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Photos: Local Council of Daraya City
This image from 2014 shows young people who rescued books for a secret library in besieged Daraya, Syria.

As much as I love stories about good things happening in bad times, I always wonder when I post them whether the oasis in Kabul or the library in Syria is still going. Was it there in July when a news outlet’s article was written? Was it there yesterday? Sometimes I search the internet to find a follow-up on, say, the multireligion soccer team that was never expected to win. Sometimes I leave it to you.

Despite the ambiguity of this July 2019 comment from VOA, a book on the heroic library started by Syrian teens is still worth talking about:

[Abdul] Basit and his team of volunteers were among those who had to flee Daraya to northern Syria, leaving the library behind. Unable to take the books, the members tried to conceal the library by blocking its entrance with pieces of shattered concrete. Despite their efforts, Syrian government forces were able to find the makeshift library. The fate of thousands of books remains unclear, according to Basit, who has been unable to return home.

At The New York Times, Dunya Mikhail reviews Mike Thomson’s book Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege.

“In a region that sways ‘on the palm of a genie,’ as the Arabic saying goes, where bullets and explosions are more familiar than bread, you would not expect people to read, let alone to risk their lives for the sake of books.

“Yet in 2013 a group of enthusiastic readers in Daraya, five miles southwest of Damascus, salvaged thousands of books from ruined homes, wrapping them in blankets just as they would victims of the war raging around them. They brought the books into the basement of a building whose upper floors had been wrecked by bombs and set up a library. As Mike Thomson recounts this unlikely story in Syria’s Secret Library, this underground book collection surrounded by sandbags functioned, as one user put it, as an ‘oasis of normality in this sea of destruction.’

“There, the self-appointed chief librarian, a 14-year-old named Amjad, would write down in a large file the names of people who borrowed the books, and then return to his seat to continue reading. He had all the books he could ever want, apart from ones on high shelves that he couldn’t reach. He told his friends: ‘You don’t have TV now anyway, so why not come here and educate yourself? It’s fun.’ The library hosted a weekly book club, as well as classes on English, math and world history, and debates over literature and religion.

“Advertising the library’s activities without compromising its security was a dilemma; patrons relied on word of mouth for fear that it would be targeted by the Syrian Army. By the time the library was founded, Daraya, a site of anti-government uprising and calls for reforms, had been under siege by the army for more than a year. Its 8,000 remaining residents — from a prewar population of about 80,000 — faced near-constant bombardment and shortages of food, water and power….

“Thomson, a radio and television reporter who covered the war in Syria for the BBC, dedicated months to interviewing the library’s founders and their friends via Skype and social media. When the internet went down in Daraya, his sources recorded comments on their phones as audio diaries they could send on to Thomson when the connection was restored. His book is a compassionate and inspiring portrait of a town where, one of the founders tells him, ‘fuel for our souls’ was an essential need.

“The books ‘help us understand the outside world better,’ another founder, a local dental student, said. Likewise, Thomson’s book may help the outside world better understand Syrians. …

“In the same spirit of piling books under Daraya’s shattered streets, local artists painted graffiti art on the walls of ruined buildings. In a moving image drawn by Abu Malik, a local artist nicknamed Banksy, a little girl stands on a pile of skulls writing the word ‘hope’ high above her head.” More.

Are you good at research? Maybe you could help me find out what has since happened to the library. I volunteer with displaced Syrians and others at a resettlement agency in Providence, and I feel a personal interest in this war-torn country.

The artist Abu Malik next to his mural amid the ruins of Daraya in 2014.

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Photo: Thomas Stanley
Hadi Jasim was an Iraqi translator for the US military. Now he’s a “global guide” at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

As you know, I’m a fan of immigration and of welcoming refugees to this immigrant-built country. It’s not usually easy for immigrants once they get here. They are required to find a way to support themselves within a few months, and, if language is a barrier, they must learn English as soon as possible.

Some immigrants start their own business. Some — even if they are highly skilled — take jobs that don’t need English. I know a Haitian immigrant who, for example, was a physician with years of experience who nevertheless took a kitchen job and was grateful to find work.

Once in a while I read a story like the following, in which some wise boss or institution finds a really creative way to employ an immigrant.

Emma Jacobs reports at Public Radio International (PRI), “At the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Moumena Saradar directs a group of visitors to a glass case containing an enormous gold headdress and beaded shirt — the burial garments of Queen Puabi, who died around 2550 BCE. They’re a highlight of the museum’s Middle East gallery, reopened in April after a $5 million renovation.

“ ‘Queen Puabi’s burial jewelry is one of my favorite objects in the gallery,’ says Saradar, who goes on to explain that in Syria today, people still save up for gold jewelry for their wedding. She shows pictures of packed jewelry shops in Damascus, walls glittering from floor to ceiling.

