Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising

Updated 12 September 2012
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Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising

Revolt in Syria takes us right to the heart of the revolution in Syria where the author has lived since 2007. A freelance Irish journalist, Steven Starr has covered the Syrian uprising for some of the world’s leading newspapers and his work has been published in The Washington Post, the Financial Times, The Times, The Sunday Times, Los Angeles Times and The Irish Times. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Near East Quarterly. Despite the complexity of the subject matter, the book is an easy read. The author spares us the usual references to the country’s political history and economy and delves instead into the present with pertinent interviews cleverly woven into the narrative. Starr himself acknowledges that this book and his understanding of Syria have their roots in the stories of the people he has lived with, people both, for or against the regime.
In the insightful prologue, we are reminded that the Syrian Baath regime has lasted far longer than many previously thought.
“The entire political and security system, and by consequence, Syrian society, have been built with this moment of internal revolt in mind...” says Starr.
Lama Al-Hariri, the first female Syrian diplomat to defect, believes that the regime was aware from the very beginning that the success of the revolution would depend on its ability to remain peaceful. The government therefore drew a plan that involved the killing of peaceful demonstrators. By turning a peaceful revolution into a civil war, the Baath regime thinks that its chances of survival are much greater.
The incident that triggered anti-government demonstrations took place in Deraa. It was caused by a group of children who wrote anti-regime graffiti on the walls of a school in early March 2011. The school principal reported them to the so called, “mukhabarat”, secret services and the children were immediately arrested and tortured. Their fingernails were taken out and they were severely beaten. When the mothers asked the local police about their children, they were told, “You won’t be getting your children back. Go home and tell your useless husbands to make you some more”. The families denounced their children’s incarceration and participated in street demonstrations. After two mothers were arrested, an unprecedented and totally unexpected uprising began in Syria.
“There is a major void between the street and the state. There is no one that is well-regarded by the business class, the street and the authorities collectively”.
The reason, for the total absence of any form of opposition, is due to Article 8 of the 1973 Syrian constitution that establishes the Baath party as the “sole leader of state and society in Syria”. As a result the country had no legal opposition parties until the creation of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC). Its members are people of all ages recruited in and outside of Syria. An LCC spokesman remarked that the revolution in Syria differs from other Arab revolutions in so far as the sons are marching with their fathers and grandfathers.
At this point, one should point out that without smart phones and the Internet, this revolution would certainly never have succeeded. During an interview with “Dark”, one of a few activists networking in Syria, the author was told that activists in Syria are “organized into loose circles”:
“We use a combination of Tor proxies, tunnels and VPN (virtual private networks) to surf the web, and we talk in code when using mobile phones. Due to the nature of the way we operate, information passes from one group to another through people from one group whom the other group trusts. These connections may be mutual friends, or long-time activists. This sometimes means that information may be sketchy or even inaccurate, but this is the only way we have and it has worked out well so far”.
“Dark” admits that he uses camouflage, acting as a pro-regime supporter in his daily life. Stephen Starr also played a cat and mouse game with the authorities. He took a series of measures that helped him prolong his stay.
“I rarely associated with foreigners, who were subjected to heightened security attention during the revolt. I changed e-mail addresses weekly and passwords daily. I never risked speaking about certain items on the phone. I had over the years come to recognize secret police on the street; how they looked, what they wore, what their body language said. This helped me make decisions on topics of conversations and when to speak English and when to use Arabic when they were close by. I got out when I felt it was time, when I had taken risks that crossed a line”.
Thanks to an extended network of friends from all sides, Starr benefits from a unique source of information. The interviews with Syrians from different communities highlight not only the great divide between the activists and pro-regime supporters but also the silence and lack of interest of the majority of Syrians during the uprising.
There are now 235,000 Syrian refugees and the uprising has turned now into a civil war. It is imperative for all political parties to come together. The silent majority has to shed its passivity and voice an opinion. It has an essential role to play in bridging the gaps between the opposition and the regime.
Revolt in Syria is a good introduction to Syria’s present quagmire. “In the long term” concludes Starr, “the regime simply cannot win this fight. Too many have suffered too much. Syria seems set for months and perhaps years of economic stagnation, brutal repression and divisions”.


San Francisco restaurants open kitchens to refugee chefs

Updated 24 June 2018
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San Francisco restaurants open kitchens to refugee chefs

  • The Refugee Food Festival started in Paris in 2016 and came to the US for the first time this year
  • The program lets refugees aspiring to be chefs work in professional kitchens

SAN FRANCISCO: At San Francisco’s Tawla restaurant, Muna Anaee powdered her hands with flour and gently broke off a piece of golden dough to prepare bread eaten in Iraq, the country she fled with her family.
Anaee was preparing more than 100 loaves for diners Wednesday night as part of a program that lets refugees aspiring to be chefs work in professional kitchens.
The Refugee Food Festival — a joint initiative of the United Nations Refugee Agency and a French nonprofit, Food Sweet Food — started in Paris in 2016 and came to the US for the first time this year, with restaurants in New York participating as well. The establishments’ owners turn over their kitchens to refugee chefs for an evening, allowing them to prepare sampling platters of their country’s cuisine and share a taste of their home.
Restaurants in 12 cities outside the US are taking part in the program this month.
“It’s been a big dream to open a restaurant,” said Anaee, 45, who now has a green card.
Anaee was among five refugees chosen to showcase their food in San Francisco — each at a different restaurant and on a different night, from Tuesday through Saturday. Organizers say the goal is to help the refugees succeed as chefs and raise awareness about the plight of refugees worldwide.
It’s important to “really get to know these refugees and their personal stories,” said Sara Shah, who brought the event to California after seeing it in Belgium.
Anaee and her husband and two children left Baghdad in 2013 over concerns about terrorism and violence. She worked as a kindergarten teacher in Iraq, not a chef, but was urged to pursue cooking as a career by peers in an English class she took in California after they tasted some of her food.
Azhar Hashem, Tawla’s owner, said hosting Anaee was part of the restaurant’s mission to broaden diners’ understanding of the Middle East — a region that inspires some of its dishes.
“Food is the best — and most humanizing — catalyst for having harder conservations,” she said.
The four other aspiring chefs serving food in San Francisco are from Myanmar, Bhutan, Syria and Senegal.
Karen Ferguson, executive director of the Northern California offices of the International Rescue Committee, said San Francisco was a good city for the food festival.
“We have so much diversity, and we see the evidence of that in the culinary expertise in the area,” she said.
The Bay Area has a high concentration of refugees from Afghanistan, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Eritrea and Burma, though exact numbers are unclear, according to the rescue committee. Its Oakland office settled more than 400 refugees in the Bay Area last year, but the number of refugees settling in the region has fallen dramatically since the Trump administration this year placed a cap on arrivals, Ferguson said.
Pa Wah, a 41-year-old refugee from Myanmar, presented dishes at San Francisco’s Hog Island Oyster Co. on Tuesday. She said she didn’t consider a career in cooking until she moved to California in 2011 and got her green card.
Cooking was a means of survival at the Thailand refugee camp where she lived after escaping civil conflict in Myanmar as a child. Participating in the food festival showed her the challenges of running a restaurant, but also helped her realize she was capable of opening her own, she said.