Friday, 6 September 2019

Can a dish and a tale help Syria's internally displaced integrate?

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 ' “Women of Aleppo had been strong, independent and right next to their man — particularly in the Syrian revolution,” said Umm Karamwa as she stuffed zucchini with minced meat and rice.

 “Aleppo women played a vital role in the revolution, alongside men. They worked in nursing and tended to the wounded from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They participated in demonstrations and in civil, relief and educational activities under the banner of the Syrian revolution,” she told 20 women, all of whom are part of a project that aims to integrate internally displaced women into their new surroundings in Atareb, a town in the western Aleppo countryside.

 Born and raised in the neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo, Umm Karamwa, a housewife, was forced to move to Atareb in 2016 when the régime forces took over their area, which prompted thousands of pro-opposition civilians to leave their homes for the Aleppo countryside, under control of the FSA. She has been living in Atareb, 25 kilometers (16 miles) west of her city, since 2016.

 Umm Karamwa then knowledgeably spoke, with some nostalgia, to the women about Aleppo’s rich heritage including the Citadel to the covered market and other aspects of Aleppo's archaeological heritage. Some of the women were locals; others were displaced from different governorates.

 All participants tell their stories — often a mix of their personal lives, heritages and beliefs — in “A Dish and A Tale” sessions, which aims to integrate the newcomers with local women. The speaker often starts with an introduction then talks about all the things that interest her, from the role of women in the Syrian revolution to the traditions she grew up with. The displaced women have touching stories to tell on how they felt when they left behind their homes, such as what they could have taken with them and what they left behind. Others listen and ask questions.

 After or during the “tale,” each woman shows others how to make a special dish, which they eat together afterward. Umm Karamwa’s session was the second gathering of “A Dish and a Tale,” and she decided to cook stuffed zucchini (al-mahashi).

 “To talk and cook is a wonderful idea,” she said. “I got to make new friends and learn about different cultures in Syria. While I made al-mahashi, the others helped me to stuff zucchini with rice and meat. I found out we make stuffed zucchini differently from the women of Damascus and Homs. We add a lot of spices, while they just add mint to the stuffing."

 In the first session, held July 20, the speaker had been Umm Mohammad, a 50-year old housewife who lived with her grandchildren. They all came from Homs.

 “I was very happy to be part of this initiative. I had the chance to meet women from different Syrian governorates and we shared our concerns of displacement and the suffering we went through. I told them about our social customs in Homs, the way we make grilled kibbeh [meat patties], which is one of our specialties. They really liked it,” Umm Muhammad said.

 Lina Mustafa, coordinator of the initiative, told how food and conversation have built bridges among the women. “First, women introduce themselves and talk about their hometowns and their work. They also discuss the role of women in the Syrian revolution, their participation in the demonstrations, raising banners and other activities in their areas before they had been forcibly displaced.”

 “During the first session, Umm Mohammad talked about Homs — Syria’s third-largest city and a key battleground. Homs was dubbed “the capital of revolution” in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. She showed the onset of the demonstrations against a backdrop of a slideshow showing photos and videos during the revolution in the squares of Homs, with a focus on women’s roles in helping the peaceful, wounded protesters. The photos depicted some of the customs and traditions in Homs, the city’s archaeological sites, and the famous dishes and ingredients. The attendees then joined Umm Mohammad in the preparation of grilled kibbeh (meat patties), and then [they all] lunched together,” Mustafa said.

 Muhammad Shakrdy, director of the Atareb Civil Center, said the "Volunteer to Build” team launched the initiative. “This social activity also seeks to help displaced women cope with the bitter reality of being away from their homes and adapt to a new social milieu,” he said.

 “The idea of the initiative came up as displaced Syrians from different governorates flocked into the FSA-controlled areas in northern Syria, particularly in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. We had to find a way to help women integrate into the hosting communities. We also wanted to challenge any stereotypes held by the locals in Atareb in the western Aleppo countryside vis-a-vis the displaced,” he added.

 “Twenty different women attend every session. They include both local and displaced women. A woman tells the story, customs and history of her hometown with a focus on the role of women in the revolution against the Syrian régime in every gathering. The meeting also includes a Q&A session. At the end, the attendees cook a meal, which would be the specialty of a Syrian town or village. We already held two sessions, one on the city of Aleppo and the other on the city of Homs. In the upcoming sessions, the attendees will talk about Damascus, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa,” Shakrdy said.

 Hanan Orabi, director of the Office for Women and Child Welfare, a division of the Council of Free Aleppo Governorate, said she was also a guest in the initiative. “The idea is wonderful and aims to strengthen ties between locals and displaced women; [it] brings hope into the hearts of families who are still feeling homesick,” she said.

 Another invitee, social activist Asmaa Mohammed, agreed that the combination of food and conversation worked and could be a model for other towns that host displaced people. “This kind of initiative is very important for social integration in the hosting communities. Other towns in the Aleppo countryside should follow suit to help the displaced families feel more welcome in their new communities,” she said.'

