‘We’re not coming for a better life, we’re simply searching for life itself.’
I’m reminded of this simple statement as I watch the Sunday night news. BBC footage shows yet more people arriving on boats in Lesbos. The reporter tells the husband of a five-month pregnant woman from Syria that they’ve missed the deadline and might be sent back to Turkey due to the new agreement with the EU. The husband’s eyes say everything. Another man quietly asks for mercy.
Sleman Shwaish is the speaker who reminds us that people are forced to come here not for a ‘better life’ but a chance for life itself. Slamen is one of the speakers at the West Yorkshire Nonviolent Network (WYNVN) event entitled ‘How will peace be built in Syria?’ held on 10 March in Huddersfield.
The event hoped to explore two questions:
l What is going to build a sustainable peace with justice in the region?
l Where are the seeds for a longer term foundation for peace?
But, as a Syrian participant points out, we were never going to get very far in a couple of hours.
WYNVN is a network for ‘people with an interest in nonviolence, activism & imaginative ways to change stuff – to meet, share information, make connections, and to inspire and support action’. The conveners of WYNVN (Robin Bowles, Dr Rachel Julian and myself) are also keen to explore challenges to nonviolence, so it was fascinating to hear the perspective of Alan Brooke.
Alan is a historian and political activist with a special interest in the Middle East and Kurdish rights. He shared his understanding of the history that contextualises centuries of Kurdish oppression.
He also told his unexpected story about attempting to join the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Iraqi Kurdistan.
After being told he was ‘too old to fight’, in consolation Alan was invited into the mountains, where he spent a couple of weeks hanging out with Kurdish guerrillas. For Alan, the main way forward for peace is to support the Kurds build a new society and resist both Assad and ISIS. Alan doesn’t feel it is for him to dictate the means or methods by which this is achieved.
Sleman Shwaish was our second speaker. Slamen is a British Red Cross refugee coordinator and president of the Syrian student society at the University of Huddersfield.
He is also a Syrian Kurdish refugee. Slamen expressed heartfelt gratitude to the new friends who have made him feel welcome in the UK, he just wishes people with fear could ‘see what we see’ – refugees as humans with dreams. Slamen doesn’t think it is possible to ‘bring peace’ to Syria but politely shared his hope that Western countries could stop arming those who are fighting.
The beauty of Syria
Slamen emphasised that he doesn’t want to just talk of ‘his country of death’, he wants to tell us about the beauty, history and rich heritage of Syria. More than anything he hopes to be able to return one day.
People shared stories of their friends and loved ones having been killed back home in Syria. Others shared diverse experiences of being a refugee in Europe – some positive, some not. A few people shared their experiences of volunteering with refugees and others called for less charity and more political campaigning to ensure the UK government meets its legal obligations under international law.
Many voiced frustration with the UK government and the media. We heard diverse Syrian perspectives about the complexity of the conflict in Syria. One participant voiced his concern that within our conversation there had been too much focus on the Kurdish issue and he reminded us that Syria has many complex problems.
People left voicing their desire to do more. Many valued the space to talk and to listen to diverse perspectives. The conversation was full of hope, compassion and sadness. And as one of the Syrian participants said, ‘a human without hope, is like a car without petrol’.