Updated: Tuesday, 21st May 2019 @ 8:11am

Interview: MM chat to the former political prisoner now rethinking and rebuilding Syrian heritage from Greater Manchester

Interview: MM chat to the former political prisoner now rethinking and rebuilding Syrian heritage from Greater Manchester

| By Matthew D'Henin

Through peaceful protests and a brutal prison stretch, Haytham Alhamwi now runs one of the UK's most vital Syrian support groups from Longsight, Manchester. 

What makes up the British bubble in which we so gratefully live are the rules we abide by. A Britain without the rights, attitudes and amendments that have been engrained into us is something inconceivable to pretty much everyone.

Yet in Syria, under the brutal dictatorship of President Bassar al-Assad, the rules of a fair democracy have for decades been a distant fantasy rather than a daily framework.

Haytham’s head was turned towards bettering his nation’s broken politics as a university student. 

“You would be working in the street and see them (the police officers). You would start shaking: you just didn’t want to be near them. But although we were not criminal, we would always be humiliated,” he told MM.

Haytham was just a small boy when he first started to notice the obscurities of his freedom. He learnt that he would have to pay a bribe to extract a birth certificate, one of the many oddities shadowed by the uncertain periods when people from his hometown of Darayya would disappear:

“I learnt that just for small issues you would be imprisoned; for days or months or years. And when I say prisons, they are security prisons, nobody knows where you are and maybe, maybe you are tortured.”

Haytham’s innate anxiety of the authorities was soon broadened to a disdain for his President, the man holding his country to an archaic emergency law enforced in the 1960s.

“The issue of fear itself, I knew it from when I was seven or eight. I remember a lady. She lost her husband and three children, they were shot in front of her eyes by the Assad soldiers in the city of Hamah in 1982.

"The soldiers came into her house, put them against the wall and shot them. Since then I knew as a child that Assad was a brutal president who killed plenty of people, and that I didn’t like him. I had heard stories but this was the first time I witnessed the fear.”

Syria was chained to a one-party socialist government for the entirety of Haytham’s upbringing, harnessing immense power to silence its critics, which it often did in a callously violent manner.

FIRST BRUSH WITH THE AUTHORITIES

Yet as Haytham approached adulthood, resonating with books he had read about Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, he didn’t let the fear curb his proactivity. 

“I started to think in University – we should be active, we should be positive, we should be courageous, and that we will eventually change things over time.”

His courage for a “better functioning Syrian machine,” which he said was “broken for many years,” led to his first brush with the authorities.

He and his friends opened a public library for free, loaning books from relatives and friends (the books were bought from the Assad library) before placing them in and amongst his community. Yet this didn’t go down well with the Police.

For 40 days the group had to report to security forces for 12 hours a day and sit alone in a small, blank room between 9am and 9pm. After vigorous interrogation and a flurry of threats, Haytham was eventually relieved.

Yet the persistent lens that the authorities put on Haytham afterwards didn’t intimidate his desire for a better Syria.

“I thought, whatever happens - happens, because we cannot live like this. Although the government was leading the problem, the solution starts with the people. If the people disobey, then the government fail because they do not have the obedience.

"He (Assad) can kill the people, or imprison them. But if so then he loses against his ideology.”

Amassing a peaceful rebellion against a notoriously brutal government was a tall order, made taller by the lack of email or smartphones in the early 2000s.

Yet Haytham’s infectious enthusiasm for change brought together hundreds of Syrians in a number of peaceful activities.

The first of which was a neighbourhood-cleaning project, where onlookers deemed Haytham to be crazy for his proactively peaceful stance against the Emergency Law.

In 2002, Haytham campaigned to try and suppress the local police corruption that plagued his town - specifically the custom of bribing a policeman with £10 rather than accepting say, a £400 speeding fine.

“It was a sacrifice to receive such a large fine for the sake of principle,” he said, but Haytham’s anti-bribery calendar hung in almost every shop of his hometown – demonstrating that the mentality in Darayya was changing.

After the United States invaded Iraq, Haytham led an anti-smoking campaign against American cigarettes, before organising a silent march against the Iraqi war which remarkably attracted over 150 participants, including 25 women.

“It had to be very secret so that security forces didn’t find out beforehand as without the permission of the government, it was illegal to demonstrate for or against the invasion of Iraq.”

