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Britain’s Syrian diaspora unites to build peace in their homeland

Reem Al-Assil has been active in the Syrian uprising since it started in March 2011. By July of the same year she fled the country after being held twice for questioning. She went first to France to complete her doctorate, and then eventually settled in Britain, a journey made easier thanks to her dual nationality.

Despite the fact that Al-Assil is a strong advocate for freedom, justice and dignity in Syria through non-violent means, her parents have been subjected to violence and had their home raided twice in Damascus as a result of her activities. The last two years, she says, have been relatively calm – if she was involved in violent activities or armed groups the consequences would have been much worse.

As well as being a prominent activist, Al-Assil co-founded Free Syrian Translators, a group of “young, free Syrians” who aim to provide independent, non-biased information about the conflict, in multiple languages, as an alternative to the official media which is often manipulated. For example, coverage of the chemical weapons attacks inside the country last year was largely documented by citizen journalists meaning it had to be translated for the international community. There is also a large demand for translations of documentaries filmed within the country that would never make it into the Syrian mainstream press.

Though Al-Assil came to the UK as a direct consequence of the conflict, Syrian migration here can be traced back to the 19th Century. The cotton trade in Manchester attracted Syrians from Damascus and Aleppo, the heart of the textile trade in Syria. Many still own factories in the north of the UK. Other members of the Syrian diaspora came to Britain just a few years before the start of the revolution but lived fairly separate lives from each other. When the revolution broke out in 2011 it pulled the Syrian diaspora together either under the pro or the anti-regime camp.

Haytham Al-Hamwi arrived in 2007 to study his doctorate at the University of Manchester. It wasn’t until after the uprising that he met other Syrians to talk politics and protest in front of the embassy. For many, the challenge to Assad’s authority in Syria had broken the wall of fear. “Before 2011 the circle was very closed, people didn’t know each other. You can’t say there was a Syrian community; people didn’t talk to each other. They always felt anything would be reported to the government. People couldn’t express their ideas in front of anybody,” says Al-Hamwi.

Four years after he arrived in the UK, Al-Hamwi is now director of Rethink Rebuild Society based in Manchester. The organisation acts as an umbrella for the Syrian community in the city and lobbies the British government on their behalf. Rethink also runs educational projects focused on building and managing schools inside Syria. “We believe that what is happening now will affect the next generation who will rebuild Syria,” says Al-Hamwi.

Post 2011 organisations mushroomed. Some were established to support the opposition directly whilst others worked in regime-held areas, which roused suspicion amongst other members of the community. Many facilitated the delivery of aid to the worn-torn country, helped by their contacts, friends and family who were still there. Syria is certainly in need of aid. Over 200,000 people have died since the revolution began in March 2011. Over three million have fled the country and over six million have been internally displaced.

Still, despite their efforts, across Britain individual Syrian societies are not always coordinated. “One of our main problems as Syrians is that because we were under dictatorship for 50 years we don’t have a civil society and we don’t have civil organisations. So we found it difficult to work together, but we’re learning,” says Al-Hamwi.

Fear of regime informers and reprisals has not completely disappeared, particularly when it comes to civil society activity, which means “putting your head above the parapet,” says Rebecca Crozier of International Alert, a peace building charity based in London. Crozier is managing a new programme which aims to draw together the Syrian diaspora in the UK. “There is that legacy of fear which prevents a lot of people from speaking out.”

The programme seeks to address how the Syrian diaspora in the UK can be better supported to increase their potential to build peace in the country. Tahir Zaman, who researched the Syrian diaspora in preparation for the programme, says this lack of coordination holds the organisations back from really engaging with the British government and influencing their policies.

According to Al-Hamwi, many discussions in his community revolve around how to build peace in Syria, and how to engage all Syrian parties in this process. It was only natural, therefore, for the Rethink Society to take part in the new programme, working on the assumption that the Syrian diaspora can achieve more if they work together. Or as Al-Assil puts it, “we’re better together”.

As well as drawing together disparate groups across the UK, the programme will provide a learning platform for Syrians working within such associations. Many were doctors, engineers or shop owners before 2011 when they switched to running such organisations. Representatives from each group are currently meeting every two months to talk through issues they can tackle together, such as how to provide education for children in the current circumstances.

Outside of the programme, but very much a part of the Syrian diaspora in the UK, is Syria’s artistic community. Many were targeted by the regime because of their work, which they had to smuggle out of the country at great personal risk.

Artist Tarek Tuma came to London at the end of 2005, originally to study medicine before changing course to complete his master’s and post-graduate diploma in fine arts. Like Al-Hamwi in Manchester, it wasn’t until after the revolution broke out in 2011 that Tuma really begun to connect with the diaspora when they would meet to protest outside the embassy.

Watching what is happening back home is “terrible”, he says. “It’s almost like being paralysed. You can’t do anything and you’re just forced to watch. It’s not easy.”

Recently Tuma created a piece of artwork for an International Alert project, #art4peace. It is inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, a painting based on the Nazi’s bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

“I see the conflict in Syria in the same context that Guernica came out of. Politically speaking and artistically speaking. I see the Spanish Civil War as similar to the Syrian Civil War now. When the Republicans got elected into government it was met with silence from the international community and basically the Spanish people were slaughtered, especially in Guernica. I think it was one of the first aerial bombardments in history.”

Art, says Tuma, transfers the attention away from killing and onto people. “There is a difference between holding a gun and holding a brush. You have to shift the attention to the people who are holding the brush.”

“Art raises awareness of the human side of the crisis, rather than the political side of the crisis, to humanise the tragedy and to deal with Syrian people as people, as human beings not as political subjects. It draws attention to what Syrians can do; the bright side of Syrians. It shifts the attention away from the killing that’s taking place everywhere in the country and focuses it on creative people who are painting or creating works of art.”

Al-Assil, Al-Hamwi and Tuma’s stories offer a different narrative to the mainstream press which largely focuses on the Islamic State (ISIS). Crozier of International Alert tells me that one member of their platform visits mosques and youth clubs to talk about the crisis and try to deter people from going to Syria to fight. Though the majority of Syrians are actually travelling to Turkey, Lebanon or Syria to facilitate the delivery of aid, their voices can get lost in the media.

“The media has gone in a specific direction which will not benefit the Syrian community in general and neither will it benefit the UK. They just tell the stories of ISIS and it’s not the reality on the ground. ISIS is a big problem but maybe it’s 15 per cent of the problem. So if we just focus on 15 per cent and forget 85 per cent of the problem we will not achieve anything, either in Syria or the UK itself. We hope that if we work together we can redirect the media,” confirms Al-Hamzi.

Al-Assil says that the focus on ISIS affected fundraising efforts, with many no longer willing to donate to the Syrian cause because they’re confused about what’s happening in Syria. “They think that if they donate, their money will go to support terrorism there. Now there really is a big need to correct the narrative of the Syrian cause,” she says.

Researcher Tahir Zaman says: “There are people still trying to work along the principles of non-violence but their voices are not heard as much, or given as much air space, as the more belligerent actors do.”

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