Coping with displacement

Heba Ajami

This article is included in the Autumn 2018 issue of Syria Notes.

The story of the Syrian crisis is most often told in terms of conflict between armies, air forces, competing armed groups, and international military powers. There is another story however, of a blossoming of civil society activism that began before the militarisation of the conflict, and continued through dark years of bombing and siege.

The past two years have seen one siege after another end in the forced displacement of thousands upon thousands of people to areas still outside regime control in northwest Syria, to the Idlib pocket and to northern Aleppo province.

At the same time, the area of Afrin has seen the displacement of thousands of its predominantly Kurdish population by a Turkish-led military takeover, and the arrival of displaced people from southern Syria; and also populations regarded as pro-regime have been displaced by HTS armed groups besieging the Idlib towns of Fuaa and Kefraya.

Civil society activists have themselves been displaced, and civil society groups have been faced with trying to help both displaced people and their host communities. Heba Ajami has spoken to two organisations about the challenges involved.

Photos: Space of Hope

Space of Hope

Hiba Brais, a co-founder and a programme manager at Space of Hope told us the story of the organisation, the work they have done so far, and the challenges they face as a civil society organisation operating inside Syria, in rural areas west and north of Aleppo city. Hiba is from Aleppo, and she currently lives in Gaziantep, southern Turkey.

Q: Can you tell us about Space of Hope?

Space of Hope is a non-profit civil society organisation established in Aleppo in July 2012 by a group of expatriates and friends to aid members of the community. It was registered with the Council of Free Aleppo Governorate in June 2013, and registered in Gaziantep, Turkey, in September 2015.

Q: Why Space of Hope? And what is it mission?

We believe that to help Syrian society in the quest to achieve freedom, dignity, justice and social solidarity, we should be working to create the right environment to help in the development of individuals. Especially children.

We are trying to achieve that through the following:

Provide suitable educational and knowledge environment to enhance education chances
Increase community awareness and contribution to protecting the most vulnerable groups and sensitising the most vulnerable groups about their rights
Providing opportunities and tools for the development of the individual and the society intellectually and culturally
Providing sustainable response to improve living conditions in affected areas at the individual and community levels

Q: How did Space of Hope start?

Our first mission started in 2012 in Aleppo city before registering the organisation. We were a group of people who took the initiative to provide support to orphaned children and their families. The funds initially came through our friends and families living outside the country who wanted to help. We then managed to build some wells for clean water and open a park for children.

In 2013, we decided to organise our work by starting a charity. By June 2013, the organisation got legal registration with the Aleppo Free Council, and we became an official civil society organisation. This helped us to expand our work within Aleppo and its surrounding areas.

In 2014, our organisation entered two new fields; child protection and education in addition to the previous livelihood and orphan sponsorship programmes. We opened a child-friendly centre in Bustan al-Qasr to provide psychological and educational support to the children.

The year of 2015 was a big success for our organisation. As we became registered in Turkey, we were then eligible to apply for international funding. Fortunately, we got our first programme with UNICEF. We started six new children’s centres and a centre for women’s development. However, this success did not last long as we had to leave Aleppo with so many others during the mass forced evacuation at the end of 2016.

Our work did not stop at this point, and we managed to move it to west rural Aleppo then to north rural Aleppo. Now we are still running women’s development centres, children’s centres, schools, and emergency campaigns in northern and western Aleppo province.

North Aleppo protection centre staff visit displaced people from Ghouta. Photos: Space of Hope

Q: What are the challenges you have been facing as a Syrian civil organisation operating inside Syria?

To be frank, we have been through a lot of obstacles and difficulties over the past two years. We fought the fear, the bombing, the hunger and the siege. However, funding cuts are the very worrying problem right now. After the US announcement of cutting funds to northern Syria, we are very scared that all of our work will be destroyed.

Let me tell you about our protection programme. We run a very crucial programme, in which we are trying to convince children who have been working with military groups to withdraw and to quit this field. The preparation of this programme has taken six months of research and data collection to reach our target. From this stage, we learned that poverty and revenge are the two main motives that drive a child to join the military, even if he is just a cleaning boy with them. Taking into account these reasons we offer the child cash and vocational training as an alternative to work with the military.

