Love, Solidarity and Remembrance: Requiem for Aleppo

Last Sunday, Sadler’s Wells presented a fascinating evening of music, dance, poetry and testimonies dedicated to Aleppo. Requiem for Aleppo is a great show that brought Londoners and Syrians together with a global audience who watched it live online all over the world. All joined in solidarity to express their love, nostalgia, anguish, sorrow, hope and admiration for Aleppo. It is also a fundraiser for two charities, Syria Relief and Techfugees, for their educational projects inside Syria.

Inspired by the tragic events unfolding in Aleppo, the creator David Cazalet decided to compose the requiem to be “an act of remembrance created by the coming together of many nationalities, a means by which to reflect on the plight on an ancient city with thousands of year of history where people of different religion and ethnicities lived, by and large, in harmony – a place of culture, faith and tolerance, rich in diverse tradition.” He also hopes the Requiem for Aleppo will be “a reminder to those of us who feel we live in a similarly sophisticate society that we witnessed in a very short space of time, the utter and brutal destruction of what Aleppo and its people have built over thousands of years and we saw the death, despair, and scattering of its people, yet despite our horror we were able to do nothing” as he wrote in the programme descriptions.

This show is a powerful reminder that art is a great tool to express ourselves, to cope with tragedies, to reflect on events around us, and also to change them. It also inspire us to do something to make a difference in the world, no matter how small or simple our contribution might be.

Personally, I was humbled to be invited to share my testimony about Aleppo, the extraordinary beautiful city that I love. I want to remind the world about the Syrian dream of freedom and democracy. I also want to highlight the great solidarity I have witnessed from people everywhere as I said in my testimony: “It really touches my heart when I see people standing in solidarity with Syrians, when I see people welcoming refugees, doing all they can to help… but at the same time I question everything I knew about international law, about the UN, about Peace, and about negotiation. How did the world let something like this happen? Why? Can we still talk about shared humanity and universal human rights, about justice? We all want an ethical and durable solution. We want to bring these criminals to justice and we Syrians will go back to build our country.”

During the show, it was emotive to hear Arabic poetry and music combined with Requiem Mass music, and to see fascinating performance by dancers from different nationalities: Italy, Slovenia, Spain, South Korea, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Canada and the UK. I was delighted when I heard the Arabic chant “One One one, the Syrian people is one people” which is a very common chant during the peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian revolution.

My friend Sarah El Hadj, who also attended the show, told me “Requiem for Aleppo is proof that during a dark hour in our world, creativity is a powerful healing tool. Not losing hope and showing solidarity in humanity, not just a war-torn city’s people, is a message I drew from the exhilarating performance through the sound, movement, and lighting. It was an invaluable reminder that artistic expression transcends all of our differences and reiterates that we are all moved by emotive music and movement, and by words that are impossible to ignore and easily relatable. The most poignant part of the performance for me was hearing the testimonies from Aleppians that accompanied the beautiful scores, my father being one of them. I am proud to be a descendant of tolerance and antiquity, as he beautifully described the city.”

All in all, Requiem for Aleppo is a brilliant act of love, remembrance and empathy. It is a passionate expression of grief and a commemoration of lost lives. It is also a celebration of our common humanity, shared values and hope.

People can still watch the show online, and donate here to make a difference to the life of Syrians still inside Syria by supporting the work of Syria Relief and Techfugees.

Standard

A Key Story of Compassion

 

A year ago, when we were choosing a logo for our grassroots initiative “Ahlan Wa Sahlan- welcome,” we thought of including a key in the design as we would be offering English lessons and social activities to help refugees. We thought learning to speak English in a friendly atmosphere is a key for establishing a new life in London. Throughout an active year of teaching, learning, friendship and community events, we become truly touched and inspired by the goodwill in our communities and the great example of compassion and shared humanity; a key component of successful integration and a story worth sharing.

Ahlan Wa Sahlan Logo

 

As a Syrian refugee myself, and together with a brilliant group of friends, we set up the community group to welcome refugees to London. We genuinely wanted to help and many of us have experienced first-hand what it means to resettle in London with all challenges and the opportunities. Also, both Syria and the UK have a great tradition of welcoming refugees and we wanted to continue this noble practice. We started contacting local communities and organisations, and many of them were eager to help. St Mary’s Church and Christ the Saviour Church gave me their keys and generously offered us their venues to run our free English conversation lessons. I was deeply touched by their goodwill and compassion. A key moment for me!

