Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees (HHWR) met with Rania Abouzeid, author of a new and critically acclaimed book on the Syrian war, No Turning Back. Working towards resettling a refugee family in their neighbourhood, HHWR sat down with Rania to gain an expert perspective on the current situation in Syria.
HHWR: You’ve reported on the turmoil in Syria since the first protests in 2011. How can people in London grasp the magnitude of what the Syrian people have gone through since then? Is it even possible? Do you have an analogy or an anecdote a particular statistic you use to explain it to your friends and family?
I understand the difficulty of trying to fathom what has happened and is still happening in Syria. It’s hard to follow. What began with peaceful protests has devolved into a very messy, complicated, vicious conflict between Syrians that is also a proxy war for powerful states. In my years of covering the Middle East, I’ve found that reminding people that a conflict like Syria is about people makes it easier to understand and that’s what I do in my book. I hope that by chronicling the journeys over years of a diverse group of people readers will come away with a somewhat better understanding of what happened in Syria.
One thing I often say is that while nobody really knows how many people have died in Syria (the UN stopped counting in mid-2013) the figure most often stated is half a million people (although that number has been static for years). Every one of those numbers is a person, and every person is part of a family, and every family is part of a community. Imagine a person’s death like a stone tossed into a pond, and then consider the ripple effects of that one death – from the victim’s immediate family, extended relatives, to the family’s role in the community, and then imagine half a million stones and their ripple effects in a country of 23 million people, and the disturbance caused.
HHWR: In your recent talk at the Frontline Club you told a story about sitting in the dark with Syrian women under aerial bombardment, and how they were making jokes and giving each other therapy as the fighter jets roared overhead. What are the positive, resilient aspects of Syrian society that sometimes get missed in the news coverage of the conflict?
That life goes on, as it always does, as it must, even in the grimmest, most dangerous circumstances. Human beings are remarkably resilient and it’s an internal reservoir that most people, if they’re lucky, will never have to call on or even know that they possess. I continue to be astounded by the ability of so many Syrians, even after all these years and all this savagery, to not only persevere, but to hope, to plan, to look forward to what will come instead of just back at what has been lost.
HHRW: You’ve spoken about an idea of ‘Syria-ness’ that still exists in peoples heads, even as the country itself is torn apart. What do you think this Syria-ness consists of?
That’s a question for Syrians to define and answer, and different Syrians will give you different answers, while others will say that it no longer exists. But as it was explained to me by the Syrians who still believe in it, it’s the idea of a shared history, a shared land, a shared tongue, and perhaps even shared grievances over some things, and the hope that once this ugly chapter comes to an end as it eventually must, the things Syrians share will help them re-knit their communities together again.
HHRW: You live in Lebanon, a tiny country which has over a million Syrian refugees living in it. Can you describe the effect that’s had on Lebanon, and the kind of conditions the refugees are living in?
The vast majority of Syrian refugees are not in Europe or the US but in Syria’s neighboring states of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Unlike in Turkey and Jordan, Lebanon does not allow the establishment of Syrian refugee camps for fear that they will become permanent settlements, in the same way that the 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon established after 1948 and 1967 have become.
Instead, Syrians must try and find their own shelter. Those who can afford it rent homes but many live in informal tented settlements, paying ‘rent’ to the landowners for pitching a tent in his or her field. Their conditions are dire, with poor access to sanitation and basic services. Lebanese schools are running double shifts to try and accommodate the influx of Syrian refugees but many young Syrians have dropped out of school in order to try and help their families make ends meet. The monthly UN stipend for refugees isn’t even enough to buy daily bread (and nothing else).
The refugee influx is massive. Lebanon is a country of about 4.5 million people that has at least 1-1.5 million Syrian refugees and many more Syrians who do not officially register as refugees. It is also a state with dilapidated infrastructure, electricity and water shortages (mainly due to state mismanagement and corruption), so the influx of over a million desperate people has strained the state’s infrastructure, and as a result some Lebanese scapegoat and blame Syrian refugees for their troubles.
Lebanon is also a state with a long and tortured history with its larger neighbor Syria, which politically and militarily dominated Beirut for almost 3 decades. Some Lebanese are pro-Assad and actively fighting in Syria alongside his troops, and some Lebanese are anti-Assad and have supported his opponents with money and weapons and other logistical support, so the Syrian refugees have entered a country that was and remains very polarized over the issue of Syria.
HHRW: You grew up in a Lebanese family that moved to Australia because of the civil war in Lebanon. Was it a challenge for them to adapt to life in Australia while keeping a connection with Lebanon and their Lebanese identity? Are there any lessons for Syrian refugees in the Lebanese emigration experience?
Actually, my family left Lebanon before the civil war and initially went to New Zealand. It was difficult to adapt to a new land in a new tongue, especially one so very different (and far!) from their former home. We grew up knowing we were from different places – the land where we lived, and the land my parents had left behind, and we learned to live in both. I am astounded by how quickly many Syrians I know have learned European languages and tried to assimilate into their new societies while – like my parents – maintaining their old traditions, language and food in the privacy of their homes. It is a very familiar way of life to me.
HHRW: How likely is it that people will start going back to Syria in large numbers? Are there some people that will never be able to go back?
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are unlikely to go home because they are either wanted by the regime, or they fear being drafted into its army, or they have very little to go back to. But truth be told, I have never met a Syrian who doesn’t want to go back home, and many of them are also returning to try and rebuild something of their lives in their hometowns. I know people who have told me they will live in the rubble of their homes until they rebuild – that it is a more dignified life than feeling like the outsider, the refugee, the number, in a foreign land.
HHRW: The Frontline Club event for your book was packed with people. Have you been surprised at the reaction to your book here? Conventional wisdom is that everyone is bored with hearing about Syria…
Yes, I’ve been surprised by the turnout at my book events! People are interested. They want to know about what happened, what is happening, and how they can help. It was heartening to see.
You can buy Rania’s critically acclaimed book, No Turning Back, here: https://oneworld-publications.com/no-turning-back-hb.html
Follow her on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/Raniaab