Let's Not Forget the Syrian Activists and Aid Workers

As the Syrian army gains control of East Aleppo, it is unclear if the most recent ceasefire deals will guarantee safe evacuation of the remaining residents, and what the future of the Syrian political state holds for them. In these bleak times, journalists and activists have risen as the bravest of leaders, continuing to document the lack of protection of Syrian civilians and their basic human rights.  

Over 100 journalists have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict which makes Syria the most dangerous country in the world for news coverage. Freelance journalists and news reporters have continued to risk their lives since the political collapse, attempting to share the most accurate coverage of the situation for the rest of the world to wrap their heads around.

Syrian blogger and activist Marcell Shehwaro documented her life in Aleppo and in eventual exile outside of Syria in an award-winning online series for Global Voices called “Dispatches From Syria”.

Photo credit:  Amer Sweidan

Photo credit: Amer Sweidan

Back in May 2014, she wrote: “The revolutionaries are hoping to reunite parts of the city, which has been divided for about two years. With some areas under government control, and others in the hands of the rebels, we residents of Aleppo have ourselves become a divided people, separated within ourselves.”

Marcell Shehwaro’s mother was killed at a Syrian regime forces’ checkpoint in June 2012. Her blog entries have captured her personal experience of the war, as well as the widespread suffering faced by polarized Syrians.

There are also activists and journalists still currently in Syria, braving conditions more dire by the hour. Bilal Abdul Kareem is the last international journalist, as part of On The Ground News, currently present in Aleppo continuing to write articles and make video interviews demanding that the international community stay engaged while a humanitarian corridor struggles to be made.

Photo credit:  Bilal Abdul Kareem .

Photo credit: Bilal Abdul Kareem.

Nonprofits like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) work to ensure the safety and needs of non-combatant journalists in conflict zones. Jason Stern, Senior Associate at the CPJ commented in an interview with Syria Deeply, “the main challenges that journalists face in Syria are not just for them alone to face, they’re for the world to face. As horrible as Syria has been, and as unique as it looks now, there will be another one somewhere else.”

Since March 2011, the Syrian conflict has displaced over 11 million people from their homes, with 4.8 million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. There are an estimated 2 million injured and 450,000 killed from the conflict, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

Photo credit:  Karam Foundation Fact Sheet.

Photo credit: Karam Foundation Fact Sheet.

When we bear witness to complex international crises like the Syrian conflict, we can feel powerless in front of an ever-increasing death toll and unsuccessful international intervention. It has become one of the worst genocides the world has witnessed. The international community has been greatly divided in how to find a political solution to the conflict- journalists and activists come together to bridge that power gap.

Local activists have also organized to provide emergency relief as well as long-term sustainable education for Syrian refugees. Karam Foundation is a nonprofit that focuses on sustainable solutions for the future in Syria, and has demonstrated immense solidarity throughout the conflict. Lina Sergie Attar is the co-founder and CEO of Karam Foundation.

Lina Sergie Attar, Director of Karam Foundation. Photo credit:   Karam Foundation.

Lina Sergie Attar, Director of Karam Foundation. Photo credit: Karam Foundation.

She is a Syrian-American architect and writer from Aleppo. She co-developed its Innovative Education initiatives which provide entrepreneurial and technological workshops as well as art therapy and holistic wellness programs for displaced Syrian children and youth.

Traveling often back and forth to the Syrian border in Southern Turkey, Sergie Attar runs the foundation’s Smart Aid programs that provide ambulances and emergency aid to the volunteer rescue workers called the White Helmets, and infant formula and school sponsorships to Syrian families.  

These programs highlight her true activist spirit in furthering grassroots collaboration and community organizing: “Over the past five years we’ve seen an outpouring of creativity, survival tactics and ingenuity from all different kinds of activists, whether in media, arts, music, local civil society governance, the White Helmets, the schools, the hospitals and the humanitarian efforts that defied the largest aid organizations in the world and were able to continue to function inside of Syria.”

These kinds of sustainable solutions are proof of the resilience of Syrian refugees and activists. Adapted and innovative education being one of those solutions echoed by 18-year-old Muzoon Almellehan at the United Nations: “We need education, because Syria needs us”. Allying with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai, and after advocating for girls' education at the Azraq camp in Jordan, Almellehan has become a voice for young Syrians striving for access to education and youth empowerment.

Girls' education advocates Malala Yousafzai, left, and Muzoon Almellehan, right. Photo credit:   Darren Staples/Reuters

Girls' education advocates Malala Yousafzai, left, and Muzoon Almellehan, right. Photo credit: Darren Staples/Reuters

"I meet lots of refugees who think that it’s a bad thing, a bad name," Muzoon says. "For me? No. For me, a refugee name gives me strength to create a bright future from my hard situation. We are not weak people. We are strong people. We are not just refugees, we are not just children — we can make a change. I know the change is difficult, but not impossible." These refugees and activists aren’t just brave because of today’s circumstances- they are the leaders of tomorrow.

This article was written and edited by Jessica Newfield.

Additional resources for readers- here are just 2 easy actions you can take today:

  1. Petition your government directly.

In Canada, contact your local Member of Parliament and ask them to take action by talking to the foreign minister regarding Canadian efforts in humanitarian aid and negotiations with Russian and Iranian forces. Contact the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (+1 (800) 267-8367) and ask them to support the ceasefire agreement. You can specifically contact the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Ottawa (+1 (613) 235-4341 or consul.ottawa@mid.ru) and ask them to tell their representatives to respect and abide by the ceasefire agreement.

Find your Member of Parliament by Postal Code: http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/ParlInfo/compilations/houseofcommons/memberbypostalcode.aspx?Menu=HOC

Number of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs: +1 (800) 267-8367

Number of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Ottawa: +1 (613) 235-4341

Email of the Consul General of the Russian Federation in Ottawa: consul.ottawa@mid.ru

(Thank you McGill Daily for their statement with this contact info!)


2) Donate to these and other reliable and effective organizations.

From my experience in the nonprofit sector, nonprofits that work closely with local partners or community organizations (community-led) on the ground usually are more efficient in tapping into existing relief networks. There is a big difference between emergency relief and long-term socially innovative solutions. Both are important, but require different considerations.

Otherwise, here are some ratings to help you to guide your donor decisions:

- https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1523

- http://blog.capterra.com/charity-and-the-syrian-refugee-crisis/