Handwritten letters from American classrooms lift hopes of schoolchildren in war-torn Syria

“Letters of Hope” was launched in 2016 to counter the claims of Syrian President Bashar Assad the international community had abandoned Syrians. (AN Photo)
“Letters of Hope” was launched in 2016 to counter the claims of Syrian President Bashar Assad the international community had abandoned Syrians. (AN Photo)
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Updated 29 September 2021

Handwritten letters from American classrooms lift hopes of schoolchildren in war-torn Syria

“Letters of Hope” was launched in 2016 to counter the claims of Syrian President Bashar Assad the international community had abandoned Syrians. (AN Photo)
  • Letters for Hope was launched to counter the Assad regime narrative that the world has abandoned the Syrian people
  • Children have suffered the brunt of the war, with UN monitors saying the regime targets civilians indiscriminately

WASHINGTON, D.C.: “Have hope, stay strong, you are loved somewhere.” These are the words of American schoolchildren, handwritten on colorful paper and posted thousands of miles away to boys and girls in Syria’s besieged rebel-held areas.

Hope may seem in short supply in Syria, but thanks to a group of dedicated activists in the US and their humanitarian colleagues in Syria itself, a measure of relief and messages of solidarity are on hand.

The Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a US-based NGO founded in 2011, connects America’s heartland with communities in Syria, while also providing vital humanitarian assistance to the country’s vulnerable children.

“Letters of Hope” was launched in 2016 to counter the claims of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and its international backers that the international community has abandoned the Syrian people.




A boy holds a personal photo print showing children as he stands by rubble in the aftermath of Syrian government forces' bombardment on the town of Balashun in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the south of Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib. (AFP)

The program collects letters of solidarity from young people around the world and sends them directly to displaced Syrian civilians to reassure them they are not alone.

“To take part in the letters of hope mission is more than just a sign of solidarity. It is a movement,” Abby Straessle, SETF’s director of development, told Arab News.

Many of the Syrian children who receive these letters live under regime bombardment. Attacks have recently intensified in Syria’s northwest, already shattered by a Russian and Iranian-backed offensive in March last year.

Children have suffered the brunt of the conflict, which began more than a decade ago when anti-government protests were brutally repressed, sparking a bloody civil war.




One recent batch of hand-decorated cards came from Holy Souls’ pre-kindergarten class in Little Rock, Arkansas in the US. (AN Photo)

The Syrian Civil Defense, a non-governmental organization popularly known as the “White Helmets,” alleges that regime artillery and Russian jets have deliberately targeted schools and deprived children of an education. The Russian government strenuously denies responsibility for such airstrikes.

A recent report from the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic claims that residential areas, markets, and medical facilities have also been deliberately targeted, often indiscriminately.

Syrian children are frequently killed in such attacks on civilian infrastructure. In July, Russian-made Kransnopol guided artillery shells struck a medical facility in the southern countryside of Idlib, killing six children.

According to UNICEF, some 512 children were killed in similar attacks last year, most of them in northwest Syria. Around 1.7 million vulnerable children reside in the rebel-held areas, most of whom have been displaced multiple times by successive regime offensives.

Psychological warfare appears to figure prominently in the regime’s tactical playbook. Leaflets are regularly dropped from the air over rebel-held areas warning residents they “face annihilation” if they do not leave.




A man carries a girl who was injured during aerial bombardment at a make-shift camp for displaced Syrians, along a stairway in a hospital in the atby town of Maaret Misrin in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province. (AFP)

“Everyone has given up on you,” one such leaflet read, referring to the international community. “They left you alone to face your doom.”

Letters of Hope began as a direct challenge to that message, reminding Syrian children they have not been forgotten.

“Letters of Hope shows the people of Syria that even if world governments look away and even if the US administration continues to distance itself from the atrocities unfolding in Syria, the American people and people all over the world stand in solidarity with civilians demanding freedom in war-torn Syria,” Mouaz Moustafa, director of SETF, told Arab News.

Of course, letters alone cannot provide Syrian children with an education, protect them from bombardment, nor ease the pangs of hunger. That is why SETF has a parallel program in northern Syria called Wisdom House, which runs a kindergarten, and a women’s center called Tomorrow’s Dawn.

