Syria and the New Level of Madness

Some Syrians I know complain that the world doesn’t pay attention to Syria. I don’t agree on this. Having worked with humanitarian aid, I can recount plenty of conflicts that goes on in the world that has less international attention in media and social media, even almost non-existent.

In DRC, large areas have never been under government control, and the way the different rebel groups are performing massacres has escalated into a race to the bottom, where they try to surpass each other.

In Pakistan, the deserted tribal area FATA has seen an increase in human rights violations not only from the Taliban but also from the counterattacks of the military.

In Egypt, criminal groups are kidnapping and torturing Eritrean refugees fleeing the brutal Eritrean regime for ransoms of money.

How many people would know the details of these conflicts? Hands up, please.

Syria is quite well covered in the international and social media. Westerners who had no clue what Syria was before the war, have seen pictures from the war zones on the evening news for the last five years.

What stands out with Syria to me, is the level of madness that plays out on prime time TV before our eyes, with no real solution or intervention ahead. Bashar Al Assad keeps repeating that  his army are targeting terrorists – while civilians, mothers with their babies, aid workers, medical doctors, are being killed in front of our eyes. Whatever the dictator says, social media counters it, to no avail.

Syria to me is not a forgotten conflict. It’s a new level of madness.

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Minorities in the Middle East

jo_ch-ceThe Middle East is a region full of minorities that won’t pass under the ethnicity of Arab, Persian or Turk. If watching Homeland one might think something else – I for example had no idea about the different cultures that coexisted in this region when I started travelling. As social integration is one of my passions I want to share some of my experiences with you, and also let people share their own stories.

A few years back I was invited to a family in one of the bleak, sundrenched suburbs in Amman.
“They are Russians” my friend said who brought me with her. It turned out it was a family of Chechnyan origin, incredibly hospitable, that we spent the afternoon and evening with.

It was a big family, many sisters and brothers came that afternoon with their own families and children, and all of them had married only to other Chechens. They were happy to talk about their background and told me how their relatives had fled Chechnya in the 19th century during the Caucasian war. It had been a long journey to reach Jordan, another Muslim country that they hoped would welcome them when they fled the oppression of the Russian central power.

In Jordan they were able to practise their religion without supression and were offered the Jordanian nationalities, not ending up in the vacuum for generations like many refugees do. They went to the same schools and universities and many became successful business men, like this family that now owned a series of supermarkets all over Amman. A special flag have been designed for the Chechen and Circassian minorities in the country, with the Chechen and Circassian flags merged and Hashemite crown on top, as a tribute to the country that had welcomed them.

But for many years they were completely cut off from their native country and relatives that they had left behind. Mail services didn’t exist and war was raging in Chechnya.

“We had our culture only”, one of the men told me. The original Chechen language became mixed up with Russian, as generations passed and many of the original Chechens were illiterate and couldn’t pass on the writing skills to their children.

Then in the 1990s one of the brothers decided to go. He went on his own and after much research was able to find distant relatives and the village from where they descended. He stayed for months and came back with some possessions from their relatives. A small wooden wheel now was hanging on the wall in the saloon in the Jordanian suburbian house, the tickets he had used travelling framed and decorating the other wall. The family was so proud of having found a part of their heritage. War and oppression may still be tormenting Chechnya, but in Jordan the Chechen minority had preserved their culture and pride.

Photo credit: www.crwflags.com

Maryam the First Kuwaiti Woman on Antarctica

Maryam Aljooan

I saw Maryam Aljooan in Kuwait Science Club, holding a presentation for an enthusiastic group of young Kuwaitis, for the first time back in 2008. The club was located out in the desert, far away from residency areas and shopping malls. A bleak building from the outside, colorful posters describing the earth and models of the planetary system decorated the inside. Small, claustrophobic stairs led to the roof where a telescope offered opportunities to watch the stars at night. The place was a refuge for young, smart people who wanted to do something else but shopping or eating. In weekends the members went on star watching trips to the desert and gathered to watch space related movies.

