In exile, Syrians build the country they never could under regime
BEIRUT —by Alia Malek
For six years, Fadi Hallisso faithfully followed all the steps required to become a Jesuit priest. He gave up his career as a civil engineer in Syria. He spent two years of his novitiate in Cairo, reflecting deeply on his calling, including a month spent in silence. He took three vows, pledging poverty, celibacy and obedience.
But last spring, he quit.
His country was imploding. His native Aleppo had been destroyed. Already in Lebanon with the Jesuits, Hallisso witnessed a flood of his desperate countrymen and -women entering the country as refugees, fleeing Syria’s war. The very fabric of his society was unraveling.
Though the 36-year-old Hallisso feared that leaving his order would be his life’s regret, he decided to dedicate himself full-time instead to the volunteer relief initiative he had started earlier with a few friends — another Syrian studying to become a Jesuit priest and a Syrian businesswoman — also living in Lebanon.
“I felt my country needed me most,” he says. “I’m still a believer, and it was the time to live according to my faith.”
What had begun as a volunteer organization in 2012 distributing clothes and food baskets is today known as the registered nonprofit Basmeh & Zeitooneh (A Smile and an Olive), with 90 staff members running 11 different programs in three community centers and serving a total of 20,000 Syrians in Lebanon. Hallisso is its general manager. The group takes its name from the days when they were providing the simplest of relief: bread and olives.
Basmeh & Zeitooneh joins a veritable explosion in organizations and associations founded by Syrians since the conflict began, which today easily number in the thousands, many of them based in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In Syria, the regime long thwarted citizens from founding the institutions that make up a civil society, such as nonprofits, watchdog groups and advocacy organizations.
But now, with the relative freedom of exile and millions of fellow citizens facing crushing humanitarian need, Syrians are rushing to fill that void. Forged in war and facing many challenges, these fledgling groups see themselves as a bulwark against the further disintegration of Syrian society and vital to any post-conflict future.
“We can’t wait till the war is over; we have to start from now to build a society that lives in dignity and independence. There’s an opportunity for something to be that is not the regime and not Daesh,” says Hallisso, using the Arabic shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). “We don’t see ourselves as only an emergency response. We will return.”
A photographic dictatorship
When Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000 after his father’s death, the revamp of the regime’s brand to a kinder, gentler, more photogenic dictatorship included a visual campaign that often showed Assad and his wife, Asma al-Assad, tackling a variety of societal issues. There was Assad, in jeans, planting trees with other volunteers, in support of the environment. His wife was often shown embracing children, discussing how to teach democracy to a new generation.
Initially, it seemed as if Assad’s rule might take Syria in a new direction. During a short-lived easing of state repression known as the Damascus Spring, countless discussion forums and independent associations were created. Syrians met and talked publicly for the first time about politics, governance and all the other issues that had been taboo, seeking to have an unprecedented say on their lives and the future of their country. What they said, consistently, was that Syrians needed greater political liberalization, democratic openness and freedom to operate without government interference. Within less than a year, Assad’s regime had reverted to the extreme clampdown on civil society and dissent that had long been the norm in Syria and re-arrested prominent voices of the movement.
But given the outwardly modern appearance of the Assads, enough Syrians believed it was the old guard of the regime preventing progress and hoped that the couple, working from within, might be the moderating force that could move Syria forward.
This intimated tension between remnants of Assad’s father Hafez’s inner circle and the new president, taken with the carefully cultivated image campaign, suggested that the couple not only backed a vibrant civil society, but that they would also lead it, untroubled that independence from government was an essential prerequisite.
And so public functions that even in other tightly controlled countries like Egypt were addressed by privately led associations, organizations and nonprofits were dominated by the regime in Syria. Perhaps the country’s most important nonprofit, which calls itself a non-governmental organization, Syria Trust , was chaired by Asma al-Assad.
Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, whose work focuses on Syria, says that was intentional, because the regime has always been wary of centers of power developing anywhere outside its inner circles.
“It did [allow civil society], but one to its liking, led by networks that worked directly or indirectly under the president, or led by his own wife,” says Haddad. “Beyond that, the space for completely independent civil society continued to be limited.”
For Hassan Abbas, a longtime civil society activist and political researcher who had to be smuggled out of Syria into Lebanon, total control is essential for a government that came to power by force, without a popular base.
To retain power for more than four decades, the regime banned other parties, other politicians, a free press. But in addition to these more conventional tactics, the regime also co-opted institutions that gave the appearance of a civil society, such as unions and professional groups, he wrote in an email.
“The regime doesn’t believe in civil society,” he says. “This is a tyrannical regime that doesn’t accept that any other entity other than itself is in charge of society.”
One of the ready excuses the regime had to justify authoritarian rule was that Syrians weren’t ready for democracy and its trappings. Implicit in such assertions was the idea that Syrians had something to fear from each other.
Massa Mufti is the founder of the Association for Building and Nurturing Initiatives (ABNI), which is working on an accreditation system for Syrian civil society organizations, and a board member of TAMAS, the largest alliance of Syrian civil society organizations. In her view, the opportunity for Syrians to interact with each other free of regime control or oversight would have allowed Syrians to decide for themselves what their readiness was and what values were shared.