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Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Syrian father who lost twins to poison gas uprooted again

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 'When Abdel Hamid al-Yousef lost his 9-month-old twins in the poison gas attack that hit the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, the world witnessed his heartbreak and grief in the video of him cradling their lifeless bodies in his arms, bidding them farewell in the chaotic aftermath of the attack.

 Determined to continue with his life despite the pain, he has since remarried, and now has a one-year-old daughter who brings much needed joy to what remains of the family. But tragedy keeps chasing the 31-year-old former shopkeeper.

 Many displaced persons like al-Yousef fear that a government win will bring little relief — or sense of closure.

 Al-Yousef recently fled Khan Sheikhoun again, joining tens of thousands fleeing heavy airstrikes and bombardment as government forces swept into the town, on the southern edge of the country's last rebel stronghold in the province of Idlib.

 He now lives among thousands of other internally displaced Syrians in a settlement near the Turkish border, worried he will never be able to go back to the hometown he left behind.

 "I buried the most important thing I have in my life there, my children and my siblings. I used to find some relief by visiting them twice a week at the grave," he said. "I cannot do that anymore."

 Most of all, al-Yousef fears the takeover by Bashar Assad's forces of Khan Sheikhoun means that any leftover evidence from the April 2017 toxic gas attack will now be erased forever.

"The biggest fear now, after r
égime forces and the Russians and allied militiamen took over Khan Sheikhoun is that they will tamper with the evidence with regards to the chemical weapons attack and distort the facts," he said.

 The attack in opposition-held Khan Sheikhoun in the early morning of April 4, 2017 left residents gasping for breath and convulsing in the streets and overcrowded hospitals. Nearly 90 people were killed in the attack, one of the deadliest in years.

 Days later, the U.S. fired 59 U.S. Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Air Base in central Syria, saying the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was launched from the base. It marked the first western airstrikes on targets of Assad's government since the start of the conflict in March 2011.

 From his tent in the displaced settlement near the Turkish border called "Mokhayyam al-Karamah," Arabic for "Dignity Camp," near the town of Atmeh, al-Yousef recalls that fateful day when he lost his twins, Aya and Ahmed, his wife Dalal and 16 other relatives.

 It is a story he has told dozens of times, about how Khan Sheikhoun residents woke up at half-past six in the morning to the sound of explosions. How people started running out of their homes and onto the street, trying to help each other. How he told his wife to take the twins to safety outside. The people he saw foaming at the mouth and nose.

 He recalls how he ran to his brother's house to find him and his family dead. His other brother and nephew, also dead. His niece who was around 13, also dead. He lost consciousness and woke up four hours later to be told that his twins and wife had died. They were among the 89 people who died from what experts have determined was an attack using sarin, an outlawed nerve toxin.

 In footage filmed by his cousin that was widely circulated later, al-Yousef, 29 years old at the time, is seen seated in the front seat of a van cradling his twins, holding them in each arm. He stroked their hair and choked back tears, mumbling, "Say goodbye, baby, say goodbye."

 Al-Yousef keeps photos and videos of the attack's aftermath on his phone that he flips through from time to time.

 He sits on the floor and plays Lego with his 11-month-old daughter, whom he named Aya, after his first daughter. Her hair is in curly pigtails and she is wearing a sleeveless yellow T-shirt with the words "Love" printed on it and a heart in the middle.

 Al-Yousef said that after spending some time in Turkey for treatment after the gas attack, he then chose to return to Khan Sheikhoun, held by rebels.

 He decided to try and build a new life and a new home. He got married and had Aya. He gradually found some happiness.

 But then government troops began an assault on Idlib and the nonstop bombardment of Khan Sheikhoun returned. A new wave of civilian displacement began. As the bombardment got unbearable and the troops encircled the town, he decided to leave, fleeing with the masses to safer areas near the Turkish border.

 "The final days felt like I was saying goodbye to everything I hold dear to my heart. I had already lost my children and now I've lost my country. My situation has become very, very tragic," he said.

 Al-Yousef wants the bloodshed to end. As a well-known witness and survivor of the chemical weapons attack, he says he gets frequent threats from the government side, but says he'll never stop talking about what happened. He wants accountability.

 "I want to send a message to Western countries to shoulder their responsibility and protect the lives of remaining civilians," he said.'
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Sunday, 1 September 2019

Syria ceasefire just gives régime a breather, say tired Idlib residents

Zouhir al-Shimale:

 'Residents of northern Syria say they have no faith in the temporary reprieve brought by a Russian-led ceasefire in Idlib as they say shelling hasn’t stopped and the memories endure of previous such deals in other areas subjected to government offensives.

 Many of the nearly 3 million civilians sheltering in Syria’s last rebel-held area of Syria were displaced from elsewhere in the country following previous government offensives.

 Those who lived through such fighting say that similar ceasefire deals made little difference on the ground as shelling continued and government forces used the brief pause to regroup and renew the offensive days later.

 “I do not know what to say,” said Sara Mawlawe, 29, a teacher in the Idlib town of Saraqib southeast of Idlib city. She was displaced from Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, after the régime onslaught there in March 2018.