 

We are all volunteer English speakers trying to help the group members to practice their English, chat about life here, and give advice about simple daily issues such as shopping or registering with a doctor. All volunteers dedicate their time to make a difference by offering their skills and knowledge to the new arrivals. Simultaneously, volunteers enjoy the opportunity to learn about other cultures and languages. Ahlan Wa Sahlan cofounder Louisa explained that she “loved making friends, learning about the Arabic music listened to whilst drinking coffee in the morning in Syria.”

 

Welcomed with a genuine smile and encouragement, our group members, many of whom are war survivors, enjoy learning, socialising and making new friends in London. They have shown incredible resilience and determination to succeed. One member said: “I joined Ahlan Wa Sahlan to learn and practice my English. It’s also helped me meet new friends and take part in social activities including playing football. I do not feel alone in my new life in this country!” Another member joined the group to improve his English as he was applying to study at university. Now, we are very proud he is following his dreams at university.

 

Our Ahlan Wa Sahlan has achieved something very special in bringing our London communities together. We celebrated many birthdays of our group members, Ramadan, Christmas, and Mawleed (the birthday of Prophet Mohammad). It is amazing to see people from all faiths and backgrounds, come together to show care, empathy and love regardless of our differences. It is also encouraging and empowering to remember that Jesus and Prophet Mohammad were refugees.

 

We also received many invitations to activities, festivals and celebrations in our multicultural metropolitan city, including the Japanese annual festival Matsuri where Syrian families with children attended and enjoyed a day of Japanese culture, music and food.

 

It has been a wonderful year of friendship, togetherness and cross-cultural communication. These are essentials to correct the many misconceptions surrounding refugees. For example, a friend of mine watched a short introductory video about “Ahlan Wa Sahlan” and she commented “these people do not look like refugees!” When I asked her how refugees are ‘supposed to look’ she immediately replied that she was sorry and it was all because of the way the news we see on TV portrays refugees.

 

After a Professional Women’s Development Workshop, a volunteer said “I really enjoyed the evening but I have to admit this isn’t what I’d expected women refugees are like.” Another Ahlan Wa Sahlan volunteer, Anisa Goshi wrote after a workshop: “What do an embryologist and public health doctor, two architects, an artist, a businesswoman, a reporter and a researcher have in common? They are all strong, intelligent, formidable Syrian refugee women in London! I had the honour to be invited, welcomed and accepted among them”. Even though these success stories are rarely portrayed in mainstream media which is busy reporting ‘big events’ and numbers, Ahlan Wa Sahlan has been featured in many articles, and even the Daily Mail published a positive article about our group.

 

Throughout this year, we have been touched with people’s kindness, love and care. We have also been inspired by refugees’ defiance, dignity and strength in the face of challenges and tragedy. We have witnessed the essence of human nature of compassion and the beauty of building trust and personal connections among people from various backgrounds. We also learnt that integration is a two-way process. As the volunteer Sana Ibrahim explained: “Reflecting back on the year, as an Ahlan Wa Sahlan volunteer, I feel truly fortunate to be part of something that brings so much positivity to all involved. Our classes have become about so much more than English and integration for refugees. There’s a mutual sentiment in which we are all affecting each other’s lives, for the better”.

 

I do believe we should not be trapped watching tragedies unfold in the news like paralysed witnesses. We can all reach out to alleviate the suffering and make a difference with our skills and abilities. And we can start within our local communities.

 

My most memorable event of the year is participating in the National Refugees Welcome Summit organised by Citizens UK in Birmingham. I co-chaired the summit and it was incredible to see over 500 people from all over the UK coming together to share their success stories and challenges, and enthusiastically plan together to continue the tradition of welcoming refugees. At the end of the summit, I experienced something beyond happiness when I saw the participants chanting in Arabic: “Let’s all get together, British people and Syrian people, we are all one in humanity.”

https://twitter.com/Syrian_AWS/status/775066325848825856

 

 

Standard

How to Identify the Assad Propaganda Conference: An Open Letter to Lord Rowan Williams

Dear Lord Rowan Williams

I have great respect for you and for your ethical stand with the refugee as you boldly stated “The UK must not turn a blind eye to refugees”. I am writing again regarding the EuroCSE conference on Syria, hoping to see an equally strong position against a conference aiming to whitewash the brutal regime’s crimes against us Syrians.

