Syria's unsung heroes give hope to its people

Syria's unsung heroes give hope to its people
Comment: Syrian civil society organisations remain underfunded and throttled by ineffective governmental and international bodies with tedious bureaucracies. Yet hope exists within the many Syrians working tirelessly for their country.
8 min read
07 Mar, 2016
Billions of dollars for Syria eventually trickle down through ineffective structures of the UN [Flickr/Bond]
Almost a month after the Supporting Syria 2016 conference, co-chaired by the governments of Britain, Kuwait, Norway, Germany and the UN, Syrians find themselves yet again with little support.

The UN hires Shukria Mekdad, the wife of a regime official (the deputy foreign minister no less), to help the World Health Organization assess the mental health and well-being of the Syrian people. Violations are reported on the ‘partial’ ceasefire in the form of aerial attacks, mortar attacks, air strikes and barrel bombs.

The foreign and interior ministers of Austria and nine other European countries have decided to forego existing European freedom of movement agreements and their obligations in the UN refugee Convention, and to apply strict measures to stop refugees stuck on the Greek border to enter Macedonia on their way to Germany. Grim photos of vulnerable refugees trying to lobby for the borders to open and being attacked by heavy tear gas and stun grenades invade the internet.

Despite recent intentions to aid air drops in besieged areas, the first actual attempt faced ‘technical difficulties’ according to the World Food Program, where out of 21 tones of dropped aid, more than half didn’t reach the needed areas, and rumor has it the other half fell into the wrong hands, meaning that no actual food reached those in the direst need. UN continues to ask for permission to deliver life-saving assistance and little is being done to challenge those that support the belligerents in this conflict – be those government or other actors. With no end in sight to the Syrian war, the overall picture seems gloomy to say the least.

Yes, the Syrian humanitarian crisis is under-funded - but that is not the only problem. Despite having raised more than 10 billion dollars in funding at the London Conference on Syria, international and local organizations are now questioning how much of these pledges will actually be met, and how much of that money will ever trickle down to refugees. What is often not realised is that some of these funds are double pledged, while some will never be spent ‘directly’ on humanitarian needs, but rather on the massive bureaucracies supporting it and the conferences and jollies around it. Arms trade continues – business as usual.

In this same conference, Syrians were promised by ‘world leaders’ that no child would be out of schooling by the end of the 2016/17 school year. Yet beyond the numbers of students, the log frames and charts and other paraphernalia of the humanitarian system, there is little being discussed yet about the actual mechanisms of this strategy, nor does anyone seem to care about the actual quality of this education.

Under the table in smoked filled rooms, deals are being sealed with the ministries of education in Lebanon and Jordan, on who will lead this effort ‘exclusively’ on the ground. Plans are being finalized about building more schools, which will serve as a good electoral card for the hosting countries’ politicians, but little has been discussed about the curriculum, materials or teacher support inside the classrooms. Neighboring states are no more accountable in protecting refugees than they were before the London Conference.

On the issue of livelihoods, despite noble promises to ensure jobs to Syrians, negotiations continue with the governments of host countries on the number of work permits to be granted. This is likely to be a lengthy process that will take months, with no promises on the type of jobs, whether they will be going to men, women, old or young,  nor if this will actually be ‘decent work.’ What has also gone unmentioned is the target date of this pledge: 2018.

The billions of dollars pledged will eventually trickle down through the ineffective structures of the UN institutions, reaching a handful of local partners. More than ever, the aid scene today looks like a monopolistic competition governed by a few giants while at the same time the private sector is now being enticed into this pool of potential profit. Syrian civil society organizations will eventually find themselves in the same position: struggling to apply for a few grant openings that each provide a few tens of thousands of dollars, with little budget allocation to the funding of core administrative costs and with no say in how the programs are run.

