By Marwa Al-Sabouni*
First there was the war, the destruction, the death and the displacement. Then came the economic collapse, with an international siege, occupied territories, drained resources, and ruthless warlords. After that Covid hit, creating new levels of poverty and new forms of death. Afterwards, the war in Ukraine happened, grains became even more expensive, fuel became even scarcer, the queues, the endless queues, that were accumulating for years in front of the closed windows of basic needs, became infinite.
The natural resources of the Syrian wheat and oil, located in the northeastern parts of Syria, are in the hands of the Americans. The phosphate is in the hands of the Russians. Official corruption and mismanagement handle the little that remains, while Syrians spend their spiral lives without power nor heating, and try to move on without will.
Everything is on the rise: death, cancer, divorce, migration, prices, unemployment, crime; and with all of that, human dignity falls down. Only until the earthquake on the 6th of February. Some called it Black February; as if there were light before it. Syria is back in the headline; as if it was OK before.
Not before long, we will disappear again, back to the oblivion, but we do not feel sorry for ourselves. In fact, we feel empowered. Because the earthquake that shook the core of the earth at 17 Km deep and radiated all across the region, also shook our collective conscious. Many of the people who are emerging from the belly of the rubble, have emerged before from underneath the destruction, with a major difference, that what some call the wrath of nature, we are calling our destiny; it is hundreds of times stronger, faster, and bigger. In a matter of 65 seconds, a territory in the size of France was brought down.
Some people are still miraculously emerging even after 204 hours of being buried alive, newborns, women and men, they all share similar stories of unbelievable survival combined with massive scale of death and loss. People are witnessing these survival stories, these living miracles, with a renewed sense of faith. Rescue efforts are reaching their halt; Syrians who are witnessing the miracle are heartbroken, their loved ones are there, somewhere. But no one will come to dig them up anymore; they will be shoved up by cranes when it’s their turn. Oppression lives in the heart as deep as these wounds.
In the face of disasters fingers usually search for a blame figure, in Syria fingers are mostly raised towards the sky to announce the Shahadah. In Islam, if you utter the Shahadah before your soul departs your body, you enter the paradise.
Patience and acceptance, is all what Syrians have in their hearts for this hardship they are collectively facing. ‘Thank God’ is all what you would hear from people who have just lost literally everything, and everyone.
Social media has been a great tool in helping realizing the humbling sense of solidarity which Syrians have heroically showed to help each other. The western media is focusing on the White Helmet teams who operate in the opposition areas. By all means, they should be rightly saluted for their giant work and devotion in rescuing people from underneath the rubble with the most basic tools. However, in the government areas no lesser effort is being undertaken, volunteers from the public are digging alongside the rescue teams with their bare hands. Young people from all over Syria including children, are volunteering to deliver aid. People, with the very little they already have, are sending all sorts of stuff: blankets, food, bread, medication, etc. Their means of communication is social media. Influencers and social pages are dedicating their space for advertising requests for help, and people are responding within a heartbeat.
Donations are being raised, more in secret than in public. In Islam charity shouldn’t be declared, and that’s what most of the people are doing. Homes are being open to be lent and to host strangers, who are brothers in nationality and in tragedy.
But it’s not all bed of roses, reports of stolen aid have filled the social media, and people do not know who to trust any more. Nonetheless, they keep on doing what they think matters.
The thought of millions of people affected by a new mass displacement, a new episode of death, while navigating a sub-zero wet open (yes, Syria is not a desert!) is unbearable.
On the other hand, a growing sense of anger at the international agencies, the UN at their top, is widespread among Syrians who believe, and rightly so, that the world has let them down.
Algeria was among the first countries to send a rescue team to Syria, other Arab countries have sent aids and donations, shy and slow at first but the pace seems to pick up. It’s too late for too many who died in the waiting while the world was looking away. Even in Turkey where help was rushed into, many Syrians had to ‘wait’. They mostly willingly did, appreciating their ‘guest’ status. But death knows no guests. Again, faith is their remedy, ‘Thank God’ are their words. We share the pain with our brothers and sisters in Turkey, so we do the faith. But the destiny of the Syrians is harsher as they become re-stranded, losing home for the second, and sometimes the third, time.
Qatar is offering to build a city in Syria, The Dignity City.
It’s donating 10.000 mobile unites recycled from the World Cup. Do we need it? Are we in a ‘Beggars do not get to choose’ situation? I wonder. The name perplexes me, ‘dignity’; are we left with any? Do we need ‘new’ cities? Our old ones, the very ancient ones, need restoring, they need their ‘old’ people, whoever left of them.
Is it going to be another camp city, another Azraq dream cage. Recovery efforts, as the UN likes to term them, revolve around providing ‘shelters’. Temporary solutions that will inevitably turn permanent make-shift ‘homes’.
‘Livelihood programs’ will follow, after the late realization that ‘something is missing’. The race for securing funds will start again, and Syrians will occupy the headlines for a while, again. Then, all will be forgotten. But then the Syrian children will only know displacement, even when they are roaming their lands.
What will it take for us Syrians to rebuild our cities and towns; I’m always wondering. Why are we so good in leaping into rescue, but very bad at recovery? Why is it too hard that we make a way for the people to assemble their efforts into rebuilding, as they brilliantly did the rescue even with their bare hands?
Those who were rebirthed after eight and nine days from underneath the rubble know in their heart that God who breathed life into their chests tens of feet under ground will not let them down, we are not going to be let down; we just need to hold on to the light inside us.
*Marwa Al-Sabouni is a Syrian architect and writer. She was selected as one of the BBC 100 Women in 2019. For this article we thank Stefano Serafini.
Photo: adaptation of Alaa Ealyawi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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