling and air strikes that hit their villages. But as the second cold winter of the revolution sets in, lack of basic necessities and medical services in the camps is taking a toll on the refugees, especially the thousands of children. Illnesses such as hepatitis B and tuberculosis are spreading due to severe medicine and vaccine shortages. At least two infants died last month from hypothermia in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. And in the Olive Tree camp in Atmeh, tent fires seem to be one of the grave threats facing the children who are left trapped in the flames.

Shishakly, who founded the Maram Foundation to support the Olive Tree camp, understands that the only way to stop these tent-fire tragedies is to replace all the existing tents with fire-resistant ones. This is the short-term solution that must be implemented along with other safety measures and awareness campaigns. But as the world watches Syria and wrings its hands over our endless tragedies, it is clear that the solution for these camps is simple: people need to go back home.

An image of two scorched children from the New Year’s Eve fire was widely circulated on social media platforms. The small children’s bodies were covered with brown, peeling skin, frozen in their last pose; their facial features melted onto their skulls. I wondered if these two little boys were smiling in one of my photographs from the day before, when they were still alive. Did they sing between the olive trees with their friends as I watched? Did they follow me shyly as we walked through the rows of tents? Were they among the children who asked me to write their names in English in my notebook, delighted to see their names recorded on paper in a foreign language? I’ll never know. I imagine the parents have become even more jaded then they were when I saw them; more weary, more hardened.

Our children live on in the memory cards of cell phones. Their mothers’ loving hands caress the tiny glowing squares in disbelief. Smiling faces are now a distant memory, the battery drains, the faces fade away, and the mothers are left alone in a cold dark tent tortured with heavy questions of guilt. What if I hadn’t left them? What if I had snuffed out the candle and left them in the dark instead? What if we had never left our home?

Are these the choices of Syrians today? To let your child freeze instead of burn? To starve instead of die of illness? To be shelled instead of becoming a refugee? For Manar and the other mothers, it was their fate for their children to burn alive in the final hours of a devastating year between the olive trees. And to live forever in cell phones.

For more information on the Olive Tree refugee camp in Atmeh, Syria, please visit

Amal Hanano is the pseudonym for a Syrian American writer

On Twitter: @amalhanano

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