 “The Russian-Syrian régimes are playing with the international community and us like [we’re] dull. Attacking when they want to, ceasing fire to rest and reload their weapons whenever they want,” she said.

 Ms Mawlawe said Russian-backed forces would not stop until they recaptured the areas they wanted, regardless of the international community.

 “This truce is a setup scheme to orchestrate more attacks against civilians,” she said. “Since I came from Eastern Ghouta last year, the ceasefire and battles are almost identical.”

 She pointed to identical attacks against hospitals, infrastructure, civil defence centres and displacements camps.

 “Not only the attacks and ceasefires are the same since Eastern Ghouta or Aleppo, the world’s leaders and media coverage have also been the same,” she said.

 “Condemnation and draft resolutions against the Syrian régime always vetoed by Russia. Can anyone give me one reason to be optimistic or think this one will end our agony?”

 She added that while the area of Idlib where she is now sheltering was relatively peaceful on Sunday, they could hear warplanes overhead and explosions in the distance.

 “We do not know if the truce is still on track or it has been cancelled."

 On Saturday, the Syria and Russia declared the cessation of hostilities – the second since August 1 – but it was swiftly violated the Syrian military who announced on government media that they were starting attacks against “terrorists” in north Syria.

 Ms Mawlawe works with a relief organisation facilitating aid to internally displaced people in the region. She is a volunteer cook and distributes essential items with the local council of Saraqib.

 “Even though the truce will not last, the international organization ought to stand up for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who lost everything," she said. “Some families have not eaten a meal for more than three days, or are without shelter. The humanitarian crisis is at critical levels and needs the intervention of international organizations”.

 Sami Souqe, 33, is a carpenter but lost his home in the bombing of Aleppo three years ago. He has been living with his family of three children in the outskirt of Marat Al Noman, south of Idlib city.

 His house has been destroyed and his nine-year-old son, Khaled, is still in intensive care after suffering critical wounds to his back.

 His other two children and wife were displaced again now sleep under the open sky, homeless and without assistance while he waits near Turkish border hospital in Bab Al Hawa to hear news of Khaled’s condition.

 “We are defenceless and harmless, why are the same attacks and truces happening over and over,” he asked. “And there’s no response or movement whatsoever by the West to end the ongoing atrocities.”

 He too didn’t believe the ceasefire was an attempt to ease the humanitarian situation or stop the clashes.

 “The declared halt only serve the régime, to reorganize their fighters and move more militants and ammunitions towards Idlib’s frontline to destroy and recapture more towns. It has been happening for years,” he said.

 “In 2016 we had the same scenario when dozens of ceasefires were announced and broken again and again by the régime, fooling rebel forces and the international community with the fake willingness to [hold] peace negotiations.”

 Mr Sami took part in a protest on Friday at the Syrian border with Turkey, calling for Ankara to open the closed crossing to allow civilians to flee the grinding bloodshed of the Idlib campaign.

 "We are exhausted and need this war to come to an end, we pray for it every day to come true," he said.'

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Idlib massacres echo in Istanbul, activists condemn violations and inaction

Idlib massacres echo in Istanbul, activists condemn violations and inaction

 'Syrian activists on Saturday denounced the massacres and violations by the Russian and Iranian occupation forces and Assad's militias in Idlib and condemned the negative attitude of the international community towards them, during a press conference organized by the "Arab Society" and the "Syrian League" volunteers team in the Turkish state of Istanbul.

 The dissident Syrian astronaut, Mohammad Fares, called during the conference for the international community to stand by the Syrian people and their revolution, urging the UN Security Council to intervene to stop the systematic killing against the Syrians, denying the existence of terrorists among the people of the Syrian revolutionaries, stressing that terrorism was fabricated under the Assad régime in trying to suppress the voice of freedom.

 Fares added that the Syrian revolution started peacefully and that its people took up arms only after it was imposed on them so that the "free people'' would not be annihilated by Iran, the Russians and Assad's militias, while urging the Syrians and the Turks to unite to confront the attempts to attack the two brotherly peoples.

 For his part, dissident Colonel, Ahmad Hamadeh said that the attitude of the international community is negative towards the massacres have been committing against the Syrian people, as the Assad régime, Russian and Iranian militias have been using all types of weapons, including internationally prohibited and chemical weapons, pointing out that Russia used 320 types of weapons, in the bombing of northern Syria, the latest the fighter jets SU-57 and SU-35.

 He added that the bombing is the only logic understood by the Russians, Iranians and Assad's militias, stressing that they destroyed more than 80 percent of the infrastructure of the areas that revolted against the Assad régime.

Hamadeh pointed out that the Russians were the ones who failed the Sochi agreement by bombing northern Syria, stressing that the number of medical points and hospitals that were targeted in the last campaign amounted to 49 points, and the entire villages in Idlib countryside were exterminated, which forced the residents to evacuate and to move out into the open or areas.

The number of victims during the military campaign on northern Syria reached more than a thousand civilians, including hundreds of children and women, and the bombing of communities resulted in the displacement of about one million people amid difficult humanitarian conditions.'

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