I highly appreciate that you are motivated to join the conference by a sincere hope for a just and sustainable peace. We all want an ethical and durable solution. Given that you stated in your reply that you have “have as yet seen no clear evidence that the event is designed simply as a propagandist exercise,” I am writing to give few examples. I am making this an open letter because I am worried many well-intentioned people might not see the clear evidence in this propaganda exercise.

Image by Lens Young Homsi of the regime shelling of al-Qossour neighborhood in Homs, Syria.

First of all, the conference will be mainly hosting several individuals who are members or supporters of this regime, including ministers of the Assad’s regime which is a very obvious attempt to give them legitimacy that they do not have and do not deserve, in addition to an Iranian ambassador.

Moreover, the event descriptions include misleading accounts about Syria. It completely ignores the peaceful protests against the dictator regime, which was met with extreme brutality from the regime that used all types of weapons, siege, indiscriminate bombardment, and chemical weapons to silent the revolution at any cost. The event page uses the exact same narrative Assad uses to dismiss our rights and demands for freedom and democracy. It states “Before 2011, the sovereign, secular state of Syria was a relatively prosperous country, where health and education was free to all and the population attained a high level of literacy.” A complete divorce from reality, and a disregard to all Syrians who rightfully took to the street in 2011 when the Assad’ oppression reach an intolerable level that people risked their lives to courageously demand change.

These descriptions contradict the reality of the ‘Kingdom of Silence’ the Assad the farther created since his military coup in 1970 and Assad the son continued since inheriting Syria in 2000. We Syrians know of the corruption, atrocities and torture committed by the Assad regime. Simply, to describe pre-revolution Syria with “growth and prosperity” is outrageous lying and whitewashing of Assads’ crimes. Even this morning, as I write this letter, Syrians woke up on a chemical weapons attack in Idlip that killed at least 58 people

Furthermore, it is extremely ironical that the founding director of the European Centre for the Study of extremism, Makram Khoury-Machool hold extremely extreme views on Syria and world politics. For example, in a farcical speech at the House of Lords he gives his analysis for over 10 minutes without mentioning what the Syrian people role is, or what they want, nor did he mention the Assad regime atrocities. For him, it is all an international conspiracy against the state. This is unacceptable views that ignore millions of Syrians and see them lacking voice or agency to demand their human rights and dignity.

Similarly, another speaker Dr Marcus Papadopoulos has tweeted that he is proud to be speaking at this conference including a link to a previous interview where he shamelessly claim the only ‘legitimate powers’ fighting in Syria now is Assad and Russia while in reality Assad and Russia are responsible for the majority of the Syrian causalities.

These speakers have the audacity to make outrageous conspiracy arguments irrespective of the facts on the ground in Syria and with no regard to suffering of Syrian civilians. They don’t mention the Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians, its use of rape and starvation as weapon of war, and its turning of hospitals and prisons to slaughterhouses. The regime sponsored extremism and brought foreign fighters into the country. While it arrested most of the peaceful protestors and political activists, it freed the extremist prisoners who went on to form extreme groups in Syria.

I have previous written that the best way to help stop the war is Syria is to be informed about Syria, to listen to Syrians, to stand in solidarity with Syrians, and to demand an effective political solution and protection of civilians. As the great campaigner of protection of civilians the late Jo cox put it: “I have long argued that Isis and Assad are not separate problems to be chosen between, but are action and reaction, cause and symptom, chicken and egg, impossible to untangle no matter how much we might like to. The brutality of Assad (who has killed seven times the number of civilians as Isis) has helped nurture Isis and been its main recruiting sergeant. As such they can only be addressed together, as part of a coherent strategy.”

I sincerely hope you won’t turn a blind eye to the plea of Syrians asking you not to give your name and credibility to support such a propaganda conference. However, if you decide to still go ahead with it, I hope you will raise points the other speakers won’t mention: mainly the legitimate rights and roles of Syrians, the protection of civilians, and the atrocities of the regime. All in all, civilian protection is a catch all phrase with little meaning unless expanded to include stopping the aerial bombardments, lifting the starvation sieges and releasing the detainees. I hope you will challenge false justifications such as anti-western conspiracy theories. Finally, you could direct them toward more reliable sources of information by Syrians such as great books documenting the Syrian struggle for freedom and democracy ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War,’ ‘A woman in the crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution’ and ‘Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline’.

Yours sincerely

Fardous Bahbouh

Standard