Haytham now had the name of a prominent community activist.

SCABIES AND LICE

However, as the time came to distribute his second anti-bribery calendar in 2003, his peaceful ‘re-offenses’ meant that the authorities soon came calling.

Within days Haytham was standing in a small, cupboard-like room before a Military Judge.

Yet there was no charge or sentence read to him that day, simply just aggressive cries that he should obey the emergency law.

“I do not obey emergency law, for it is humiliation,” he responded.

It was not until days after that encounter when he found out that he would serve four years in Sednaya Prison - Syria’s notorious concrete hellhole and journalistic black spot. Haytham was no longer an activist: instead he was lawlessly slapped with the tag of “political prisoner”. 

For the first seven months of his sentence, Haytham was kept in solitary confinement in a cell deprived of sunlight.

“It was a difficult time, I had scabies, lice and many problems. My family had no idea where I was and I only saw them after 10 months of my detention. I couldn’t even hug my kids at the visit."

Fortunately though, after two and a half years, threats from the UN led to a presidential pardon where over 150 political prisoners were released from Sednaya – including Haytham.

“This was a happy day in my life, and altogether it was a good year for Syrians. Hope was restored.”

However the international pressure that led to the softening of Assad’s whip soon dispersed.

“From 2007, we lost any single hope in change. Things started to go back to how it was before.”

In the same year, Haytham was offered a place in Manchester to study a doctorate in medicine. As he and his family moved to England, it became clear that the relocation may ultimately have saved his life. By the end of 2008, the Syrian government began re-imprisoning political convicts.

The crisis intensified.

With Haytham only able to watch the numerous newscasts on the television, Syrians young and old became engulfed in their nation’s politics, angered by the arrest of 20-year-old poet and blogger Tal al-Mallouhi.

The downfall of numerous dictators in neighbouring Arab nations buoyed Haytham as he worked hard to ensure Syrian voices were heard in mainstream British media.

But the tension deepened in Syria.

Twenty two schoolboys were rounded up and tortured after their graffiti mocked Assad to be the next Arab leader overturned.

And from then, a rebellion ensued and a war began: one that has raged on since.


'LOST GENERATION': Haytham Alhamwi survived years in Syrian prison to help found Rethink Rebuild, which aimed to help the beleagured children from his war-torn country

Rethink Rebuild Society was born in 2011 with Haytham as one of its founders. He pushed for legislation that better protected Syrians, picking up any and every opportunity to better inform British media about the conflict back home.

Yet it was the influx of thousands of refugees to Manchester that shaped the society into the charity it is today.

In 2013, Rethink Rebuild had 10 to 15 new faces coming through the door a day, which led to an expansion in size so that it could comfortably integrate the many non-speaking immigrants to a completely new culture.

But as the roots of the migrant community strengthened to 4,000 strong across Greater Manchester, the work was only just beginning for Rethink Rebuild.

For four years now, the charity has funded and managed a school in the suburbs of Western Aleppo, handling its budget as well as choosing the curriculum.

“The children of Syria were slowly becoming a lost generation, one without school for three years, so we had to act,” said Haytham.

Rethink Rebuild’s education programme is not only life changing on Syrian soil, but gives refugees here a greater sense of being, according to Haytham.

“All of us have families back in Syria and we stay in touch with them, but they are living in very bad conditions there, and it is not easy to ignore them. We still have responsibilities.”

Haytham believes that integrating a Syrian refugee emotionally into their new life poses just as bigger challenge as it did practically, meaning in the last couple of years the charity has focused on monthly social events, cinema screenings and even an annual ‘Syrian Day’ festival to unite and raise the hopes of the community.

“When you see them, you may not see it, but Syrian people are deeply sad. We (Rethink Rebuild) must strive to give them a way to move on, not just to find their way here but help them give back in a positive way.”

Now eight years into their journey, the charity is going from strength to strength, extending their reach not just to the outskirts of the county, but to either end of the country.

Receiving a call from Dundee one hour to Brighton the next is part and parcel of being one of the country’s only charities of its sort, and for that, Dr. Haytham’s smile gleams with pride. His journey speaks for itself.

Find out more about Rethink Rebuild at their website www.rrsoc.org