We managed to get sixty children out the military so far, most of whom had joined the military for economic reasons. Achieving success in cases motivated by revenge was more complicated. However, twenty-four of these children have been withdrawn from the military, and they have recovered from their revenge issues.
If funding stops, millions of children are in danger of being militarised and joining armed groups.

Q: What is your message to the international community?

We have been fighting more than seven years for a better Syria where people can live in freedom and peace. We endured hardships and disasters, but we never lost our hope. Please don’t allow our sacrifices and efforts to be wasted. Your support and your funding is essential to keep us going in fighting terrorism and oppression. You can’t fight terrorism without us, the civil society organisations.

Photo: Hooz Centre

Hooz Centre for Social Development

A March 2018 survey of northwest Syria by CCCM Cluster and REACH counted over 1.7 million displaced people out of a total population of 4.9 million living in the Idlib pocket, including parts of western Aleppo and northern Hama, and in opposition and Turkish controlled parts of northern Aleppo.

These numbers include families and individuals displaced by the Assad regime’s sieges and offensives against communities in the south, most recently Daraa, and before that the suburbs of Damascus, towns along the Lebanon border, in Homs and in Hama, as well as the many thousands displaced from Aleppo city in 2016. Also included are very many displaced by ISIS in eastern Syria, and then by the Coalition and SDF offensives against ISIS.

This scale of disruption presents challenges in maintaining social bonds and community cohesion.

Anas Al-Rawi, managing director of Hooz Centre for Social Development, spoke about the centre and the work they are doing, and the challenges they face. Anas is from Dier Ezzor and he lives currently in Azaz in North Syria.

Q: Please tell us about the centre.

The Hooz Centre for Social Development is a Syrian civil society organisation operating in Azaz and Al-Bab cities in North Syria. The idea of the centre started as a response to a rising number of disputes and quarrels between displaced people in North Syria. After all the displacements, people from different cities were forced to resettle in the areas of northern Syria and Idlib. Many of those people have never been outside their villages and are not used to the norms and the traditions of other cities. This has developed a very serious problem in the area of displacement: tolerance and integration.

The role of this centre is to resolve conflicts between different communities, and to create a safe and healthy environment.

Q: What is your mission?

The centre works on three approaches.

First, resolving conflicts.

In this approach, we facilitate the formation of community committees to be elected by the people in a democratic way, and to be approved by the councils and by all the military groups in the area. For example in Azaz, we formed a committee that represents the people from eastern Syria to talk in their name and to solve conflicts between them and people from other areas.

There is a common conception by people in northern Syria that every person from eastern Syria, from Raqqa and Dier Ezzor, is an ISIS ally, and he therefore is not welcomed in the area. Not to mention the cultural differences between east and west Syria.

After the formation of two committees, one in Azaz and the other in Al-Bab, the number of conflicts has dropped and only a few cases went to the administration of justice for further investigation.

Second is integration.

People from Aleppo, Daraa, Raqqa, Hama and other cities are living in isolated communities in the displacement areas in north Syria. To tackle this issue, our centre hosts different social activities, which aim to bring all people in the area together. Such as food gatherings, musical events, Ramadan Iftar, and many other activities Third is capacity building for youth initiatives.

Our centre provides space and logistical support and training for youth initiatives. For example, we built a public library in our centre to help a group of people to establish an initiative spreading reading culture amongst the youth. We also host many training courses, like photography, graphic design, and computer science, to help the youths in building their career and future.

Q: What are the challenges you have been facing as a Syrian civil organisation operating inside Syria?

At the internal level, inside Syria, getting a permission for any new project is very complicated and slow. We need to apply and submit many documents to the local police, who will then deliver our request to all security bodies working in the area, before we can get permission. This process might take several weeks and might be rejected At the external level, it is always difficult to get funding for social development projects; money goes to food and medicine. Despite how important these social activities are, donors tend to ignore this field.

Q: What is your message to the international community?

The displacement has already happened. We need to start focusing on the current phase with its own problems and characteristics. Our society needs development and leadership a lot more than relief.

Idlib Pocket
Holding on to the revolution in Syria’s northwest