“Saradar is among the museum’s new tour guides — immigrants and refugees from Syria and Iraq who can make connections between the ancient artifacts and the present-day cultures.

“Saradar and her family arrived in Philadelphia as refugees in 2016, and she now works as a medical interpreter during the week and gives tours of at the gallery on weekends. …

“As a guide, Saradar went through intensive training to prepare her to give detailed historical tours and respond to visitors’ questions. She says she practiced on her five children.

“According to Kevin Schott, the Penn Museum’s education programs manager, Saradar and the other guides offer something local docents can’t.

“ ‘At some point in almost every tour somebody will say, “What about today? Do they still eat these things today?” Or, “Is this place still a place people go?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I can’t answer your question.” ‘

“These guides are expressly trained to weave their own personal stories and memories into their tours — things they would feel comfortable talking about over and over again.

“Another guide, Hadi Jasim, spent his summers as a child at his grandfather’s house in southern Iraq, near the source of many of the objects in the gallery: the ruins of the ancient city of Ur.

“ ‘Sometimes we used to take the soccer balls and play’ because it was an open area, Jasim says. ‘Sometimes we used to play like other games like seek and hide, you know, kids’ games.’ …

“Fresh out of college near the beginning of the Iraq War, Jasim became an interpreter for the US-led coalition forces in 2004. He went on to work for the UN in Iraq doing communications and anti-trafficking work. In 2017, he finally received permission to come to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqis who worked with the US military.

“Now, Jasim has a job in food service at a local hospital. He says the museum work has become more than a second income.

“ ‘Sometimes, even if I don’t have tours here, I just show up to work, go through the Middle East gallery, go and see the clay tablets and see the carvings,’ he says. ‘It just brings my memories back.’ …

“ ‘Being close to your heritage is something that makes you feel like okay, now I’m back. You know, I don’t feel like I’m a stranger [any] more.’

“Jasim will have more colleagues joining him at the museum in the future. The Penn Museum plans to hire guides for all of its global galleries.” More at PRI, here.

I find many things to love about this story, but if I had to choose one thing, do you know what it would be? It would be the look on these two guides’ faces. A look of peace.

Photo: Idil Demirdag
Penn Museum global guide Moumena Saradar came to the US as a Syrian refugee two years ago.

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Photo: Daniella Cheslow/NPR
Jeff Britten stands in the doorway of the Baptist chapel in Haverfordwest, Wales, where he meets regularly with other members of his group sponsoring a refugee family. The name of the group is Croeso Hwlffordd, or Welcome Haverfordwest in Welsh.

What can I say? There are kind people everywhere. This story is about the efforts of residents of a small village in Wales to welcome refugee families from Syria. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do — there are so many differences in experience and culture. But these people knew it was the right thing to do.

Daniella Cheslow writes at National Public Radio, “Back in February, Jeff Britten sent a description of Haverfordwest, his town of 13,000 people in southwestern Wales, to a family of Syrian refugees living in Jordan.

” ‘I ran around town and took pictures of the castle, the best bits, the River Cleddau,’ Britten says. ‘I produced a map which showed the location of the house, and that everything was in walking distance, supermarkets, schools, a mosque. It was all there for them.’

“He hoped the family, whom he contacted with the help of the Home Office, which controls U.K. immigration, would come live in Wales. At that stage, he knew little about them, only that they were Syrians recognized as refugees by the United Nations.

“Britten is 71 and retired from the pharmaceutical industry. The idea to reach out to Syrian refugees came in late 2016, when he heard that two other Welsh villages had adopted refugees from the country, and he called a meeting in a Baptist chapel in his own town to inspire his neighbors to do the same. …

“The refugees have come to Wales as part of a community sponsorship program that began in the U.K. in 2016. A group of British citizens can commit to providing refugees help with housing, navigating schools and doctors, language and the job search.

“Twenty-five Syrian refugee families have arrived and been settled so far in the U.K. via community sponsorship; of those, six families went to Wales. …

“In Haverfordwest, about 30 residents answered Britten’s call and signed up to sponsor the newcomers. … Jenny Blackmore had worked with Syrian refugees in the nearby town of Narberth and noticed that housing was often a stumbling block to fulfilling the government’s conditions. Landlords had to keep their homes open while the Home Office processed the resettlement application, and the government paid a lower rental rate than the market could offer.

“Blackmore’s mother had recently died and left her an inheritance. She invested it in a three-bedroom, two-story rowhouse in the center of Haverfordwest, with the aim of housing a refugee family.

” ‘I decided it would be a sort of fitting legacy, really, to my mum and dad’s memory, to do something — yeah, it’s an investment for my family, but it’s also a kind of investment in people’s lives,’ she says.”

More here.

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Photo: Målerås
Glassworkers in the Målerås factory in Sweden. The company successfully brought on refugees when it was short-handed.

