This is for Those Who Can’t Return

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The victory seems closer now than ever. Assad has been able to push the rebels out of some of their strongholds. The regime and it’s allies are bombing the humanity out of Aleppo. The opposition is weak and fighting each other.

On social media, photos from pages such as Syria Tourism and Tartous2day are uploading photos as if it’s the summer of 2010: dressed up young people attending a party; ice cream desserts enjoyed in the center of Damascus; Syrian restaurants serving food to it’s guests, the trade mark fountain bubbling in the middle. Hope seems to make its way back into the common perception of Syria; in this sense, hope meaning the hope of peace.

If the regime will win the war, peace might happen in the near future. The regime will then need to rebuild parts of the country from scratch. Hospitals, schools, roads, buildings; in some areas, all of this needs to be rebuilt. But there will be peace, and many of the Syrians in exile will be able to go back to their beloved, beautiful country, without fear. They will be able to make use of their summer vacations to return to Syria and go swim in Latakia. Stroll in the old souk of Damascus. Dine out in one of the outdoor restaurants. I dare to say that I believe all Syrians have now been waiting for this for a long time.

But, there are those who won’t be able to enjoy an upcoming peace in Syria, the way peace seems likely now. Those who can’t go back despite any peace agreement if the regime stays in power. The people who once stood up against the regime, demanding human rights, a society where free speech was accepted. A society where you could live without fear.

These people once risked their lives for their own country, and they will receive nothing in return. They’ve been imprisoned, tortured, raped, before – if they were lucky – escaping the country.

Many of them that I know, are not happy with and would never have chosen the exile. A young woman who early on received permanent asylum in Sweden, and who has done quite well in maintaining her career and her profession, has done less well in appreciating the safety Sweden has provided her. Despite her freedom of speech, her ability to maintain her activism against the regime, her huge network all around Europe, she seems to dislike almost every aspect of her life in exile; her life in her new home country; the country itself. She’s aching so much for the Syria she once had. Despite all the terrible things she was put through, as an open activist against the regime.

One day, her Facebook status update simply stated: “I want to go home!”

The way the events in Syria are unfolding right now, that might never be possible.

Photo credit: www.facebook.com/tartous2day/

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All About Damascus, a Sign of Normal Life

War may torment larger parts of Syria and the Middle East, but few signs of the beautiful country that once was and in some places still is, exists and pops up like butterflies here and there. One of them is the Facebook page All About Damascus, a page that started before the war, in 2010, and that is still going strong.

Today, on July 13, the page uploaded a few photos from the every day life in the colourful city of Damascus, the life that is still going on despite the war.

In the politicised debate over Syria, some might say this page is a part of the regime’s propaganda to show that they are able to reign over some parts of the country, that they are able to keep some of the city calm. But I would prefer to say it might as well be a sign of normal life. A sign to remind of what life that can remain during the dirtiest of wars.

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Photo copyrights: All About Damascus Facebook page 

I Love Syria, That’s Why I’m Writing This Post

The old city in Damascus

I am a, for now, retired humanitarian aid worker, who have worked in many countries across the world, mostly in the Middle East. In my former profession I tried not to be too wrapped up in the countries that I lived in, since it’s important to remain calm and neutral as much as possible. Plenty of young Westerners have been travelling to countries in what we used to love to call the third world and start to identify with the countries, the politics and the people. As a humanitarian aid worker you’re not supposed to do that; overly identifying means you loose part of your focus.

But here’s a confession to make from my side: when I see the current news from Syria, and when I hear other aid workers talk about Syria in the most general ways, it breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart, because people who didn’t know Syria before the war don’t know anything about the country. Aid workers and people outside who have never been, seem to see it as just another country where conflict has been going on and will be going on forever. They see it as a country where every person is a potential islamic fundamentalist. They see it as a country where there are few functioning schools, few functional hospitals, where water and electricity is a luxury. A country like any other country they have worked in.

What breaks my heart is, people who only have seen Syria in a state of conflict, have never seen it as it really is. I have been living in many countries in the Middle East and Syria is my absolute favourite. Not by choice, it was just one of the places where I grew really attached to the place, where the good by far outweighed the bad. Syria is my pearl in the ocean. Let me tell you why.

