Meet the Syrian opposition abroad

Protesters dye a fountain red at a main square in Damascus to symbolize the blood of those who have been killed in the nonviolent uprising against Assad.

As the Syrian Revolution enters its ninth month, the Assad regime is finally (after some 4,000 deaths and 50,000 illegally detained) realizing that it cannot kill the Syrian spirit. This defiant spirit is the one that has cried “Silmiyeh, silmiyeh,” or “Peaceful, peaceful,” even while Assad’s tanks enter cities, towns, and villages with one mission: shoot or arrest anyone who calls for freedom. For nearly nine months, Syrians both at home and abroad have espoused creative nonviolence as a means of bringing down one of the most brutal dictatorships of the modern era.

Citizen journalists in Syria—themselves activists—cover the news on a daily, sometimes even hourly basis. It is not uncommon to see the death toll triple between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Syrians living abroad, once helpless to combat Assad’s tyranny, have found in social media and the Internet a new voice: that of creative nonviolence. In the United States, home to more Syrians outside Syria than any other country, they have also found their political voice. They have trained, mobilized and organized themselves into multiple opposition groups, all with one mission: to topple the Assad regime.

As of today, there are more than 20 distinct Syrian opposition groups in North America. Among the most active and well-known are the National Consensus Movement, Activists for a Free Syria, National Alliance for Syria, the Syrian American Council, Syrian Expatriates and the Syrian-Canadian Council. Their mission statements are similar—they are all committed to the peaceful overthrow of the Assad regime and to a peaceful transition to a free, democratic Syria. Some have religious undertones; others are committed to a secular state in which all Syrians, regardless of ethnic or religious background, are equally protected under the law.

And who are “they?” They are Christians, Kurds, Muslims and Alawites. First and foremost, they are Syrian. They are activists seeking democracy and freedom. They represent the youth movement, which has been so critical in this revolution. They represent the aging, wise ones who paved the way. They represent those in the middle—a generation committed to ensuring that their children will not have to grow up in fear and silence as they did.

When these activists meet, they fly in from all corners to gather for yet another conference on Syria. Just before the conference, they may have argued, disagreed, debated or even insulted one another. The animosity in the air is sometimes almost palpable. The MC kicks off the event with a moment of silence. Everyone bows their heads in sadness for Assad’s victims, pride in the Syrian protesters, and concern about the future. Then the MC says, “Welcome, Syrians!” and suddenly everyone is hugging and welcoming one another, all grievances forgotten. They are united in their mission to help the Syrian Revolution by lobbying their respective governments, spreading the news of the atrocities being committed and raising funds to support Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon. They have a common goal, and everyone is in this together, till the end. After all, they are Syrians.

Part of what’s so surprising about the Syrian community is that it has come together with a fierce commitment to a single goal: to topple the Assad regime. Members of the community reflect on the revolution. Their people back home have been chanting “Silmiyeh, silmiyeh” for months now. They wonder, “How long can it last?” They recount the story of Syrian nonviolent activist Ghiath Matar, who offered drinking water and flowers to armed soldiers and was killed. Or baby Oula, 2 years old, dead from a single gunshot to the eye. And of course, they have all wept over the fate of Hamzeh Ali Al-Khatib, the 13-year-old boy who was tortured to death, and whose genitals were cut off.

Creative Nonviolence

The protests in Syria have remained largely peaceful, despite calls by some to take up arms in self-defense. Activists both in Syria and abroad collaborate via Skype, Facebook and Twitter on creative ways to make their voices heard without resorting to violence. The results are inspiring: A laser shines a green beam across Damascus and onto the Presidential Palace. This comes after activists managed to pour red dye into a water fountain at a main square; when the fountain was turned on it spewed red water, symbolizing the blood of the Syrian people. In another town, activists secretly filled balloons with thousands of tiny pieces of paper containing a simple message: “Al-shaab urid iskat al-nitham,” or “The people want to topple the regime.” Throughout the country, nonviolent activists organize general strikes, mass demonstrations, sit-ins, and other traditional forms of nonviolent political expression. Once, activists in Homs—the city with the best sense of humor—videotaped themselves launching eggplant grenades. They yelled, “We are your armed gangs!” and hurled zucchinis at the oncoming armed security forces. Silmiyeh, silmiyeh.

Back at the conference, in a typical airport hotel in a typical American city, activists are participating in a weekly Twitter campaign to get #Syria to trend. They send literally thousands of messages, to thousands of people, all over the world. The messages are serious, funny, cute, sometimes very sad. The tweets echo what their compatriots are chanting: “The people want to topple the regime.” Other activists are planning a series of workshops—nonviolence figures prominently on the agenda—and wondering where to hold them. Still others are on the phone with “someone inside,” getting the latest news: who died, who was arrested, who has been shot, who has disappeared.

Someone asks, “Will there be civil war?” They all bow their heads in fear—are we already there?—and tweet a little faster.

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