Training builds community and nonviolent resistance in Syria

    Syria independence flag flies over a large gathering of protesters in Idlib, Syria in March 2012. Photo by Freedom House via Flickr.

    I arrive at the Cairo hotel that is hosting Nonviolence International’s workshop on nonviolent tactics in the Syrian revolution that I will be attending. I see several Syrians in the lobby. They are most likely other participants. Their eyes are shifting nervously as they look around, like they are trying to identify regime informants. They are worried about Assad’s famed Shabbiha, the thugs who are paid to threaten, intimidate and kill activists in Syria. The Shabbiha abroad are known to film activists engaging in any sort of anti-regime activity. They send the films back home so that family members can be arrested, tortured and killed. I wonder how, in a few short days, we will be able to overcome the mistrust and fear the Assad regime has so effectively instilled in its people.

    Later that evening, July 12, the workshop participants gather to watch the documentary Bringing Down a Dictator. The activists are slightly more relaxed than they were earlier. Somehow, watching a film together about civil resistance in another country brings us close together, even though many of us are meeting for the first time. We exchange pleasantries and significant information: Where are you from in Syria? When was the last time you were there? Are we related? And, finally, the ultimate badge of honor for an activist: Have you ever been arrested? I feel we are taking baby steps into a space in which people can trust each other enough to talk to one another. I learn that we are a diverse group: We are Syriac Christians, Kurds, Druze, Alawites and Sunnis.

    On the first day of the workshop, we sit around the conference table, still eyeing each other nervously. Who is an informant? Who is not? We offer each other weak smiles, shake hands and begin to form opinions of one another. The trainer begins with a trust-building exercise that turns into a funny game. The ice is broken and we can get to work. The smiles now are genuine, relaxed. Some of us make a point of trying to learn a few words in Syriac, and weaving them into the Arabic conversation. This sends the native Syriac speakers into gales of laughter.

    We learn about revolutions in other countries. South Africa and Serbia are featured examples, and our trainers include a veteran from each. I look around the room, trying to gauge how these Syrian activists, just in from various parts of Syria, are processing the information. Nearly everyone agrees that Syria is different. Assad is the most brutal dictator in the world, and nobody has fought our struggle. Everyone listens respectfully, though, since these are experts who have been flown in to teach us about nonviolent civil resistance.

    Later in the evening, other activists come to the hotel to visit. Old friends catch up while new friendships begin to form. Some people go out to dinner; others, exhausted by their trips, prefer the relative comfort and quiet of the hotel. We talk late into the night. Everything is about Syria and what we can do to alleviate the suffering there. We have different opinions and approaches, but it’s clear that we are united in our overarching goal. We begin to form friendships.

    By day two of the workshop, our trainers start to talk about developing strategies. They show us what worked in other countries, and practices from South Africa and Serbia are starting to look a bit more concrete. We begin to imagine scenarios in Syria and how the regime would react. We learn how to develop analyses and campaigns. I look around and see a lot of approving nods. People are discussing different tactics and how to employ them. Many recall the examples from South Africa and Serbia again. Suddenly they are not so different from our situation.

    We are all working, but divided into several groups. There’s a lot of interaction, joking, sharing of news and networking among the groups nonetheless. Friendships have formed.

    On the third day, an Egyptian activist joins us and talks about civil resistance in the Egyptian revolution. We watch the slideshow, enthralled with the new ideas and pointing out where we’ve done the same things in Syria. Later, we go to Tahrir Square; our Egyptian speaker gives us a guided tour. We are amazed at the graffiti, the messages of hope, even the profanity that covers the walls of the buildings around Tahrir Square.

    We stay up, late into the night, singing songs about the Syrian revolution. Many of the activists reminisce about the first days of the uprising, when there were only peaceful protests, before the shelling and exchanges of gunfire between the regime and the Free Syrian Army. When protesters handed out flowers and water bottles to regime forces and were met with live gunfire.

    It’s the last day of the workshop. We are now tired, having worked more than 12 hours a day for the past four days. But we are ready to develop our own campaigns. We discuss what will and will not work in Syria. We divide into our groups again, then present our campaigns. Everyone has an opportunity to critique, often with comparisons to the South African and Serbian examples. There is a lot of note-taking and editing. We end up with at least two really strong campaigns that can begin immediately. We are smiling and nodding, eager to get to work in Syria. Friendships and networks have formed. People are exchanging contact information and discussing the best ways to communicate with each other once back in Syria or their home countries.

    Today we have no official workshop duties. We’re still exchanging contact information and vowing to stay in touch. Many of us are working on additional campaigns based on what we have learned from the South African and Serbian experiences. We are a small community, holed up in our Cairo hotel, planning the overthrow of the Assad regime.

    The news comes in: Damascus is on fire. The hotel lobby transforms into a command center of sorts, as both activists and media appear out of nowhere. Phones are ringing nonstop, the different ringtones interrupted by the occasional shout or wail as another shell lands on another Damascus neighborhood. Several people are huddled in a corner, crying. Everyone in the lobby — tourists, activists, casual observers — is hearing the news about Syria. Many non-Arabs are enthralled to see Syrian activists in action as they use every social media tool they have to communicate with loved ones inside Syria and media outlets abroad. The activists work together to collect and verify information, then develop talking points for the media. We are friends. We trust each other. We are one community.

    We commandeer a conference room and turn on the widescreen TV to watch the news. Everyone has a laptop, iPad or cell phone. Facebook and Twitter are working overtime here. We continue to link to other activists inside Syria to get their firsthand accounts of the shelling, the gunfire, the death toll that rises with every Skype message. Many of us hold hands as we try to comfort each other. Many are wondering if they can return to the country they left just a few days earlier. But we all know we can rely on each other, for we have become friends. We trust each other. We are all Syrian.

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