Syria is the country that has a beautiful capital, a capital where night clubs takes place just like late-night cafés and restaurants; beach resorts; mosques and ancient buildings.

Syria is a country that lacks the superficiality that sometimes takes over in Lebanon, a country that has the night life that you won’t find in Jordan (with or without alcohol), a place where men and women; people from different religions; locals and foreigners, easily mix.

Syria is the country where people will keep their promise, they pick you up when they say they will pick you up, call you when they say they will call you.

Syria is a country where liberal people are next door neighbours with conservative.

Syria is a country where you sit in a café playing dawla with your girlfriend until midnight and no one bothers you.

Syria is the country where you go to have ice cream with your colleagues after work at Abu Shaker’s restaurant in Damascus on a weekday, or hit the swimming pool in your bikini in Damarose Hotel on a hot summer’s day, working on your tan and ordering plenty of arabic coffees to have at the pool, or go to Lounge 808 on a Friday night for a drink.

Syria is not a country of extremists, it’s a not a country of terrorists, it’s a country where people used to live and prosper in some of the most dynamic ways in the Middle East, before the civil war started.

Syria was once a place where friendship, love and beautiful things took place – now it’s a country that’s reduced to the international headlines of terror and misery, and humanitarian aid workers whose beer drinking and generalised ideas of a country full of war and terrorists, have taken over a place where beautiful things once was. That is what breaks my heart.

Photo copyrights: Sweden and the Middle East Views

My Friend in Syria Has Lost All Her Rights as a Woman

I lived in Syria last year, and I made a few amazing friends despite the ongoing war. I still keep in touch with them and am surprised how I could meet so many fine people in so short time.

One of them, we can call her Sarah, had made an incredible journey in life. Coming from a working class conservative family, she had been married off against her will when young. The marriage had been abusive, something she was not unused to: in her world, as she described it, “almost all men hit women”. But the violence Sarah had been subjected to had been of the extraordinary kind.

When she left her husband it was because she knew she wouldn’t survive if going back. Trauma to her head had made her loose parts of her memory and she had suffered three miscarriages as a result of the abuse. When leaving her husband Sarah had to leave her children behind and was not allowed to see them. She had the right to visit her children but was deeply traumatized, had no support from her family and no lawyer to help her access this right.

At her family’s house noone spoke to her, they didn’t approve of her leaving her husband. She stayed most of her time in a dark room, often not remembering the day before or where she was. She knew her family wanted to get her into a mental hospital, and she also knew that if they were able to make her admitted there she would never be able to get out.

“How did you make it?” I asked Sarah the one evening she opened up and told me her story, which I would have had no clue of if she hadn’t told me, despite her sad eyes, this pretty girl in modern clothes and pastel earrings. We had been hanging out for a while and were drinking wine in one of the laid back cafés in the inner city of Damascus.

“I just had to”, she said. “I read every book in the house… And I tried to remember the books I read.”

She became able to make appointments with a psychiatrist at a public hospital. She gradually became better and was able to enroll in a beauty school. One day when she was well enough she left her family’s house. She had been making money by working in beauty saloons in downtown Damascus, saving so she could rent a small flat on her own.

“You’re not allowed to move out!” her brother had told her. “You’re nothing but a whore if you live on your own!”

But the verbal abuse didn’t take hold of her, she was so used to it.

Sarah took off her abaya and hijab (“I believe in God, but I never wanted these”). She started going to the gym, started going out, started dating. After a few years she was strong enough to fight for her kids. In the meantime her ex husband had remarried and had a new child with his second wife. And the war had started.

Sarah got a female lawyer who threatened her ex husband with legal actions if he didn’t allow Sarah visitation rights. The legal system was weakened and they might not have been able to push it further, but her ex husband got scared and gave in. The children slept next to her each time they visited and cried when it was time to go back to their dad, desperate not to go.

War dragged on and effected everyone, even the people living in the regime controlled capital. Sarah wasn’t able to make a living despite working 12 hours a day. Her employer paid her a small sum of her salary and said “It’s war, I have no money to pay you”. In the breakdown of the system there was nowhere to go to claim your salary. Benefits didn’t exist. Sarah had to move back to her family, and they didn’t accept her children coming to visit. Her ex husband was happy and Sarah was back in confinement again. The war had made her loose all her rights. But worse was yet to come.

