I didn’t think that, at age 17, while hugging my Syrian grandmother goodbye, that the next time I would enter Syria would be at age 22 and through a refugee camp. I travelled there this past March to work on a humanitarian relief project and to make connections with workers on the ground; the journey was as much personal as it was work-related. Those five days marked a change in how I understood international power relations, the political nature of human existence within a state, and the construction of privilege.
For the first year of the Syrian revolution, I watched, powerless. I was the only Syrian-American in my social circles and didn’t have a support network. In hindsight, I should have immediately sought out a support network, a team, to keep up with the news and work on projects together. The first step to being politically active is joining the conversation, but finding the American conversation on Syria was difficult. There would be no mainstream conversation to join until Obama was forced to act on his Red Line policy in August 2013.
Eventually, after months of asking around, I connected with Yisser online. She in turn connected me with other activists on Facebook, and a few months later, 17 of us planned a relief project to deliver aid inside Syria. In a little over one week, we were able to fund-raise $105,000 online with Syrian Sunrise Foundation, a registered non-profit. At the Syrian-Turkish border, we partnered with Watan NGO to help us allocate our money, mostly towards food baskets and one development project. We were going to work with Qah Refugee Camp, and distribute food in Jarjanaz, Kafranbel, and Aleppo city.
The Syrian borders are congested with tents. I saw more refugee camps than I can name. Refugee camps are spontaneous cities that emerge without an infrastructure or economy whose residents are more or less impoverished. We invested money towards a sewer in Qah to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases. Driving through the various refugee camps, you will see the occasional UNHCR-stamped tent. It’s bewildering how the UN has invested time, money, and media to raise the alarm about the refugee crisis while members of its Security Council protect Bashar al Assad from being sent to the International Criminal Court: we live in a world that will hand out charity but withhold justice.
At Qah, I played with the children and spoke with the women, and was ashamed that I could not offer more than just my company and promises to write about them in the media (which I later fulfilled in an online photo story and article). With just my Biology degree, I was unskilled and couldn’t offer something useful, like medical care. Everyone knew we had travelled long distances to be there and expected us to be powerful or influential people. My taking up their airspace only benefitted us, the North Americans, who wanted to ensure the honesty of the relief delivery system. In a way, it was like walking in on domestic violence….and just watching and handing the victim a blanket instead of calling the police.
Americans feel a disconnect with Syria because the Obama administration sidelined the issue and made Syria appear irrelevant to the average American. Many Americans forget that the United States has a seat on the UN Security Council which is blocking political justice for Syrians. When the August 21 sarin gas attacks happened, Obama abdicated his responsibility as commander in chief to the uninformed, indifferent American population. Suddenly, Syria was relevant, and a frenzy ensued as 300 million people tried to catch up on 2.5 years of revolution in 2.5 weeks. They failed.
Children, who are simple and innocent by nature, speak of death in Syria. One million of Syria’s refugees are children while five million are in desperate need of assistance according to UNICEF. The UN estimates 1 million people are at risk of starvation. Eight million Syrians have lost their homes, and everyone has a story about death. “We were walking in a protest and both my cousins on either side of me fell to the ground, shot dead by a sniper”, a relief worker told me. Conservative estimates say 120,000 people have died in Syria, and thousands more are missing or are being tortured in detention. The residents of opposition strongholds of Ghouta, Moadamiyah, Yarmouk Palestinian camp, and Douma are imprisoned in their own neighborhoods by the Assad regime’s medieval siege policy — no food, water, or medicine goes in and no one gets out.
Individual health within the state is often at the mercy of state policy, a reality evident in Syria and true for all citizens on Earth. The Assad regime responded to populist demands for reform with disproportionate force, as many Youtube videos of bleeding and dead civilians will attest. When the people persisted, the regime escalated, bombing bakeries, hospitals, schools, and homes, destroying Syria in an effort to save its rule. Lack of food takes its toll on the body while bombs take their toll on the mind. When the regime drops SCUD missiles, TNT barrels, thermal bombs, and cluster bombs, they always seem to land on civilians and never on Al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting to control parts of the country. Yet it’s the Al Qaeda groups, much like roadkill, who generate morbid fascination thanks to a decade of fear-mongering from the Bush administration in its fallacious post-9/11 “Global War on Terror.”
On my third night in Syria, I slept under rocket shelling in Kafranbel. On my fourth day, I had a nervous breakdown in Aleppo. Everybody I met was wounded in some way by the war, and open to sharing their stories. And every young child reminded me of my cousins, every young man of my uncles, and every old woman of my grandmother, all of whom were a few cities away and inaccessible to me. These moments added to the well of emotional distress I carry privately with me to this day.
In America, I would write op-eds, organize political and educational events, and donate money to Syria, but it didn’t stop the violence. I became acutely aware of “first-world culture” and our privileges as American citizens. I realized how two groups I used to be apart of, the “do-good” and “life-enthusiast” sub-cultures, are failed attempts by the privileged to both “save the world” and grasp the full extent of “living”. Furthermore, the “radical activism” sub-culture has its own problems practicing the very ideas they preach, particularly in recognizing intersectionality and creating safe spaces (many advocates for Syria have been shunned by the political Left and Pro-Palestinian organizations). Deconstructing privilege, pushing past our isolationist xenophobia, and developing an intersectional view of the human condition will be necessary to grasp as we strive for a more balanced world.
As I began to see how political structures create and perpetuate violence, I quietly committed myself to becoming a doctor. There is a chance that by the time I’m a practicing doctor, the violence in Syria will have stopped. But unless a major shift in political and social values occurs, there will continue to be casualties at the intersection of health and human rights.