The Imperial War Museum in London kick started its Conflict Now series yesterday with the Syria: A Conflict Explored event. The series will be running at the museum until September this year and will hold a series of exhibitions and events reflecting upon the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Part of the series includes an exhibition of photographs, the first of its kind in the UK, by award-winning Russian documentary photographer Sergey Ponomarev, which opened officially yesterday evening.
The exhibition showcases 60 powerful and evocative colour prints and digital media from two award-winning bodies of Ponomarev's work which explores the human consequences of the Syria conflict and its connection to the ongoing refugee crisis.
The pictures are set across four rooms with two sections called Assad's Syria and The Exodus. The former will feature pictures by the photographer from one of the few who were allowed into government-controlled areas of Syria in 2013-2014, and the latter will feature over 40 photographs taken by Ponomarev at the height of the European refugee crisis between 2015-2016.
Ponomarev features alongside the exhibition Syria: Story of a Conflict, an intimate display co-curated by IWM and Christopher Phillips, Senior Lecturer of International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary University.
Syria: Story of a Conflict explores the origins, escalations and impact of the Syria conflict through a short documentary explaining the start of the conflict and a few items taken from Syria such as a helmet belonging to one of the White Helmet volunteers. The visuals present proximity for the general public to the war in Syria and provides a more personal space to better understand and answer the misconceptions surrounding the last six years of war.
Gill Webber, Executive Director of Content and Programmes at IWM explained the idea behind featuring the conflict in Syria.
We want to help our visitors cut through the complexity and enable a deeper understanding of the causes, course and consequences of what is happening in Syria today.
The series began on Thursday with the Conflict Café, where Syrian refugees could speak with members of the public in an informal setting about their experiences fleeing the war. Sipping on tamarind juice and offered Syrian ma'moul sweets, people were able to sit down and ask questions to a group of Syrians, each with their unique stories.
From a fashion student to a budding chef, the intimate gathering was useful in being able to put a face to the refugee statistics and to learn of the diverse experience each Syrian has been forced to live through since the start of the war.
The Syrian war has raged on since the revolution in 2011, when a group of teenagers were arrested and tortured to death for graffiti against President Bashar Al-Assad in the city of Deraa. Mass protests erupted across the country and were met by brutal repression by forces loyal to Assad. Since 2014, the presence of extremists groups in the country has enabled proxy actors like Russia and the US to interfere in the conflict that has claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 Syrians.
Below are some of the stories of Syrians and featured members who spoke to MEMO.
Christopher is a co-curator of "Syria: A Conflict Explored" and the author of "The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East". He is a Senior Lecturer of International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. Christopher lived in Syria for two years following regular trips to the country since 2003 but has been unable to return since 2011.
"They wanted some kind of an explainer, like what is this conflict that he's taking photos of. So they asked me – I've written a book on the international relations of the Syrian civil war – to come and help put together a kind of basic explainer for the public. We wanted to be as balanced as we could possibly be. Obviously it's a very emotional conflict, it's one of those conflicts – rather like the Israel-Palestine conflict – it's very emotive and people feel very strongly on both sides."
"I wanted people actually to come away [from the exhibition] a little bit confused…in a good way. I'm really strongly against the kind of stereotypes you hear about the conflict. People just want to say it's all about religion or it's all about terrorism, or it's all about Russia fighting America, or Iran fighting Saudi Arabia, and of course the reality is these are all components of a far more complex, multi-layered war that requires a better understanding."
"I hope that when people come to the exhibition, they'll come away at least dispelling those stereotypes and saying 'fine, it's very complicated [but] I've got a better understanding of why this started and how we got to where we are now and I'm not just going to think right it's all about religion or it's all about geopolitics, it's a combination of factors and now I am well-armed to go and do research on my own and get a better understanding of what's going on. This is kind of the idea of my particular exhibition."
I sat on a few of the tables (of the conflict café) and saw a guy who lived in Aleppo. He told us this awful story about how he was attacked and beaten up by government soldiers while on a protest march, so these kinds of things…give people the opportunity to put a human face…to the conflict.
BARAA EHSSAN KOUJA
Baraa is founder and director of From Syria With Love, a charity that works directly with refugees and raises awareness about the plight of the Syrian people. Baraa, who hails from the Syrian city of Aleppo, sought asylum in the UK after doing his MSc in Exeter University and now works with refugees full time, bringing their stories to a global audience.
"Being a refugee, a privileged refugee as others would call me, I thought I shouldn't forget about other people's struggles so I registered the charity to try to raise awareness and raise funds for people in the camps where there are not many NGOs. We raise awareness through public speaking and art exhibitions. The exhibition we have here today is a collection of drawings by children from the camp. You can see their trauma and tragedy through their art."
"We have the problem of numbers and the dehumanisation. When you hear there are 12 million people that are directly affected by the crisis and are displaced, you will never be able to relate to this number. It is just a number."
