On a recent visit to London, people looked alarmed when I said I'd just come from Damascus. One after another they said 'I can't believe you're still there! Is it safe? How can you work there?'
Is it safe? How can we work here?
The unrest in Syria has been going on for six months now, and may well continue for a long while yet. Damascus, rich in security, is and has been calm and quiet, the streets all but untroubled. In provincial cities, however, and in the outer suburbs of Damascus, the situation continues: in many places, and often, they live with gunfire, protests, clashes, arrests, military operations, road ambushes, and the rule of fear. Close on three thousand people are said to have lost their lives, God rest them all.
Around the second month of the unrest, when military operations turned heavy, there was a time of great alarm. The Foreign Office travel advice shot up to its maximum level, advising against all travel to Syria. The British Council's English teachers went home. We closed the open courses in our teaching centre. We miserably cancelled concerts, seminars, conferences, visits, theatre tours - our whole programme for the spring and summer.
Life in the capital changed; people stayed at home, and the restaurants of the capital were empty. Tourists disappeared, taking with them the livelihoods of half the Old City. The old conversations also disappeared: people now talked of nothing but the situation, telling each other the stories they know, constructing a piecemeal record of what we thought was happening.
Six months is a long time. These are still terrible times. Nothing has changed in the places where there is trouble; the protestors continue to come out on the streets, the security forces continue to take their measures against the protests. Criticism from all corners of the world showers down on Syria, to little heed. Sanctions are put in place, and the state declares itself robust.
No-one can see an obvious ending to the troubles, and no-one can predict how long this can last. And so, as happens, people make the necessary accommodations with the situation, and go about their daily lives, not quite as normal.
And the British Council? We're open. And busy. Not as normal, but busy.
Our doors are open, and a hundred or so people a day come in to our café and study centre - to talk, to read, to study, to pass the time. We continue with a minimal level of English teaching, with local teachers teaching closed group classes, and daily we fend off the many requests for our classes to open again. The exams team haven't touched the ground for months; demand for exams is always high in times of trouble, when qualifications could be necessary for work elsewhere.
And - our own accommodations - we've rearranged all our activity. We can't bring anyone into the country? We focus on opportunities for people to travel, sending artists, educationalists, English Language Teaching professionals, to conferences, festivals, meetings in the UK. We can't organise our seminar on Partnerships in Higher Education in Aleppo? We'll organise it in Beirut instead, and two buses of academics will travel over the border for the two days. We can't bring RADA theatre trainers here? We set up courses for RADA-trained Syrian trainers to pass on the skills they've already learned; in times of turmoil it's good to be able to learn.
Digital and media materials - the Selector music programme, our LearnEnglish radio series - get more listeners than ever. We've made significant new partnerships for our Active Citizens programme, and for cultural policy development. We keep up the contacts we have, and try to plan along with them for what we can do when better times come - and what we can do right now.
And we look after each other, and watch out for the effects of stress, and balance any differences of opinion, and make sure that morale is good. It helps a lot that everyone's very sure of just how important it is to be doing this kind of work right now; we hear it from our friends, our contacts, on our Facebook page, from those we're working with, from our own consciences.
At times when many doors are closing for Syrians, it's all the more necessary to keep open opportunities for sharing and contact and exchange - and for a breath of air from the world beyond the borders. Someone said to me the other day 'It's funny, but as long as the British Council here stays open, we have a feeling that we might still matter'. It's quite a remit.
I hope that when better times do come, we will be well prepared to meet them.
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