Maryam was the supervisor. Her main interests were space, earth and environment; she had studied engineering in US, one year in Russia at St Petersburg Polytechnical University; and was dedicated to share her knowledge.

“In Kuwait I met many young people that say ‘it’s not possible here’ about anything. There’s a lack of believe in themselves” she says.

Kuwait is a wealthy country where oil, expats and American-style malls have put the country on the map for many. But Maryam’s own childhood was characterized by the Gulf War, when the quiet little country suddenly was invaded and subject to horrible abuse by Iraqi troops. She retells how the society changed afterwards into a hopeless place. Many had lost family members; with the Iraqi army targeting the young boys, almost every family lost at least one of their sons.

“Before the invasion we had a little farm in our school, we did music and learned about arts. After the war everything was put aside.”

According to Maryam, materialism replaced curiosity and involvement in the community. The influence of American culture brought fast food chains and malls popped up with food courts and imported designer clothes, adding to the growing consumer culture. In a few years obesity had become a general health problem (today Kuwait ranks number 1 in obesity internationally). Many young people had lost hope and saw no importance in accomplishing. Everyone’s goal seemed to be to finish school and getting married. In her own family, there was no history of education: own father had only finished high school and her mother had dropped out when she was 12.

“My grandmother didn’t really care about my mom’s education; she wanted my mom to help out with her younger sisters and brothers at home.”

Her grandmother had herself no schooling at all and had been married off in her early teens.

It might not have been likely that Maryam would continue at university; she also went to a public school, not one of the high-ranking American or British private schools. She retells how her family, although being kind and even accepting her marrying a European man, never encouraged her, and she didn’t tell them her dreams about being an astronaut – she nurtured the dream since receiving a small telescope and books about space when being a small girl. In school she was shy and didn’t know how to do things on her own, and until the last year of high school she didn’t know that there was something called university or scholarships to apply for. When her class went on a tour to the university she was surprised: “Oh, there’s something more”, she remembers thinking to herself.

Now she started to wonder if it possible for her to pursue her studies in the space field. A scholarship made it possible for her to move to US to study her bachelors degree, and a NASA conference in 2003 made her decide what she wanted to work with.

“Space, earth and environment are all connected,” she explains to me with enthusiasm on Skype from Belgium, where she lives with her husband Alex, whom she met on a space conference in Japan. “I want to contribute to science and do something for climate change.”

For long she wanted to be the first female Arab astronaut in space and kept an acclaimed blog about it. But her involvement in the Kuwaiti community took a lot of time; she became the supervisor of the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Kuwait Science Club and dedicated her free time to help the young members, at the same time she was travelling a lot and starting up her own NGO Lazurd (Arabic word for Azure, a hue of blue representing earth). She also put her efforts in to being the first Kuwaiti woman to go to Antarctica, and succeeded. Photos of Maryam with penguins; Maryam triumphantly holding up the Kuwaiti flag on an ice berg; Maryam in a small boat on her way over the chilling sea, fills up her Facebook page The Antartic Expedition of Maryam Aljoaan”.

I ask her why she is so dedicated to the young people in Kuwait now that she has a career of her own and is living outside of the country.

“I was in this situation myself that I see many of the young people in today. If I wouldn’t do anything for the young people in Kuwait I would feel like I would disappear. I know I can set my own example for the kids.”

If she would be able to help another woman to be the first Arab woman in space, she would now appreciate this as much as being the first one herself. I ask her what her parents think about her, the shy girl from a public school who became a celebrity in Kuwait; the supervisor of Kuwait Science Club; and the first Kuwaiti woman on Antarctica.

“My mom is proud” she says. “And as for my dad, well he don’t talk much, but when I was in Russia he made a point out of calling me when he was in the Diwaniya” (gathering at someone’s house). “‘I’m speaking to my daughter, she’s in Russia! She’s studying space engineering!’ he would tell his friends. That’s how I know he’s proud of me too.”

Photo credit: Maryam Aljooan