“We don’t support anyone - we just want some peace”

My takeaways from spending a week with Syrians.
Opinion14.11.2018Leopold Riffeser
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I am the allegory of what people would call a stereotypical German. Blonde, blue eyed, I enjoy drinking beer and eating pretzels. What I know about Syria used to be limited to what I hear about the country in German media. Occasionally seeing refugees in my hometown has been the closest I ever came to actually meeting a Syrian. Until recently I did not know much about the individuals forming the mass of refugees fleeing the country.

By pure coincidence I started working as an intern for the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation in Beirut. After being in Lebanon for a couple of weeks I was attending the “Syrian Academy 2018”. The Syrian Academy is an annual event that attempts to train young Syrians in Liberalism and Transparency. For that reason I was supposed to spend an entire week with a group of Syrians in a tiny village in the middle of the Lebanese mountains.

And there I suddenly was. In what felt to be the middle of nowhere waiting for the Syrians to arrive. When the first bus arrived from Damascus I was surprised by the great variety of the participants. Almost half of them were female, many did not cover their hair and preferred Western style clothing. This gave me a first hint as to the strong contrasts among Syrians.

However communicating turned out to be exceptionally difficult, as I don’t speak any Arabic. Thus my first conversation had to wait until the evening, when I talked to Kenan. He had brought bottle of homemade Arak which facilitated our conversation. Some of the other participants also didn’t mind sharing a glass with us, as many never had talked to a German before. Spending some time together made me realize that nearly all had a very accurate picture of what living in Germany was like though. Every Syrian has friends and relatives living all over Europe. Some called their relatives in Germany and asked me to speak to them in German.

I learned that a large number of Syrians has left their homeland with the expectation to make a living after a couple of months. But hopes for immediate success are often crushed within the first weeks and the integration process usually takes years. Regardless of all the difficulties I learned that nearly all would still leave Syria, even though many will never meet their initial objectives.

There are many freedoms Europeans enjoy that are unheard of in the Middle East. Sarah who worked as a photographer explained to me that especially dating worked totally different in Syria, as everyone lives with their parents until being married. The process starts when you find someone who might be suitable for a relationship. The amorous boy has to address his own parents. These will approach the girl’s parents and discuss the possibility of a marriage. If the parents come to an agreement they will start searching for a suitable home for the future family. Just after the right accommodation is found the couple is allowed to hold the wedding and will move into a house which has to be fully fitted with a set of all new furniture.

Most told me that they had believed in the spirit of the revolution of the Arab Spring. But when the revolution was undermined by Islamists they stopped supporting anyone - now all they’re asking for is peace.  I met ISIS survivors who told us about their experiences under the Islamic State. The atrocities they faced, seeing kids playing with dead men heads and witnessing on a daily basis murders, did not stop them from contributing positively to the society. For instance, one of the girls did not stop traveling to Damascus to pursue her education while another one saw that volunteering in hospitals in the only way to fight against oppression.

As of November 2018 fighting is limited to only few areas in Syria. But still many will never return to their country. Some have escaped conscription and face retaliation when deciding to go back. Innumerable have lost their homes and family members. Unjustified arrests and torture are widely reported. The Assad regime has nothing to offer to Syria’s young generation. The civil war caused one of the greatest refugee crisis in the 21st century. And even though the war is coming to an end the Syrian diaspora will continue.