The center has provided hundreds of women with vocational training, offering professional certificates in cosmetology, nursing, crafts, and computer science.

INNUMBERS

* 13.4 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, the highest since 2017.

* $4.2 billion Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan, which is only 27% funded.

(Source: UN)

“Your beautiful and emotional words enter our hearts and give us hope,” Moumena, an English teacher and principal of Wisdom House, said in response to the letters.

“It means so much for me personally and for the other teachers who take care of the children. When we see the letters that are sent by teachers and students and people who care about us, we feel that we will be safe and there are no doubts that we will be the winners.

“They give us strength, hope, and love. Everyone who sends us these letters has a beautiful, sweet and faithful heart. Again and again, I say thank you from the bottom of our hearts to anyone who stands with us and sends us these beautiful words.

“The first letter I received said: ‘Be strong, you are not alone.’ These words were and still mean so much to me,” she told Arab News.

To date, more than 2,000 letters from 17 US states have been delivered to schoolchildren in Syria. The letters are collected by SETF volunteers and then taken over the Turkish border into rebel-held Syria.




For so many around the world, the Syrian conflict and those caught up in the fighting and repression feel very far away. The personal touch these letters carry created a direct link between children born in entirely different circumstances. (AN Photo)

One recent batch of hand-decorated cards came from Holy Souls’ pre-kindergarten class in Little Rock, Ark. Wisdom House responded with a photograph of its classrooms decorated with the letters and its pupils proudly holding up a banner that read: “Arkansas stands with the People of Syria.”

It was a simple yet powerful reminder that Syria’s children are not alone.

For many people around the world, including Americans, the Syrian conflict — and those caught up in the fighting and repression — can seem very far away. In that sense, the personal touch carried by these letters has created a bond between children who were born in two very different circumstances.

“The schools endured several forced displacements over the years, and the community was permanently forced from their homes in Idlib in early 2020,” Natalie Larrison, director of Wisdom House, told Arab News.

“Despite these obstacles, the resilience of the teachers and their communities, along with the incredible dedication of Wisdom House supporters, has kept both the kindergarten and women’s center successful and thriving.

“We hope that the children’s smiles are enough for our world leaders to see the importance of keeping them safe and giving them a chance for a free and happy future.”




A girl who was injured during aerial bombardment at a make-shift camp for displaced Syrians, is treated in the emergency ward of a hospital in the atby town of Maaret Misrin in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province on September 7, 2021. (AFP)

The fighting and human-rights violations in Syria no longer make headline news around the world. Analysts say this indifference, coupled with the inaction of the UN Security Council, has emboldened the regime to continue its bombing campaign.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Assad to the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The Kremlin hopes to convince the world to welcome the Syrian president back into the international fold and recognize him as Syria’s rightful ruler, despite his documented record of war crimes. 

The Russian government has also been pressing European nations to declare Syria “safe” for refugees to return to areas under regime control.

The experience of Syrians driven out by the war tells a different story. Omar Al-Shogre, a Swedish public speaker and human rights activist who has worked closely with SETF, spent years inside one of the regime’s most notorious prisons.

“There is something that the Syrian people fear far more than dying under bombardment. It is being detained by the intelligence services,” he told Arab News.




The program collects letters of solidarity from young people around the world and sends them directly to displaced Syrian civilians to reassure them they are not alone. (AN Photos)

“That basically means going through physical, sexual, and psychological torture for as long as you manage to stay alive in that detention center. Syrians refuse to return to Syria because someone is waiting for them. That someone is the intelligence services.”

For the children of rebel-held Syria, only the continuous lobbying of groups like SETF can prevent them from being forgotten altogether.

“Our vision for the future is to continue providing quality education to even more Syrians until every child has a chance to go to a school like Wisdom House,” Larrison said.

“Although the future of Syria is uncertain, we hope that the world will realize the importance of protecting these beautiful children and communities in Syria by telling their stories.”