This story combines two of my great interests: Sweden and helping refugees. Erik’s homeland showed compassion by taking in 32,000 asylum seekers in 2015, but in a win-win scenario, some Swedish design companies have benefited.

Alicia Brunker writes at Architectural Digest, “Rather than fear that refugees will take jobs away from locals, the Nordic country views Syria’s tradition of handicraft skills as a way to smoothy integrate its people into their own design-centric society. This mindset is especially true for the design community in southern Sweden, also known as Småland, a vast region that family-run glass workshops and international heavyweights, such as IKEA, call home. …

“Five years ago, the Scandinavian design purveyor began working with the women’s co-operative [Yalla Trappan ] to offer marginalized groups opportunities for livelihood, including Syrian refugees who have settled in southern Sweden without employment. As a way to give them economic independence, IKEA hired 10 women to work at their Malmö store, offering sewing services. …

“Whether a local customer needs a quick repair to their Ektorp sofa cushion or requires custom embroidery, the women at IKEA’s Malmö store will take the order at their sewing atelier and stitch it off-site.

“Beyond in-store sewing services, IKEA has recently teamed up with the Jordan River Foundation, opening up a production center in Amman. … At the facility, the Jordanians and an IKEA designer collaborated on a new range of textiles — including pillows, rugs, and baskets — that meld both culture’s styles into a single object. …

“The Jordanians lay the yarn on the floor and weave by hand on their feet. However, with IKEA’s ultimate goal of making these women employable in the future, they plan to teach the refugees more modern stitching practices with machines for upcoming collections.

“Inadvertently, IKEA has also provided employment for refugees through their annual Art Event. This year, the design giant enlisted local glassworks company Målerås to work with international artists on a limited-edition series of contemporary glass figurines.

“During the production process, the factory was short-handed and decided to add a dozen new contractors, four of which were Syrian refugees, to their workforce. Though they didn’t have glass-making experience, the men were familiar with working with their hands. Through an eight-month training period, the refugees learned the various steps of production and they picked up on their new country’s language and culture. …

“Benny Hermansson, owner and CEO of Gemla Möbler, the country’s oldest furniture factory, says the practice of working with craftsmen from other regions dates back to the 19th-century. … One of the [Syrians] who joined Gemla worked at a furniture company back in Syria, crafting headboards and cabinets out of wood. …

” ‘There are fewer and fewer schools educating students in these fields,’ [Hermansson] says. ‘It has become difficult to recruit people with the right competence. We have a need, and so do these refugees.” More here.

This is reminding me of a Syrian carpenter that I helped out a bit last year. He was thrilled to find work in Rhode Island installing insulation. I wonder if he has gotten into woodworking since then.

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Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP
Characters from the Afghan Sesame Street. A MacArthur Foundation grant will enable the Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee to roll out a version for Syrian refugee children.

Even if they make it to relative safety, children often suffer the most from wars and dislocation. In addition to the trauma, there is the problem of education, which is unavailable or spotty in refugee camps.

That is why people of goodwill are reaching out with programs that can both comfort and teach. Jason Beaubien reports on one example at National Public Radio.

“The MacArthur Foundation will give $100 million to Elmo, Big Bird and their buddies to massively scale up early childhood development programs for Syrian refugees.

“Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee won a global competition by the MacArthur Foundation seeking solutions to what the judges called ‘a critical problem of our time.’

” ‘The most important thing to remember is that the humanitarian system is designed to reach people’s immediate needs — to keep people alive, feed them, make sure that they have shelter,’ says Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the IRC. The global humanitarian system, she says, isn’t very good at supporting displaced children. ‘And the fact is these children are likely to stay as refugees for their entire childhood.’ …

“The IRC and Sesame Workshop plan to launch what they’re describing as the ‘largest early childhood intervention program ever created in a humanitarian setting.’ …

“It will be distributed over traditional television channels, the internet and mobile phones. It will also serve as an educational curriculum for childcare centers, health clinics and outreach workers visiting the shelters where refugees live. The workers will deliver books to kids and caregivers.

“Sherrie Westin of Sesame Workshop says … ‘These Muppets will be created to reflect the children’s reality so that children can relate with them. … One of the Muppets may have had to leave home. She may live in a tent. She may become best friends with her new neighbors.’ …

” ‘We know that in their first years of life the trauma that children are experiencing has the greatest impact on them,’ Westin at Sesame Workshop says. ‘And yet they receive the least support.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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Radio Lifeline for Syria


Photo: Amandas Ong
An Alwan radio producer in the station’s recording studio. The broadcast lifeline to Syria is located in an apartment complex in Turkey.

Where people struggle to carry on their lives in the midst of war, radio can provide comfort and hope. This is a story about Syrians in exile who broadcast news and normalcy to people back home.

