Translator: HungSu Chu, Garrison Cheng
Editor’s note: This article is a collaborative program between Insight Post and TED X Taoyuan. It is written by Yu-Hsuan Chang after interviewing Salam al-Nutka and Eyad al-Khayat, speakers from Damascus, Syria. They were invited to deliver a speech on the stage of TED to share their experiences of running several educational activities and plans in Syria.
When I first met the two, I was impressed by Eyad’s well combed hair and the sense of confidence in his eyes belying his young age. Salam took her seat elegantly. The white hijab and the chic suits reminded us that she’s a modern yet devout muslim.
“I studied in Damascus University and I went jogging in the parks around my place. As I can still recall, it was 2012 when the civil war started to loom over the country, I heard a remote loud bang after the jog. After I got home, my parents told me there was an explosion in the neighborhood. I haven’t gone to school from that day, it had been years before I stepped into a university classroom once again. I should have already graduated 2 year ago, but I didn’t. I still got 2 more years to go.”
Like many other Syrians, Salam and Eyad are leading normal lives like most Syrians and have the tiniest idea how the situation got so devastating. I thought the pair of them are like the people who live in the Capitol in The Hunger Games, seldom leaving their cities and the odds are always in their favor. However, I was mistaken. After a question or two, I realized that Salam and Eyad have traveled to other parts of their country for quite a few times. Eyad had even participated in a UN project and visited Homs, one of the major opposition strongholds, despite the raging civil war.
“Before the war erupted, we Syrians couldn’t care less about what sects each other belongs to. It was never a problem. Yet something was triggered after the war broke out. Gradually, yet unknowingly, we became concerned about others’ religious sects.”
Syria is a secular Muslim society, officially known as Syrian Arab Republic. It is a single-party state and is currently ruled by Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. While Sunni Arabs makes up around 70% of the population, the Assad family that now runs the nation belongs to the Alawite, one of the many sects of Shia. The international press might have been exaggerating about the intra-religious conflicts. Yet for Salam and Eyad, “How the war began?” is a question they could barely answer. Nor would they know when and how it may end.
“At the very beginning everyone thought that the crisis is temporary, so is the conflict and my deferral. Now it has dawn on us that it has to take a while. Nobody knows how long it will take. But you know, one day all of this will come to an end and we have to be prepared for that moment.” A glimmer of hope flickered in their eyes as Salam and Eyad talked about staying prepared. After all, most Syrian haven’t been through war before in their lives, explaining why they have no idea how to keep their faiths in life amidst such chaos.
Self-learning in Syria
Salam and Eyad started their initiative with “We have to be prepared when it all comes to an end” in mind and founded Syrian Youth Empowerment Program (SYEP). Emphasizing on coding tutorials, the program provides students aged between 15-17 with trainings so they can have the ability and knowledge to rebuild their nation after the war.
During the interview, Salam and Eyad accentuated that they are among the luckiest people in Syria, living in Damascus, a relatively safer area and have access to proper education and internet. Other Syrian youth might not be as fortunate. The close-down of schools was not the sole reason they dropped out. Some of them chose to join the army, while others had to get a job to be the breadwinner of the family.
“Not all places in Syria are in ruins, there are still some safer areas. Syria is a country of great diversity and we happen to be the luckier ones.”
Eyad pointed out that taking online courses on MOOC (Massive open online courses) has become the most significant way to acquire knowledge when school education is not available at the moment. He tends not to stay on one specific platform but switches from one to another in order to find the best course he needs for certain fields. Mechanical engineering is the main subject he takes. In the past, when speaking of MOOC, we normally think about those who live in peaceful parts of the world for further studies. Little do we know it also provides access for people in war-torn areas to the best possible education in the world. Eyad also mentioned that he now relies heavily on the resources online as textbook prices have soared during the war. But, as mentioned before, you need to have internet access in the first place.
We have problems that last longer than the war
Aside from SYEP, Salam and Eyad held salon events to discuss a variety of global issues, including sustainable environment. When being asked whether people concern more about the civil war and care less about environmental issues, Salam gave us her point of view.
“Civil war is bound to end one day, but sustainability is a lasting matter. Yes, like many people have suggested, we Syrians are in great need of humanitarian aid. But that shouldn’t be the only thing we focus on, or we will be unable to be prepared for tomorrow.”
Thus, Salam mentioned that in the salons, they always encourage participants to ponder over future possibilities after the war, to think about “what can we do?” instead of educational or academic problems.