Repeatedly on discussion panels and in the conferences I have been attending, government representatives have brought up their figures of spending on the Syrian humanitarian crisis. The UK, for instance, has spent around 1.1 billion dollars in the past five years, a bigger contribution than the United States. However, Syrians continue to take those acts with a pinch of salt, questioning whether the intention behind such donations is in fact a containment strategy – especially when the UK today hosts the tiny figure of 0.005% of the total amount of Syrian refugees.

Yet I still remain optimistic. The video of my plenary address at the London Conference went viral. I received literally thousands of messages that left me emotional for days, most of these were from Syrians - both inside Syria and outside. Many thanked me for speaking their minds, for talking about Syrians in a dignifying way, for criticizing world leaders and for my pragmatic approach. The video went viral because the message was one that every Syrian could support. And this is precisely what keeps me hopeful.

The day before the Syria London Conference, 80 Syrian civil society organizations met at a parallel event and agreed on a statement outlining their priorities, supported by a an even broader range of regional and international NGOs. It is this common statement which heavily framed my address on the 4th of February, but what really inspired me whas our ability as civil society organizations, coming from such different backgrounds and viewpoints, to speak with one voice and to form a unified presence during those days in London.

The messages of support I recieved were incredibly humbling. However I am not the only "Syrian woman who stood up for what Syrians believed in." There are many Syrian civil society organisations. There are many who are fighting and battling bureaucracies and obstacles, going through one draining battle after the other because the cause matters. Each one of these people will inspire and lead by example.

We are constantly told by the international community that the Syrian crisis resolution must be “Syrian lead.” We are ready to lead, to unite, to speak, to engage – in solidarity with so many others who work for the Syrian people. The conference is over and we are waiting for a policy change from those who said ‘enough’ with us, and those who said it on our behalf. It is time for action.

My Syrian colleagues are the ones who pull people from under the rubble. They are the ones who lead underground schools in Aleppo, and centers in neighbouring countries. They are the ones who are giving women the tools to take charge of their lives. My Syrian colleagues work hard to empower youth, maintain the momentum of civil society, to support education efforts where governments fail.

They, and many others like them, continue fighting for the values that every Syrian believes in – and has always believed in. I’ve met tens members of other equally inspiring organizations, the list is long, and this article will not do any of their work justice.

In addition to these dear colleagues and friends, more involvement and support must be given to those amazing and inspiring young Syrian leaders who cannot speak English, who don’t have time for conferences, who don’t have either the privilege or the access but who fight many battles on our behalf while we have got sucked in the processes of the larger structures.

They are  on the ground, in the tents, in the smaller initiatives that continue to fight their noble battles with banks, international giants, and huge donors; those who pay the price of not being ‘Western’ enough, or ‘compliant’ enough, or ‘organized’ enough to respond to the limitless impositions of the aid system.

All these colleagues, friends and comrades: these over-worked, under-paid and volunteer activists, who on top of all their responsibilities, manage to find the time to meet journalists, reporters, researchers, volunteers and refugee tourists because maybe, they think, these people will eventually be of benefit to the Syrian communities these heroes serve. They manage to travel unsponsored to conferences, talks and debates knowing that the bulk of the funds won’t ever reach their organizations, directly or at all, but who strive to at least try to change the discourse, shape the agenda, and stand still in the face of those who won’t recognize the existence of Syrians or the importance of engaging with the real experts on the ground.

These Syrians, who know the system is broken and who know that the institutions are often bureaucratically ineffectual, the Syrians who know the tedious political games involved yet who wake up every single day. With every rising sun, they wash their faces, regain their courage and take that longer, more draining path.

It is this fact - that they decide to engage each and every day - that gives me hope as a Syrian that we will one day arrive at a solution. These are the Syrians who each morning renew their vows and intentions to make whatever difference they can. Each and every day.

Dr. Rouba Mhaissen is an economist, activist and development practitioner, who works on development issues in the MENA region, particularly forced migration and the Syrian refugee crisis. She is the founder and director of Sawa Foundation (UK), and Sawa for Development and Aid (Lebanon), both Civil Society Organisations working with Syrian refugees on an integrated approach to development. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.