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Building bridges between warring communities is not just a metaphor in the case of Syrian local civil society activists. These grassroots organisations get people from different areas to work together on technical projects that serve both communities and talk across conflict lines, reminding everyone that there is still humanity around them. And when people from two villages get together, soldiers and warlords are forced to step aside and silence their guns.
For centuries the famous Aleppo soap was produced in the city, but the olive oil came from Idlib. The bars were stamped near Afrin and merchants from Hama would take them to Damascus or elsewhere to be sold in the market.
Today, part of the city of Aleppo is a pile of ruins and the soap makers from Aleppo are internally displaced near Homs or Idlib. But some local activists have kept the same ancient process working across conflict lines and away from warlords. In the process they helped Syrian heritage and society stay alive.
Many communities that were in contact with each other socially, economically and historically are, now divided along war lines.
"As a network, we try to support those working on recovering the links among these communities, sometimes using technical support, sometimes using socio-economic activities," explains Reem who participates in the network’s activities.
"When they talk, they start to understand each other, they see their interlocutors as human beings. Therefore mistrust among each other is gradually reduced and they can lay the foundation for potential future reconciliation" Reem says.
However, shared and common interests can be used by "community leaders" to exert pressure over the local armed groups to try to stop violence, at least temporarily and at local level.
The demands of the uprising, the longing for rights and freedom have not died, but after seven years of war people almost have almost forgotten who they were originally fighting.
“We forget there are individuals and communities on the other side of the frontline who are not our enemies but human beings,” Reem says.
Eight years ago, Syrian civil society was very different from today. It operated mainly in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo, was animated by elites and not grassroots activists and it was limited by severe restrictions to freedom of association and NGOs registration. Today, the network of civil society organisations both inside and outside the country are handling the burden of the war, relieving the suffering of civilians and paving the way for a new Syria.
“There are nearly 6 million internally displaced people in Syria. It is other Syrian communities equally affected by the war that are mostly taking care of them,” Reem says. Under the rubble and the constant bombs, human solidarity continues to exist and feed the work of civil society organizations, although their existence and work is under constant threat.
When the uprising broke out in Syria in 2011, Reem was a PhD candidate abroad. “We used to think Syrians would never revolt and when the revolution happened it was a burst of joy because the whole country rose up,” she says.
Reem spent her nights watching videos of the peaceful demonstrations being confronted by the regime’s security forces, translating news coming from inside Syria, arguing about politics with her family and advocating for the revolution.
For two years she watched helplessly as the repression grew bloodier and more gruesome. She watched the kids spraying anti-regime graffiti being shot by thugs. The students turned citizen journalists being silenced. Men taking up weapons to avenge someone who had been killed, only leading to more killing, divisions and a full out civil war.
As checkpoints and conflict lines engulfed the country, Reem decided to leave the safety of her life in Europe.
“What happened in Syria made my Syrian identity stronger and I started to feel like a foreigner in Europe. I felt that I had to be present there and be part of this movement,” she says.
Once in Syria, Reem got in touch with civil society activists on the ground and started working with them.
“I saw Syrians who could not be more different from one another put the conflict aside and stop judging each other’s opinions,” she says.
The European Union has worked extensively with the Syrian civil society organisations both inside Syria and in the region for many years The EU has funded and assisted the civil society to grow in areas such as human rights, humanitarian aid, women and youth voices, peacebuilding and resilience, cross-line dialogues and support for minorities in Syria. In the most difficult moments of the war, the civil society representatives were the heroes that were protecting and giving support to the ordinary people trapped in the war. It is these people that European Union is reaching out to as this is the true meaning of European Union support for the values of democracy, dignity, freedom and justice. More than 200 NGOs and representative of Civil Society from the region and Syria gathered on the margins of the Second Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region. The results of their discussions will feed into the plenary sessions of the conference.
As an archaeologist by training, Reem is working on healing the wounds and nurturing healthy relationships between people and the cultural resources of their areas based on common interests.
The network has to be constantly protected and renewed. The majority of those originally working in it have been arrested, killed or forced to leave the country, while others have picked up their work.
In 2011, Anas closed his small mobile phone shop in Eastern Aleppo and joined the protests against the regime. As he marched, he took as many pictures as he could with his phone to document everything. As others picked up guns to respond to the regime’s repression, he bought a camera and started working as a photographer for international outlets and publications.
In 2014, fed up with the violence surrounding him, Anas and his friends decided to create a cultural space in an old caravanserai or roadside inn, where young kids in Aleppo could find books, watch films and study languages.
The caravanserai, however, was occupied by a local militia, who did not want to give it away. Getting in touch with the network, mobilising the local community and securing European support, Anas was able to convince the militia to free the building keeping the kids away from the armed groups.
People from West and East Aleppo crossed the checkpoints to bring books, defying the lines of conflict, meeting again to discover that they were not all “terrorists” or “loyalists” as the propaganda depicted them.
After a few months, however, a loyalist airstrike hit the caravanserai, destroying the cultural centre. Anas decided to leave, but his friends mobilised immediately to build a new centre elsewhere.
The work of civil society is based on a strong relationship of trust and solidarity with local communities that often turn to civil society activists for help.
A group of women led a campaign to confiscate weapons that ended up in the hands of kids in a camp for internally displaced people in Atma, Northern Syria.
When villages around Deir Ezzor were taken over by Da’esh, the network stayed alive protected by the community, providing underground classes to children.
Although their existence and work is under constant threat, human solidarity continues to exist and feed the work of civil society organizations who are working under the rubble and the constant bombs to keep Syrian society together.
“We cannot change who is in political or military control of an area, but we can create a strong grassroots foundation and a solid bond within local communities so that they are aware of their rights and protect them," Reem says.