On World Refugee Day, let's remember Syria's revolutionary refugees

On World Refugee Day, let's remember Syria's revolutionary refugees
Comment: We must expand our understanding of the refugee figure beyond the spectacle of suffering, to a celebration of bravery and revolution, writes Noor Ghazal Aswad.
5 min read
18 Jun, 2020
Over 5.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country [Getty]
As Syrians continue to flee their country, an endless exodus of refugees has flooded our media channels with the atrocities they have been forced to endure. Haunting images of dead bodies strewn on the beaches of the Mediterranean, the abysmal conditions of refugee camps, the impermeability of borders, and the weaponization of refugees at the hands of geopolitical powers, are just a few examples. 

A case in point is the coverage of the recent colossal displacement of one million Syrians from Idlib. We have been inundated with images of Syrians stranded at the Turkish-Greek border, in makeshift camps or taking refuge under trees in the sub-zero cold.

These one-sided portrayals, though rooted in reality, create a spectacle of suffering designed to touch the heart of the Global North. The hope is that paternalistic benevolence might be extended to refugees. Indeed, hegemonic notions cloak our understanding of the refugee in western society.

For all intents and purposes, the refugee figure is confined to the undesirable humanitarian subject, an apolitical "third person"' in search of a homeland.

In the case of Syria, this concept of the refugee figure results in part from an emphasis on Syria's "civil war" instead of Syria as the location of one of the most inspiring revolutions in recent history. In the early months of 2011, a wave of peaceful protests erupted in the country, rallying against intolerable political persecution and economic exploitation by the Assad regime.

Stories of revolutionary protest are absent in dominant representations of the refugee figure

As put by Syrian musician Samih Choukair, "the youth o'mother heard that freedom was at the gate, so they went out to chant for it…". The protests soon evolved into an explosion of millions of Syrians from all sects, ethnicities, and backgrounds across Syria's cities, towns and villages. The revolution was a liberatory moment where Syrians rose from under the weight of the regime's authoritarianism.

Despite this, stories of revolutionary protest are absent in dominant representations of the refugee figure. Narratives rarely crystallise around the life of refugees before they became refugees, preventing their courage and agency from rising to the forefront. Even when recounting their resilience in overcoming adversity, we have shied away from acknowledging their agency as revolutionaries.

The refugee remains distant from the figure of the revolutionary. The two are incompatible, if not paradoxical, within tired portrayals of victimhood. Recognising the legacy of revolution makes it possible to draw out the full meaning of being a refugee. Ultimately, there must be a break from the constraints of the "crippled" refugee towards other less visible, but no less profound dimensions of the refugee narrative.

Within this transition is a move towards how we conceive of the refugee as an active revolutionary subject, and not only a victim of the "social underworld".

On 15 March 2020, the anniversary of the start of the Syrian revolution, a group of Syrian activists from around the globe and I initiated a grassroots campaign to celebrate the lives of Syrian revolutionaries, many of whom are now refugees. 100 Faces of the Syrian Revolution channels the voices of Syrians who engaged as activists, revolutionaries, journalists and humanitarians in Syria's uprising.

Read more: Harrowing Syrian war documentary For Sama wins Best Documentary at 2020 BAFTAs

We forget that many refugees, 
over half of Syria's pre-war population, are revolutionaries who once dreamt of self-determination. Authors Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami in their book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, describe them as "refugees, trained in revolution".

In other words, they are radicals who, given their oppressive reality acted with agency to improve their situation. Importantly, their insurgency was characterised by political action taken to create liberatory change, despite the risk of death, injury, and/or imprisonment.

Take for instance Omar Alshogre. Within the mainstream understanding of the refugee figure, he is one of many who have sought asylum in Sweden. Another reading would tell us that Alshogre was a 15-year-old boy who repeatedly participated in anti-government protests in his town of al Baida. He was arrested over seven times before finally escaping to Europe, after his mother bribed prison guards to release him following a mock execution.

Riad Al Turk, an elderly refugee now living with his daughter in France, was a fixture in the Syrian opposition and a general of the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau who spent years in solitary confinement for advocating for political change in his homeland.

Waad Al-Kateab, a refugee in the United Kingdom, is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who documented the Battle of Aleppo and the harrowing nature of life in a secret underground field hospital.

Souad Nofal, a refugee in Holland, fearlessly carried out numerous one-woman protests outside Islamic State (IS) headquarters in Raqqa, condemning the practices of the organisation and demanding the release of political prisoners.

Recognising the legacy of revolution makes it possible to draw out the full meaning of being a refugee

Lina Al Shamy, a refugee in Turkey, was an architecture student arrested while protesting. She later returned to liberated regions of Syria to bear witness to the regime's human rights abuses and reported on the fall of Aleppo. The list goes on.

Today, on World Refugee Day, we have an opportunity to re-examine the realm of the refugee figure beyond what Euro-centric humanitarian reason has deemed appropriate.

Though Syrians are currently the largest forcibly displaced population, they are hardly the only people facing such predicaments. In a moment in which the whole world is in solidarity with protests opposing long-term state violence against marginalised bodies, we must expand beyond the spectacle of suffering to a celebration of bravery.

Now is the time for an honest reckoning with the refugee figure as one deeply invested in revolution. In this declaration is an unwavering insistence on refugees as intimately connected to the universal struggle against oppression, a cause to which none of us should be indifferent.

Noor Ghazal Aswad is a doctoral candidate at the University of Memphis. She is the author of several academic publications on transnational liberatory social movements, immigration rhetoric, and transnational feminism.

Follow her on Twitter: @noorghazalaswad

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.