"I am labelled as a refugee whether I like it or not. Someone said to me I don't look like a refugee. Well, what does a refugee look like? Unfortunately, we have these stereotypes about refugees being uneducated, being poor, being bad, evil, rapists, or all these stereotypes from the media. There is not enough positive coverage of refugees and their contributions. Mini Cooper, one of the biggest companies in the UK, was brought by Turkish refugees; fish and chips is brought by eastern Europeans. Marks and Spencer is done by Jewish refugees. Einstein was a refugee. Jesus was a refugee. People focus mostly on the negative aspects…I try to challenge these stereotypes because I experience this in my daily life, whether I'm travelling in the airport, or when I'm doing public speaking. I don't think I'm experiencing it as bad as other people, though, because of the way I look, and I feel bad about that. Not all people see me as a refugee, and they say I look more like them."
Ammar is a 21-year-old Syrian refugee from Damascus who attained refugee status in London only a week ago. Ammar travelled to the UK from Syria in 2016 after going through Greece, Belgium and Spain before making it to Edinburgh in 2016 where he was homeless for two months before reaching London. Ammar hopes to study Visual Merchandising at the University of the Arts London after he was forced to leave his study of Economics at the University of Damascus after two years.
What keeps you going?
"Faith. I was praying when I got onto that boat [to Greece]. My mum believed in me [and wanted Ammar to leave] because my personality was getting affected by the situation and it was really frustrating. You can't stand up for yourself in Syria anymore."
"There a lot of checkpoints and they'll ask you for an ID in a really rude way. They'll go through your phone, 'she's pretty!' [soldiers commenting on pictures of female relatives]. Even in civilised places like Damascus University they guard the door. They can make fun of me and delay me if I have exams and once you get in you'll see loads of soldiers…the lecturers cannot say anything. This is the university, so imagine the streets."
The situation is getting worse. No more electricity, only 2 hours a day…and it means in summer no air-conditioning and in the winter, no heating. And there's no water. You should wake up every morning at 4am to use the generator to pump water otherwise you won't get water during the day.
"I got savings and bought a fake passport [to travel from Greece]. The UK was my dream because I speak English. It was scary. I felt bad for the 15,000 who are stuck at the border because they can't speak English."
"People in Greece were really friendly, even the police. They don't want to make a fight with anyone or push anyone. Even in Glasgow they were really friendly and helped me with activities and put a roof over my head. A case worker from the Red Cross helped me to get to London."
"I've applied to UAL to study Visual Merchandising and got accepted and will start in September."
MAIS AL BAYAA
A British-Iraqi freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker covering the Middle East. Mais recently produced a documentary on "Isis and the Battle for Iraq" for Channel 4 in which she looked at Iranian-backed Shia jihadist militias committing sectarian atrocities against Iraq's Sunnis.
"I did like an undercover investigation for almost a year. I went for about three months in and out [of Iraq]. We were investigating Shia militias' abuses of the Sunni refugees, and looking at the demographic change in the country. People are pushed from their areas and are sent to the desert, which is unfortunately feeding into the whole narrative of [Daesh]. These people are going to feel disconnected from Iraq, which they are, and that would encourage them to join [Daesh]."
The fact that the crew was made up of females, Mais says, made their undercover job easier.
"People do not harass women as much. You can immediately say I am a woman, they might think 'she's dumb or lost'. They'd ask 'why are you here? You are like in the middle of militias', and I'd say 'yeah, I was lost, is this not allowed?' At times I'd play the British card, 'Oh, I am British actually I don't speak Arabic and I am lost!' It happened with me in Yemen, in Iraq and in Turkey."
When I was in Yemen last July that was like an eye opener because I covered Iraq and Syria quite intensively and I thought that that was the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. When I went to Yemen though, I felt sick in the stomach. I thought this is so bad, people earn $20 a year and their children have malnutrition, and they literally lose their children because they don't have $5 to transfer their children from Hudaydah to Sana'a.
"You'd visit the hospital and it would be packed with children who have malnutrition and lots of other diseases like heart failure and brain damage because malnutrition affects the body and it deteriorates quickly and develops other diseases."
Imad is a Syrian chef from Damascus and refugee living in London since October 2015, and owner of the pop-up cafe, Imad's Syrian Kitchen which he hopes to one day open as a restaurant showcasing recipes from his mother.
"I left Damascus on 27 July…and arrived to the UK on 5 October 2015. I did my first pop-up restaurant from the 9-24 March 2017 and it is going great. We did our first pop-up and going to do another in June and hopefully my permanent place will be ready in July."
Imad spoke about his last restaurant in Syria and began getting nostalgic about Damascus, describing the feeling he used to have visiting his favourite Mosque. "My last restaurant in Syria was called Imad's Syrian Kitchen and was based in Damascus near the Umayyad Mosque. It is the most beautiful mosque ever."
We don't need to bring Syrians together; we need to bring people around Syria. It's annoying sometimes when it's all sad stories…no I am proud to be Syrian. I am good, I am working, I am glad to be Syrian and I have many friends. I am lucky to be Syrian.
"The only thing that…I just want people to realise that we are hard workers; we know what we are doing. For me, I have a Master's in fashion design and then business administration and human resources. I didn't study cooking; this is just my passion and my mother's recipes."
Imad's least favourite plate is an "empty one" and would recommend his favourite dishes of Kebab Hindi, and Kibbeh Labaneyeh.