It will be six-years since the Syrian uprising started next month and conditions in the country are dire with a fragile ceasefire barely holding. Syria, a country which has some of the earliest archaeological sites in human history and the oldest-continually inhabited city in the world, has become synonymous with massacres, brutality, terrorism and trouble for much of the outside world. Syria is ever present in political debates in the United States and the United Kingdom, but Syrians are largely absent from the discussions and much of the general public have formed opinions about a place and people without ever hearing what Syrians themselves think. What makes this peculiar is Syrians have not been silent for the past six-years, they have been very active is trying to talk to the outside world about themselves and events in their country.
Some of the reasons for this absence are political. Syrian-American activists, poet & lecturer, Mohja Kahf, told me about an incident at Berkeley University in California in November 2011. "I was invited to speak at a Berkeley teach-in as one of 3-4 panellists, each panellist spoke about an Arab Spring country and I was there to speak about Syria." As'ad Abukhalil, a well-known professor of political science at California State University, was also on the panel that day, and he spoke first at the event despite the fact that Mohja had pre-arranged with the organisers to speak first as she needed to leave the event early and head to another speaking engagement.
Each speaker had ten-minutes each and Abukhalil spoke uninterrupted for his allocated time, but when time came for Mohja to speak, Abukhalil constantly interrupted her with comments, questions and accusations, which reduced the time of Mohja talk. During one of the interruptions, "He denied the existence of two women who at the time were head of two of three largest protest organising coalitions in Syria (against the Assad regime), both of whom I was in contact with- Razan Zaitouneh and Suheir Atassi. He just outright denied them (their existence). He said (Sarcastically), 'Oh the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) have women leaders now?' What did these two secular women have to do with the Ikhwan- and the Ikhwan had little to do with the Syrian Revolution at this point." The incident left Mohja feeling shocked but this would not be the last time she would come up against a wall of denial about events in Syria. She has also faced personal attacks and smears because of her activism.
Many Syrian activists in the UK have had much the same experience as Mohja over the last six-years. Often the politicised attempts to ignore or silence Syrian voices come from two sources, the far left and the far right. Abukhalil is a left-wing anti-Imperialist and left-wing anti-Imperialists are some of the most aggressive silencers of Syrian voices. It comes down to a cold-war dogmatic mind-set of us versus them. Because of President Assad's perceived anti-western imperialist stance, it must mean that there was no popular uprising in Syria in 2011, and the opposition is nothing more than Western and Gulf Arab attempts at regime change, or so the logic here goes. Syrian voices upset this picture and so activists who try to promote Syrian voices are sometimes ruthlessly hounded online or in person.
Syrian refugees are often the ones who have to deal with the stereotypes that have built up in their host societies due to this. Omar, a refugee from Syria, was enjoying a beer at his local pub in Oxford, when he got talking to an American tourist. They were having a pleasant conversation until the American asked him where he was from, and Omar told him, he responded, "All those against Assad are radical Islamic jihadists, Assad is fighting terrorism." Omar was a bit surprised and said, "Look at me, I am drinking a beer with you, do you think I am an extremist? I am against the extremists but I am also against Assad." Despite this, the American tourist would not back down and insisted there were no moderates in Syria opposing the president. Omar's opinions did not seem to matter to him and this frustrating experience is not unusual for Syrians living outside Syria.
Omar told me, "I don't really blame them, the media gives them a distorted picture and most people are unaware that there is a third option between Daesh (ISIS) and the Assad regime. The third option is the Syrian people themselves. We are not extremists and we are made up of every religion, culture, class and creed. We are diverse and we are not like the media projects us. Most people here in the UK are nice and have been very welcoming. Sometimes they ask about events in Syria and say they have heard this or that, but usually they've picked it up from the media, and when I tell them what is really happening in Syria, they are really shocked and changed their opinions. They usually say that they have never heard anything like this before."
Being lectured to about events in their own country is a common experience for many Syrians as Omar experienced. Not all those who do the lecturing are non-Arabs either, Hala, who arrived in the UK from Syria some years ago, told me, "I started working as a receptionist and one day after an event, I sat down with one woman who worked in the company. She was from Iraq. She turned to me and said, 'Tell me, you are from Syria, don't you think the Syrian revolution was a mistake? I mean you got Daesh (ISIS), don't you think things were better under Assad?' I was fuming with anger at this question. I knew it wasn't really a question; it was a statement and a sectarian one too. I didn't answer the question and instead asked my own, 'Tell me, you're from Iraq, when you look at ISIS and the civil war, don't you think things were better under Saddam Hussein?' She became angry by this question and stopped talking. I am not with Saddam, I hate all dictators, but she brought this on herself."
Because of how heated discussion about Syrian politics can become, plus the raw memories and emotions associated with events in the country, many Syrian prefer not to be asked about the conflict. Most of the ones I spoke to get a sense of dread when asked the following question, "Tell me what is happening in Syria," which non-Syrians frequently ask. It is not only political questions that Syrian refugees have to deal with but also cultural stereotypes too. Yasmin recalls the warm welcome she received when she arrived in Yorkshire, but does remember, "Sometimes local religious groups would hand us headscarves and religious books. We are from Syria, we speak Arabic, why would we want to read books in English about Islam? We have our own culture and traditions, not everybody wears Hijab, why do they assume we all do?" While most people were friendly and curious, they were often surprised, "Sometimes, I would be with my Syrian friends, including women with blonde hair and green or blue eyes, and some people would look at them and say, 'you don't look Syrian.' But of course, we are all Syrians, it's a very diverse country and everyone has their own culture and traditions. I generally don't mind these questions, but one time I did get offended. I was talking to this guy, he was surprised that I came from Syria, and said that he found it hard to believe that I was from Syria because I dress too fashionably, nicely. He was expecting veiled and improvised looking person, not woman who likes to dress like women everywhere else in the world."
While everyone told me different stories and had different opinions from one another, they all had the same underlying message, "Syrians are diverse, Syrians are human beings too, and we are not all the same. We have so much to give the world and we want to live in peace." This has always been the message from Syria to the world. Syrians can speak for themselves and are willing to speak to anyone, if we can only do one thing for them, it should be to listen to them.