We humans

What to do when your government collapses

Aug 21, 2014 /
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How do you build a civil society that functions in the midst of civil war? Lessons from Syria.

Last week, forty Syrians took the risk of leaving their homes and crossing the border into Turkey. Unlike many who cross, though, these Syrians planned to return. Their goal in Turkey: an intensive week-long workshop on how to rebuild their society.

The risks are very real: Two years ago, I met an older man in a hospital in Turkey who had lost nine members of his family while trying to escape from Syria. He was in the hospital to be near his injured daughter, who lost her leg. She was the only other survivor from his family.

Leaders in their communities, they came from Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Homs, Hama and Dara’a to talk with a group of conflict-resolution experts in Istanbul, including me, about the toughest leadership challenge of our time — helping people not only survive day to day in the midst of civil war but create a vision for the future in the face of government collapse and unbelievable human suffering.

A group discussion during the workshop. Photo courtesy of The Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution.
A group discussion during the workshop. Photo courtesy of The Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution.

Syria’s population before the civil war was about 18 million. Today, more than 8 million people have been displaced within Syria or are refugees outside the country. Those who remained in their homes have many reasons not to leave; among them, the high cost of leaving, risk and dangers on the road, fear of humiliation as refugees, and the international community’s inability to provide services to the millions fleeing the violence. The risks are very real: Two years ago, I met an older man in a hospital in Turkey who had lost nine members of his family while trying to escape from Syria. He was in the hospital to be near his injured daughter, who lost her leg. She was the only other survivor from his family.

For those who cannot flee, town committees strive to fill the gaps in social services. Since it’s not possible to hold elections, the success of such committees depends on the respect its members have in the community. Once it’s formed, its first task is to map the community to figure out the needs and priorities of its residents — and the human and material resources they can tap to solve problems.

Our mission: Support local leaders as they learn how to function in the absence of government services, by building civil society organizations and finding creative ways to provide social services in the midst of continuous violence.

Our project’s goal is to support Syrian communities by helping the local committees that represent these cities, towns and villages. The project started two years ago, when a team from the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) was tasked with supporting local Syrian leaders. The group included Hind Aboud Kabawat, Abdul Jaleel Al-Shaqaqi, Riad Issa, Nousha Kabawat, Dr. Marc Gopin, and me, as well as many others. Together, we represent every religious and ethnic group in Syria. Our mission: Support local leaders as they learn how to function in the absence of government services, by building civil society organizations and finding creative ways to provide social services in the midst of continuous violence. Some tips:

In a doctor shortage, create an emergency response team. For example, since the vast majority of doctors and nurses have either fled Syria or are overwhelmed working in the field to help the injured, villages and even some cities are facing major healthcare shortages. In one village beset by bombings, there were no nurses or doctors to help with nighttime births, and the route to the nearest hospital was too dangerous. The local town committee worked on this problem by creating an emergency response team to help in the aftermath of airstrikes, and found a doctor who could train a few locals as midwives.

"A hospital we did work with on the Syrian-Turkish border." Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
“A hospital we did work with on the Syrian-Turkish border.” Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.

Find a safe place — and makeshift supplies — for school to continue. Schools and educational systems also tend to break down in times of civil war. A year and half ago, for instance, I visited a Syrian school with my colleague Nousha Kabawat. The school did not have a first-grade class, simply because it didn’t have materials for the first-grade level. Other schools had been destroyed, closed or moved, or were faced with an absence of teachers. In such situations, community members must be mobilized to find safe locations for children and to volunteer as teachers. In the case of the school we visited, Nousha worked with the community to provide the materials they needed to teach first grade. We also worked with communities nearby to offer trainings for new teachers.

"A camp for 1000 kids we held on the Jordanian-Syrian border." Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah
“A camp for 1000 kids, that we held on the Jordanian-Syrian border.” Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah

Consider food rationing early on. Food quickly becomes a vital issue. Fresh meat, vegetables and perishable dairy products vanish, leaving dry food as the major source of nutrition, and some towns even have to plan how many meals each person will have per week. Depending on their resources, they might implement a strict plan for the whole town. Worse, some cities and villages are directly under siege, facing starvation; local committees and emergency response teams must help distribute what little food they have.

Develop diplomatic skills to mitigate the risk of taking sides. One of the riskiest jobs of the leadership committee is politically navigating between competing factions, since declaring support for any one group could be devastating if that faction loses the area. However, staying “objective” can be equally problematic. In these cases, negotiation and communication skills have been extremely important for Syrian villages trying to manage their relationship with the Syrian regime’s army, the Islamist militants, and the Free Syrian Army.

"This is a well known Syrian Muslim religious leader who was speaking about Islamic approach to conflict resolution and how to apply it in Syria." Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah
“This is a Syrian Muslim religious leader who was speaking about the Islamic approach to conflict resolution and how to apply it in Syria.” Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah

Despite these dangers, it has been rewarding to see leaders come together to save their communities. In the past two years, we have worked with more than 160 local leaders who are now helping and advising one another, sharing strategies that worked in their towns. One of the cities we worked with was Manbej, a city led by a group of young people, mainly in their twenties and committed to democracy. While under air strikes, the city held elections. The leadership of the town negotiated with the militants to keep them from interfering in civil issues, and meanwhile created a police force of men and women. And in a moving display of solidarity, after the city fell to the Islamist terrorist group ISIS, hundreds of thousands of city residents launched a strike, a nonviolent action that forced ISIS to negotiate with the town.

There is nothing more moving than a group of dedicated human beings who believe they can change the world.

As these forty community leaders head back to Syria, I find myself on one hand afraid for their lives, and on the other motivated almost beyond words by their courage. There is nothing more moving than a group of dedicated human beings who believe they can change the world. While these leaders are not able yet to change the political and violent conflict around their homes, they are able to save and inspire many people. They are the true hope of Syria, and I remain hopeful because of them.

Featured photograph via iStock. Icon by Daniel Turner from The Noun Project.