Amandas Ong writes at Slate, “I push my way out of the metro station in southwestern Istanbul where Sami — not his real name — and I have agreed to meet. …

” ‘It’s not far from here,’ he says, directing me down an overhead bridge through a number of serpentine streets. …

“The hive of activity inside forms the Istanbul operations of Radio Alwan, (Alwan means ‘colors’ in Arabic) an independent Syrian news station broadcasting into that devastated country every day. Alwan provides much-needed news updates to information-starved Syrians and also runs popular entertainment programs and controversial discussions. …

“Three bedrooms have been converted into a meeting room, a recording studio, and an office. … Most of the staff had no prior training in radio journalism before joining Alwan. Sami describes himself as having ‘come from a regular, boring HR job in Dubai.’ …

“ ‘The point of Alwan,’ he had told me in a prior conversation over FaceTime, ‘is not just to report the news. Radio is also a form of activism, and through our programs, we try to do our part by encouraging people to engage with civic organizations within Syria, and to inform them on what’s really happening both around the country and outside of it.’ …

“A law student named Ahmad al-Qadour started Radio Alwan in 2014 in the northern Syrian city of Idlib. … They decided to relocate Alwan’s central office to Istanbul after a series of threats from Islamic radical groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which had been part of the Syrian wing of al-Qaida before splitting from the group in 2016. …

“A typical day at Alwan begins at 6 a.m. in the Istanbul office, where the team of about 15 staff members assembles for a variety of Syrian and international news segments, followed by talk shows and short radio skits, some educational, others comedic. …

“Sami is especially proud of Oh, Grandma, a program presented by a woman from Idlib who is identified by her initial, N. She has a day job as a teacher, but in her role at Alwan, she visits the houses of women in the city and interviews them about their lives, their daily struggles, and discusses salient issues with them, such as the legal age for marriage for Syrian women. …

“Maram, a 24-year-old in a slouchy sweater and jeans, comes to talk to me. She graduated from a media school in Damascus and decided to come to Turkey to seek better job opportunities, before stumbling upon an open position at Alwan. …

“I ask her what she likes most about Alwan, and she doesn’t hesitate: ‘I learn a lot every single day, but most of all, it’s taught me so much about how to deal with uncertainty.’ …

“Sami [has] a philosophical approach to the objective of radio itself.

“ ‘We have a program called Acute Angle,’ he says, ‘that encourages people to accept the idea that there is no such thing as true fact. In each segment, we talk about different personalities like Michael Jackson, Ataturk, and even Walt Disney, and how these people have been represented both positively and negatively. I want our listeners to know that there are no taboos, and also no perspective on any one issue or narrative that should be taken for granted.’ …

“[It’s staff member] Dima who has perhaps the most poetic vision of her work at Alwan. ‘What I’ve learned is that the people who listen to us aren’t just suffering day in and out. They want to live, love, dance, laugh. Sometimes we draw courage from them, other times they are comforted by us, hundreds of miles away,’ she says. ‘That’s the beauty of radio: It has soul.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times.
Ali Shehadeh, a plant conservationist from Syria who fled the war in his country, at work in Terbol, Lebanon.

The harm that wars do seems endless. Every aspect of life is affected. And yet, against all odds, good people rise up to save or try to reconstruct what might be lost. In this post, everyday heroes protect a seed bank from the war in Syria.

Somini Sengupta has the story at the New York Times. “Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat.

“He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.

“Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their ‘wild relatives’ from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here.

“But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Shehadeh and his organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather, and war.

“The center, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. …

“By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya.

“Trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were stolen and killed for food. … And the center’s most vital project — a seed bank containing 155,000 varieties of the region’s main crops, a sort of agricultural archive of the Fertile Crescent — faced extinction.

“But researchers there had a backup copy. Beginning in 2008, long before the war, the center had begun to send seed samples — ‘accessions’ as they are called — to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the ‘doomsday vault,’ burrowed into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. It was standard procedure, in case anything happened.

“War happened. In 2015, as Aleppo disintegrated, center scientists borrowed some of the seeds they had stored in Svalbard and began building anew. This time, they spread out, setting up one seed bank in Morocco and another just across Syria’s border with Lebanon in this vast valley of cypress and grapes known as the Bekaa. …

“Mr. Shehadeh … is obsessed with the wild relatives of the seeds that most farmers plant today. He eschews genetically modified seeds. He wants instead to tap the riches of those wild ancestors, which are often hardy and better adapted to harsh climates. ‘They’re the good stock,’ he said.

“He hunts for the genetic traits that he says will be most useful in the future: resistance to pests or blistering winds, or the ability to endure in intensely hot summers. He tries to select for those traits and breeds them into the next generation of seeds — in the very soil and air where they have always been grown.”

The experts believe that the seeds from plants that thrive in this arid part of the world will be needed for feeding the planet as it warms.

Read the whole article here.

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