Indeed, Syria is poised under the threat of severe environmental problems, especially drought. An American report pointed out that Syria is suffering from the worst drought the land has ever witnessed in 900 years, causing 85% of the crops to die between 2006 to 2011. The drought resulted in a tremendous migration of 1.5 million people from the countryside to cities. This discovery is now viewed as the climate factor behind the civil war.
After the Sunflower Movement, salons have gained their popularity in Taipei. I was quite curious that in Syria, a single-party country, whether their freedom of speech is suppressed. Therefore I asked them, in a rather subtle approach, how the Syrian government views their initiatives, organization and plans.
In fact, mostly due to lengthy and complicated administrative procedures, their organizations are not yet registered with the government. Besides, they tend to contact private sectors rather than official bodies in terms of fundraising.
War brings women into workplaces, yet shackles remain
Salam has been working on a major project aiming at women’s empowerment. The Syrian culture is heavily patriarchal, with both social traditions and Sharia law against the idea of women going out to work. However, the ongoing war has seen a multitude of men joining the army, and the economic burden starts to mount on families. As a result, more women are seen in the workplace, as bus drivers, restaurant waitresses and so on. More women working in public places has also brought a change to the formerly conservative and restrictive social atmosphere.
Apart from giving these women the opportunity to work, the war has also condemned many other women to grimmer circumstances. Fathers who can’t afford to raise daughters tend to get them married earlier, seeking to shift the responsibility to another man. This is more common among domestic encampments, where people are referred as ‘internal displaced’ instead of refugees. At present, the rate of early marriage and early pregnancy among women, as well as the number of war widows are, spiraling upwards.
Salam told us a story of a girl who married a 16-year-old boy. Shortly after she got pregnant, the boy left home for work. She got pregnant again during the boy’s 1-month visit back home. After that the boy left once more and never returned. The girl’s father, a building janitor, can hardly take care of both his daughter and the two babies. For these people, the emotional trauma brought by the grievous changes in life is even harder to cope with than their difficult livelihood. Salam felt it is important to keep this kind of trauma away from the next generation.
For women who can go out to work, there is an unprecedented opportunity to open their eyes, travel about, and be educated. Their family have also come to recognize the economic benefit. Nevertheless, people still hold different views towards it due to urban-rural gaps. Eyad spoke of an example: in Homs or Hama, if a woman is seen working, people may chase and beat her in the street, which is unimaginable in Damascus. It means women can be treated quite differently in different places, while doing the same thing. Not all people in Damascus are in favor of women working, of course. How the people react to this new trend still depends heavily on local traditions.
Even the war has failed to completely eradicate the bigotry against women joining in labor force, when most people see it as a situational makeshift, as there are no other options.
The transformation of social ethos in the US during WWII prompted by women going into the workplace serves as an inspiring example. When a large number of young men went to fight the war, women undertook the massive amount of logistic work. Some even went to work at ammunition factories. Many women never came back to their traditional role, which was followed by the rise of feminist awareness and movements. Today, Syria is witnessing a similar situation. The stories indicates that the war, notwithstanding its cruelty, has also brought about an opportunity for substantive social change, which will wrought huge impact on Syria’s future. Meanwhile, there is much to do to soothe the pain, for women who lost their childhood so prematurely in their misfortune.
Life in Damascus filmed by Salam and Eyad
When the interview came to an end, Eyad mentioned that, to Syrians, the three words best describes Taiwan, or east Asia, are technology, technology and technology. His friend asked him to buy some electronic gadgets as souvenirs. Salam, on the other hand, is deeply impressed by the politeness of the Taiwanese people, even better than her experience in Korea. She found Taiwanese speak in a softer and gentler manner.
Soon after the interview, the pair of them stood on the stage of TED to deliver their speeches. Behind the curtain, I gazed at the two millennials travelling from afar, as they put what they have done in Syria into words, under the spotlight, for the foreign listeners. Despite the occasional pauses due to nerves, what they have achieved, both on stage and in their war-torn homeland, are truly admirable.
We seldom host Syrian visitors in Taiwan, not to mention from Damascus, a city which holds the opposite political position with the West. Throughout the interview, various aspects of this war are brought into our sights. There are both war-torn areas and safer places with internet access. There are women who joined the workforce and young girls forced into marriages, both as the consequences of this warfare. There are refugees in despair, and young people full of hope like Salam and Eyad. What they have shown to us is not the cruelty oozing from the bloodshed war, but the hope swirling upwards from the rubble. This is what Syria desperately needs and the very character that is yet to be seen.