Syrian American Shiyam Galyon lives in Houston, Texas. She recently traveled to Syria as part of a humanitarian relief project distributing food and medical supplies in rebel-controlled Aleppo and its suburbs. Galyon is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where she had been active in several campaigns to help the needy. She hopes to attend medical school. Read her account below.
Middle East Voices’ “Syria Witness” features personal accounts by citizen-journalists inside Syria about the grim challenges of survival in a war zone. These activists are often the only available street-level information source about life in a country whose government restricts independent reporting.
Syrian expatriates have begun to enter some areas of Syria under rebel control. We have expanded the series to include their accounts.
Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified and, for their personal safety, some contributors do not use their real names.
By Shiyam Galyon
I love Syria and I love its people. Sure, it has man-made political boundaries, but there is a strong feeling of solidarity when you return to the country your greater family is fighting for.
Many of us wonder what life would have been like had our parents not emigrated – it’s easy to let your emotions rile you up. I think, secretly, many expatriates would willingly go die to protect Syria.
But our privilege is our responsibility, and it’s our duty to advocate for the safety of civilians, mobilize resources for their aid, and support internal initiatives aimed at empowering communities.
“I appreciated every detail of the country, from the wind blowing through the olive trees to the handshakes and ‘salaams’ of every person I met.” – Shiyam Galyon
Before the revolution, Syrians rarely had close friends outside their immediate family for fear of mukhabarat, the government informants who limited freedom of speech. It has been painful to watch Syria bleed for the past two years.
Returning to Syria after a five-year absence was a profound experience. And enlightening.
Now, Syrians open up their homes to travelers who are aiding the revolution. This type of ‘couch-surfing’ was nearly unheard of before, and our hosts proudly declared that this is a new era of solidarity between countrymen and countrywomen.
I appreciated every detail of the country, from the wind blowing through the olive trees to the handshakes and ‘salaams’ of every person I met. People were welcoming, and they shared their stories with ease. Dignified, they spoke about building a better Syria for all Syrians.
Making change happen
I recently joined a relief trip organized by the Syrian American Council responding to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The traveling team connected via Facebook, and raised $105,000 through the Syrian Sunrise Foundation (SSF) to support Watan Syria relief for refugee schools, women’s economic empowerment and other efforts to ameliorate the effects of war. With guidance from Watan, we went inside Syria to participate in the relief process.
Media covering Syria tend to focus on mongering fear over the jihadist elements in the country. What these reports overshadow are the masses of civilian activists who are working hard to seed the beginnings of a just and inclusive Syria.
When children in Daraa were arrested and tortured for drawing anti-Assad graffiti more than two years ago, no one expected the incident to ignite the Syrian revolution.
For 40 years Syrians lived under a faux-democratic and corrupt government that severely restricted, among other things, freedom of speech. So, when the first images started pouring in of peaceful protests calling for government reform, many of us were shocked, humbled, inspired, and proud of our country. The uprising became armed after eight months, and two years later we have daily headlines on the food shortages, rape crisis, the imminent threat of losing a generation, inaction from the international community, lack of funding for NGOs, and civilian death tolls.
“The protests in the city of Kafranbel are famous for their eloquent, trite, and resonant political posters.” – Shiyam Galyon
This, however, is the reality. Throughout Syria, civilian media centers, local councils, resource support groups, and peaceful protests have emerged and are fueled by ideals of justice and humanity. As activist voices and actions are recorded on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, the promise for a human rights respecting Syria will be vivid for future generations to remember.
The eloquence of Kafranbel protests
The protests in the city of Kafranbel are famous for their eloquent, trite, and resonant political posters. After 40 years of repression, Syrians have a lot to say and the floodgates have opened. Wit, intellect, and courage flow from Kafranbel, where activists at the media center organize weekly protests calling for the fall of the Assad regime and commenting on international politics.
We were invited by Kafranbel activists to join in their weekly protest. I joined Raed Fares in taking pictures as the protesters walked through the street carrying posters, a large banner, and a cartoon criticizing Muslim fighters. Two young girls joined in clapping and chanting for the downfall of the Assad regime.
That night we tried to sleep under rocket shelling by the Assad regime. For 45 minutes, I was terrified – all I could think about was who would console my mother if I died. I tried to remember any medical information that might be helpful – I had none.
Looking around the room, I couldn’t find a safe area to huddle in; no matter where I sat, I was in danger of being impaled or crushed. I was starting to freak out when the rest of the team calmed me down… by gently asking me to relax.
We talked together about feeling powerless and tried to understand the mental strain on children who have lived through two years of this. There was absolutely nothing we could do, and I gave up caring about whether I lived or died; so many Syrians have died unjustly, and I am no more special than them.
Eventually, I slept.
“Aleppo is a tired city. The buildings are worn down from the shelling and some have been leveled by Scud missiles.” – Shiyam Galyon
Some of my teammates stayed up reciting the Quran through the night, and we woke up the next morning with the sunlight streaming brightly through the window.
Delivering food to Aleppo
We drove to Aleppo behind an SSF truck that was loaded with food aid.
Aleppo is a tired city. The buildings are worn down from the shelling and some have been leveled by Scud missiles. Vast fields of trash grow on the streets throughout its neighborhoods, adding to the exhausted topography.
We met with the volunteers who run the Aleppo Civilian Council’s humanitarian division to discuss how to distribute our food baskets. SSF has a food voucher system where a family redeems a slip of paper for a basket.
That afternoon, we were able to distribute 400 vouchers in an area with estimated need of 2,500 vouchers.
The neighborhoods carry the weight of the war, and many large families had empty refrigerators. Children lived in unsanitary conditions, and at the time of our visit there was an outbreak of Leishmaniasis in the city. If untreated, affected people die from a weakened immune system.
Aleppo’s Civilian Council later formed a coalition to clean up the city streets after we left. Volunteers live in a very dire situation amidst the fighting and carnage - I respect them for doing their best. Staying optimistic is an achievement in and of itself.
The camps at Atmeh and Qah
The refugee camps are stressful places. At Atmeh, I could hear the frustration in the voices of mothers demanding more baby supplies for their children.
In Qah, we heard tired hope in the voices of three sisters who wanted to keep studying and to teach the younger children. Another family pleaded for help in funding their grandmother’s medical operation.
Conditions at the refugee camps are harder for women than for men. There is a lack of proper facilities that leave many women feeling unsafe: the restroom at Qah had no light or water, forcing many women to go in groups at night to the restroom, if at all.
Khalid, who was in food procurement before the revolution, now coordinates distribution to vulnerable communities. While we rode to the SSF warehouse in Idlib, the young Syrian said, “This isn’t a Sunni, Christian, or whatever revolution. This is a Syrian revolution. This is a poor people’s revolution.”
Leaving Syria was hard, and in doing so we were reminded of our privilege. As Syrian Americans, we have channels to safety while our relatives do not.
NOTE: To become a Syria Witness and tell your own inside-Syria story, contact David Arnold, coordinator of our Syria Witness project at syriawitness(at)gmail.com. For safety reasons, we strongly urge you to use a browser-based e-mail (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) and be sure “https” appears in the URL. You can also invite Arnold to Skype at davidarnold70.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.