“Syrians’ not knowing each other helped the regime survive,” she says.
In the early days of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Hallisso too ventured into the public forum. He started a blog that steered clear of politics — reviewing movies and sports matches — but that allowed him to have opinions and express them out loud in a way.
He didn’t have any illusions. “It was clear to anyone with a brain that the situation in Syria wasn’t natural. It’s not natural that any event or gathering needed prior approval from security,” says Hallisso. Just arranging a security authorization for a religious choir from Damascus to perform a recital in Aleppo took him a month of running around to different bureaucratic offices, he says.
“It was enough just to look to Lebanon to see how youth of our age were involved in public life and expressing themselves,” he says. “And we didn’t have the chance to do so.”
Syrians helping Syrians
In an irony lost on no one, Basmeh & Zeitooneh and several of its programs are based on a few floors of a building in the dilapidated Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut. Shatila, established in 1949 for Palestinian refugees who poured into the area after fleeing the 1948 founding of Israel, is today home to nearly 10,000 Palestinians. They have been joined by 3,600 Syrian families and 1,700 Palestinian families who had been refugees in Syria for generations.
One of those Palestinian refugees from Syria, Um Jihad (the Mother of Jihad), is overseeing a roomful of Syrian women she has taught to stitch elaborate Palestinian-style embroidery pieces. They will adorn pillowcases, purses, wallets and other accessories that can be sold for money, as Palestinian refugee women from camps across the Middle East have done before them.
Amina sits at the sewing machine by the window, affixing the hand-embroidered pieces to fabric; this is the first paying job she has ever had. In Syria, she had used her sewing skills to finish her house’s interior to her liking, from the curtains to the armrests. Everything was finally in place right before she fled with her husband and six children from Aleppo. When she heard in Lebanon that mortars had destroyed her house, she says, she couldn’t get up for two weeks. Looking out the window at the shantytown Shatila — meant to be a temporary shelter until Palestinians could return home — the question she asks herself is, “Are we really staying here?”
The workshop is one of many of Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s initiatives. This main building also houses adult education classes (language and computer literacy), a primary school, an art and culture club for the children, a clinic in cooperation with Doctors Without Borders and the organization’s administrative office. On the roof, they’ve fashioned some play space for the children. Not so far away is the relief distribution office.
Those who founded and work at Basmeh & Zeitooneh are, like Hallisso, Syrians from the educated middle class of major cities like Aleppo and Damascus. The people they serve are from less privileged backgrounds and often from villages or neighborhoods that have been destroyed.
For Mufti, it is important that Syrians themselves are doing this work. “The preconception [among the refugees] is that we don’t care,” she says. “Humanitarian relief provided by Syrians is the doorway for future reconciliation amongst the people themselves.” She says that when refugees realize that those who are helping them are Syrians, not internationals, they are happily surprised.
Hallisso echoes that he’s seen the power of such solidarity on the ground. He recounts how, with a coalition of activists, they delivered more than half a million dollars in aid to a predominantly Sunni town inside Syria (unnamed for everyone’s safety) where the residents were “crazy with happiness” when they learned their benefactors were Christians, because the perception, reinforced by both the regime and the Islamists, is that Christians and other minorities wholly support the regime.
“What really affects our future in Syria and the social cohesion is this solidarity, working with them hand [in] hand and shoulder [to] shoulder,” he says.
The strain of displacement and war hasn’t lessened the challenges of building a civil infrastructure. And then there are the turf battles.
Hallisso explains, “We have a bad competition between Syrian initiatives because it is the first time we have ever had a chance to launch our own orgs that doesn’t fall into government custody, and for many of us, they are so proud of those organizations that they are not willing to cooperate with others. Like, ‘Let me do my thing.’”
Hallisso adds that there are other problems. Overburdened host countries, like Lebanon, have begun to make it difficult for them to do their work, on the theory that the more comfortable refugees are in exile, the less likely they are to leave. Syrian organizations are competing with international organizations, which can pay much more money and hire away their staff instead of investing in the capacity of the local organizations.
Fundraising for new organizations can be daunting, and funders are often looking to fund large initiatives, which the international organizations can more easily promise. In the long run, Hallisso believes, this will be damaging because the international organizations will move on. Basmeh & Zeitooneh and other Syrian organizations that have been relatively successful in navigating this world are helping initiate the newer groups.
Hallisso is not complacent about that success and believes the real test is not in exile, but rather when they are back home. While some believe that even if the regime survives, so too will the gains Syrians have made during this time, he does not.
“It is always possible to go back in time with this regime and lose every single gain,” he says.
What he sees as a positive is the opportunity for Syrians to encounter each other in a way they never could before. Hallisso knows there will be many issues to deal with and rifts to heal.
“We are like the kids that are put in a small room in the house and suddenly all the locks were broken and we went out to see the world, to see the cars for first time,” he says. “So we need to grow up a little bit.