‘Take them away from the refugee camp or graveyard’: Syrian community leaders discuss Arab Spring crisis

Two prominent Syrian community leaders came together on Tuesday night after a Lowry show on the Arab Spring to discuss the future of their war-torn homeland.

Speaking after the debut performance of Spring Reign, a show giving an insight into the everyday life of Syrians since 2011’s civil uprising, were Dr Haytham Alhamwhi from the Rethink Rebuild Society and UK charity Syria Relief’s Dr Basil Hatahet.

Both have a wealth of varied academic, professional and personal experience of the crisis in Syria, with Dr Alhamwhi having been held a political prisoner in the country from 2003-2005 and Dr Hatahet being involved in the practical distribution of aid.

The play, which looked at how the uprising changed the lives of all Syrians, showed the generosity and humility of the public, and argues that the love and patriotism of the everyday Syrian is the best weapon in the fight against Assad.

Kicking off the post-show discussion was a member of the audience who wanted to find out the opinions of the two doctors on whether they feel social media is helping people around the world become more informed on the crisis.

‘OFF THE RADAR’: The doctors slated the mainstream media for ignoring the issue and forcing people to turn to social media 
(© Amplified Group, with thanks)

“The way I see it, the difference between social media and mainstream media – with social media, you seek it. With mainstream media, it seeks you,” explained Dr Hatahet.

“Until we get to that critical point of getting the mainstream media seeking everybody to make a change, social media will still be there.”

One audience member commented that the issue is that Syria has ‘gone off the radar’, with discussion of the civil unrest ‘no longer the hot topic’.

Commenting on the rise of Isis, he said ‘there’s a pendulum swinging with Assad back in favour because he’s anti-Isis’.

Dr Alhamwhi added: “The only thing most people know about Syria is there is fighting between Isis and the US and other countries.

“The international community wants it to be like that. Of course, the nature of media means it goes with the news. And sometimes, you know, an earthquake is more important than other stories.”

‘WE’VE FAILED TO SEE’: Dr Hatahet said that the problems began in Syria around 40-50 years ago (© FullWarMovies, via YouTube, with thanks)

Explaining the demographic behind Manchester’s Syrian population, Dr Hatahet said that the problem with the civil unrest began around half a century ago.

“But you can see how it developed, how it brewed to get to this stage. What we’ve failed to see because of the media, because of how our human mind is structured, is that Isis fighters have family, they have children.

“We’re still left with orphans. We’re still left with widows. We’re still left with grieving fathers. That is the story really, and we focus on Assad, but even Assad’s fighters have families and children.

“Those who carry arms are not the majority. Their families are the majority.

“That is the story – where will they end is not up to Isis and not up to Assad, but up to us, the human race, to do something to guide them, to take them somewhere that is not in the refugee camp or the graveyard.”

‘GAPING OPEN WOUND’: A medic in the audience said concentrating on Isis meant you are only focusing on a tiny piece of the jigsaw (© BBC, via YouTube, with thanks)

Sitting in the audience was a medical doctor who worked in Aleppo during the time the play was set. She said of the performance: “I can say right down to the finest details, it is exactly how it is.

“The reality of how it affects the real people on the ground is something that is simply not told in the mainstream media at all.

“There should be more initiatives like this all over the country as the story progresses, as the narrative changes, and maybe that will open the scope for the international community to take on board the real humanitarian crisis here to provide safer corridors.

“To focus on Isis is really just to focus on a little scratch mark on the hand, when you’ve got a gaping open wound.”

MORE OF A DOCUMENTARY: Dr Hatahet (left), Dr Alhamwhi (middle) and Benedict Power (right) discuss the merits of having a non-Syrian director

With Englishman Benedict Power directing the play, and having a non-Syrian cast, one audience member was prompted to ask why Syrians themselves weren’t able to tell their own story.

Dr Hatahet explained: “We’ve got the newcomers who came in the 80s/90s, who were university postgraduates doing courses here. They came with a lot of baggage, a lot of issues they are still trying to cope with.

“You have people who came as students and they were paid by universities in Syria to study here.

“When Syrian universities stopped functioning and then their funds stopped, it’s difficult for them to think of setting up something like this while they are still trying to make ends meet. It’s not an excuse, but they’re still far from reaching that level.”

Benedict worked on the production for two years, collecting personal stories from Manchester’s refugee community, along with testimonies from journalists and photographers working inside the country and aid workers, volunteers and doctors.

Dr Alhamwhi said that more than two years ago, Benedict had first been to the offices of his Rethink Rebuild charity, which supports Syrians living in Manchester.

“The result today is more than two years work. As Dr Hatahet said, I don’t think Syrians nowadays have two years to work on a play,” he said.

Dr Hatahet agreed and championed the benefits of having a Western theatre director write the script.

“I think if it comes from an entirely British author or director, it will be more effective. They know better than us how a British audience will react and can potentially make it more of a piece of documentary than a piece of art,” he said.

ARMED REVOLUTION IS A DISASTER: Dr Hatahet expressed his sadness at the fact everyone is taking up arms (© Christiaan Triebert, with thanks)

In perhaps the most difficult question of the night fielded to the speakers, one audience member asked what we can do to put an end to the conflict.

“Now it’s more complicated, it’s become an international matter and not Syria’s matter.

“Now handfuls of countries are fighting in Syria – Russia, China, Iran, Turkey – it’s too complicated. There should be international work to end this. We need to find a solution for the killing. The killing must stop,” said Dr Alhamwhi.

Agreeing, Dr Hatahet added: “The fact is, if the Syrian people didn’t have arms, they wouldn’t fight. These people are using arms that are not made in Syria.

“What we know now is that the fighting factions in the north are selling a barrel of oil for only $25 to get arms. They are still getting arms from outside and selling oil from inside and that’s what’s fuelling the conflict.

“If you imagine a fire that’s oil-fired, if you close the tap, the fire stops. We know where the tap’s coming from. Those who have control of the tap know to close it.

“I am a person who believes that armed conflict within a society will never, ever produce good results. Ever, no matter what. Any armed revolution within the same society is a disaster for that society.”

‘ASSAD FAILED’: Dr Hatahet said that the President has failed in his role as caretaker of the country to protect his people 
(© France2, via YouTube, with thanks)

Although most people both in the West and the Middle East agree that Assad is responsible for the killing, the nature of the topic is as divisive as the Israel/Palestine conflict, and Dr Hatahet said it’s not simply a case of ‘who is throwing the bomb’.

“Assad is supposed to be the caretaker of the country. On his watch, seven million people have had to leave the country. So he failed. Whether he’s doing it or not is irrelevant now. What is relevant is that he failed to protect his own country,” he said.

“Whether his army did the killing or not – which 99% of the planet now believe to be true – they failed in protecting the country in providing food, shelter. They failed. You know, if a government fails anywhere else in the world, they just go!”

Top image courtesy of Freedom House, with thanks

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