The other day she called me and told me her children were back with her. Great news! But how had it happened?

Her ex husband had been taken by the authorities and noone knew where he was. His new wife had refused his extended family to see the children. But the childrens’ uncle had spoken to them on Skype and seen them having bruises and marks on their faces. Something wasn’t right and in the end he called Sarah and told her to try take the children. He didn’t want to take them himself as the war made him having enough financial constraints with his own family.

There was no legal system anymore that would support Sarah’s attempt to get her children back. Instead she called the woman and asked if she could invite her and the children to a nice restaurant. When they met, Sarah was all smiles with the woman. In the middle of the meal she got up with the kids to go to the bathroom, then rushed them through the back door of the restaurant, and jumped in to a taxi.

Sarah’s family in the end accepted the children staying with them when they learned that Sarah’s ex husband was gone. The truth about what had happened to the children unravelled when back in Sarah’s care. Sarah’s ex husband’s new wife had abused them already when her husband was still present, probably as a revenge for the abuse she herself suffered in the hands of her husband. The children had told their father what their stepmother did but he didn’t believe them. When he disappeared the abuse escalated: she had tortured them with electricity and starved them. If Sarah hadn’t intervened I don’t know what had happened.

“They are so angry”, Sarah said. “And hungry. It’s like they hadn’t had food for weeks. You can’t believe how weak they are.”

“So what will you do now?” I asked when we were on the phone.

“I can’t do anything, Jenny. There is nowhere I can go.”

She can’t report the woman to any police authorities. There is hardly nowhere to take the children for psychological counselling. If her ex husband comes back and forces the children to return to their abusive stepmother, there is nowhere for Sarah to turn for legal help. She’s also no longer financially independent and has no control over her own life, she’s back in the hands of her own abusive family. In Syria, once a functioning country with a stable infrastructure, everything is collapsed.

When I speak to Sarah on the phone there is nothing I can say that will help her. That’s why I write about this on my blog. I want everyone to know what it’s like to be a woman or a child in Syria during this war. That’s all I can do.

I Love My City Damascus

View from 4 Seasons Hotel in Damascus

News from Damascus are always depressing nowadays. But it used to be a vibrant city, full of life. When I lived there last year the fear of the war was present in the city, but here are the words of a young woman from Damascus and how her life used to be before the war.

“I grew up in Damascus and when we went to visit the village my parents came from, I just wanted to go back home. My parents’ village is beautiful, green and with fresh air, but it’s not like the city. In Damascus I had everything; freedom and friends.

Summers were the best. My cousin was older and worked in Saudi Arabia and used to come home for vacation in the summers. She got divorced and when she came home she wanted to have a good time, to live a free life, a life she couldn’t live over there. When she was in Damascus I packed a bag with all my stuff and moved in with her. She rented a flat downtown and I stayed with her there all summer. My family was angry with me for moving out from them, they thought my cousin had bad influence on me, but there was nothing they could do. I had become so independent from them since I started working and making my own money.

Me and my cousin never cooked, we just ordered take out to the house or went to restaurants. We went to the swimming pools somewhere in the city and ordered sheesha. In the evenings we went clubbing, there were many nightclubs to go to, and there were always a lot of guys after us. We had a good time with them, we let them pay for everything, then when we got bored with them we just hopped in a taxi and left” (she shows how they teasingly waved goodbye from the car window while laughing) “We never talked politics back then. She supported the president, she thought it was because of Bashar al Assad that she could live a free life in Syria comparing to the life she had as a divorced woman in Saudi Arabia. I was against Assad, just like my father was, but me and my cousin never spoke about it. We just had a great time together. I loved my city.”

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

God Save Our House

Writing on the wall of a house in one of the wartorn suburbs of Damascus, Syria, in July 2013:

“Mashallah” – God save our house from the evil eye. Whatever there is left to save.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

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Umayyad Mosque in the heart of Damacus old city, an ancient building completed in year 715. Photos are taken during a Friday evening in June 2013.

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Also an excellent place to spend a Friday night at, for prayers and socializing. Or a playground, with it’s shiny floor perfect for sliding on…

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Let’s hope it will remain throughout the war.

Photos: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog