Syrians in exile seek answers in leaked ‘wanted list’

Syrian children, evacuated from Eastern Ghouta, play at a shelter in the regime-controlled Adra district, on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus. AFP
Updated 06 April 2018

Syrians in exile seek answers in leaked ‘wanted list’

BEIRUT: Desperate to find out if they can ever return home, Syrians exiled by their country’s uprising-turned-war are scouring a leaked database of people reportedly wanted by the intelligence services.
Typing in first, last and father’s names into the online list, Syrians abroad hold their breath to learn if a long-awaited visit to Damascus would land them in regime prison or potentially far worse.
Hundreds of thousands have been arrested by Syria’s feared security apparatus since the conflict erupted in 2011, many for opposing the regime.
Others have fled the country, fearing detention, torture, or worse.
Last month, the pro-opposition Zaman Al-Wasl news website released a searchable database of 1.5 million reportedly wanted people, including which security branch seeks their arrest, questioning or travel ban.
“Wanted By: General Intelligence Directorate. Action: Arrest,” reads the result for Amr Al-Azm, history professor at Shawnee State University in the US.
“I would not have assumed otherwise,” sighed Azm, 54, who last visited his native Syria a year before protests against President Bashar Assad began. Since then, Azm has spoken out actively against Assad, so was unfazed to see his name on the list.
“On the one hand, you feel proud you’ve done enough to attract the attention of the authorities,” he said.
“But at the same time, it makes me very sad — because if it’s true, it means I’ll never see Syria again.”
Zaman Al-Wasl says the list was part of a trove of 1.7 million regime documents leaked by Damascus-based sources in 2015.
It says the database has been searched more than 10 million times. Their site also shows frustrated reactions from people who learned they were wanted.
When a first installment of 500,000 names was released in early March, exiled Syrian opposition figures began sending each other the link.
Many already knew they were persona non grata in their homeland, but wanted details: Which of Syria’s feared security branches held outstanding warrants for them? Would they face a simple interrogation or full-blown arrest?
“It’s like a terminal disease. You know you have it, but the lab tests come through and you get the confirmation,” Azm said.
The list does not include the specific crime in question, and doubts remain about whether it is comprehensive or up-to-date.
Still, when Zeina learned of the database, her heart began racing.
She left Syria in 2012 after two stints in regime jails for demonstrating, and wondered if she would face a third arrest.
“I never considered not searching, because I’d rather know,” said Zeina, using a pseudonym. As each third of the database was released, she punched in her real name, but it generated no criminal record.
“I want it to be true for selfish reasons, because I’m not on it and I want to go back,” Zeina said.
She aches for personal letters, books and ancestors’ belongings she would inherit, still thousands of miles away.
To double-check, Zeina asked contacts in Damascus to run her name against their lists, which could be more recent and detailed. Still, nothing. “I don’t have an answer, and that’s why I haven’t taken action yet,” she said.
“Is it worse to go back and risk being taken? Or never go, and then it ends up that they never wanted me in the first place?”
Even people living outside regime control in Syria have used Zaman Al-Wasl’s database.
Dilbrin Mohammad, 37, lives in Kurdish-held Qamishli and fears arrest by the regime for protesting in 2011.
He has searched lists like Zaman Al-Wasl’s and paid bribes to regime officials to search their records, which can cost as much as $200. To be safe, he avoids regime checkpoints.
“You feel like the government-controlled parts are a different country that you need a visa for,” said the computer technician.
“It’s like they’re North Korea and we’re the South.”
It’s been more than two years since Mohammad Kheder resettled in Germany with his wife and three children, but he insists it is a temporary stay. “I don’t want to get acclimatized, because we’re going back to Syria,” said Kheder, 32, who hails from Albu Kamal in the east.
He will never forget the euphoria of his hometown’s first anti-Assad protests nor would he regret participating, even if it landed him on the regime’s wanted list.
“I didn’t open the Zaman Al-Wasl database because I already knew, but all my friends sent me screenshots of my name,” Kheder said.
It prompted him to search the names of his brothers, friends, and nostalgically, activists he knew were killed in the seven-year war.
“Seeing my name was a badge of honor. It only made me more determined to go back, but not while Assad is in power,” he said.
“I’m wanted by Assad? Well, he’s wanted by me.”

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 24 August 2019

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”