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Twitter: @OS26


UN envoy: UAE has important role in supporting a Yemen-led political settlement

UN envoy: UAE has important role in supporting a Yemen-led political settlement
Updated 59 min 27 sec ago

UN envoy: UAE has important role in supporting a Yemen-led political settlement

UN envoy: UAE has important role in supporting a Yemen-led political settlement
  • The envoy held meetings with senior Emirati officials and Yemenis from various political components
  • Grundberg expressed his concern over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Yemen

LONDON: The UAE has an important role in supporting a Yemen-led, inclusive, political settlement to the conflict, the UN’s envoy for the country said.

“In that same spirit, progress in the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement would also contribute to strengthening political partnerships, supporting basic service delivery and stabilizing the economy,” Hans Grundberg added as he ended his visit to the UAE on Thursday.

The envoy held meetings with senior Emirati officials and Yemenis from various political components and the private sector during the visit, his office said.

He met with the diplomatic adviser to the UAE’s president Anwar Gargash and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalifa Shaheen.

The diplomats discussed the latest developments in Yemen and ongoing UN efforts to resume a comprehensive and sustained political dialogue among Yemeni parties. 

Grundberg expressed his concern over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Yemen, including intensification of the war, fragmentation of state institutions, the impact of the conflict on the economy, and delivery of basic services.

“It is high time that progress be made toward immediate and longer term political, economic and security priorities in the best interest of Yemenis,” he said.


Criticism over Israeli ‘terror’ label for Palestinian groups

Criticism over Israeli ‘terror’ label for Palestinian groups
Updated 28 October 2021

Criticism over Israeli ‘terror’ label for Palestinian groups

Criticism over Israeli ‘terror’ label for Palestinian groups
  • Move by Defense Minister Benny Gantz has even drawn fire from within Israel’s government, an unwieldy eight-party alliance that includes left-wing politicians
  • Representatives from 25 Israeli civil society groups traveled to Ramallah Wednesday to show solidarity with their Palestinian colleagues

JERUSALEM: Israel’s surprise “terrorist” designation of six Palestinian civil society groups has divided its ruling coalition and thrown a spotlight on Marxist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The move announced last Friday by Defense Minister Benny Gantz caused shockwaves, including among European donors who support the targeted groups and from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Israeli non-government organizations, or NGOs, which partner with the implicated Palestinians also voiced astonishment.
So did some in the media, given the prominence of the groups involved — especially Al-Haq, a rights group founded in 1979 by writer Raja Shehadeh, a New Yorker magazine contributor.
Gantz has also taken fire from within Israel’s government, an unwieldy eight-party alliance that includes left-wing politicians.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the dovish Meretz, warned that as an occupying military power Israel needed to be “very careful in imposing sanctions on Palestinian civil organizations because there are political, diplomatic and, more importantly, human rights consequences.”
Transport Minister and Labor leader Merav Michaeli said the way the announcement was made “caused Israel great damage with our greatest and most important friends.”
But Gantz’s office has not wavered, insisting that a joint security establishment investigation had proved the six groups operated “as an organized network under the leadership of the PFLP,” as the Marxist group is known.
The PFLP was founded in 1967 by George Habache — mixing Marxist-Leninism, Arab nationalism and virulent anti-Zionism — ultimately becoming the second most powerful Palestinian armed group after Yasser Arafat’s Fatah.
It currently does not have firepower matching the arsenal of rockets held by Gaza’s rulers Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but it is active in the international campaign to boycott Israel known as BDS, short for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions.
The PFLP has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, and Israel says it is responsible for a 2019 bomb attack in the occupied West Bank that killed 17-year-old Israeli Rina Schnerb.
The PFLP leader in Israeli-blockaded Gaza told AFP the designated organizations have “no link” with his group beyond a shared ideology opposing the occupation.
“These NGOs work in complete independence,” Jamil Mazher said.
The PFLP has been a prime target of the Israeli organization NGO Monitor, which tracks funding and activities of non profit groups engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with specific focus on European donors.
Its president Gerald Steinberg told AFP the designations last week “appears to reflect the impact of NGO Monitor’s ongoing research.”
NGO Monitor wrote to the European anti-fraud office OLAF in November 2020 to share what it said was evidence of EU funds being given to Palestinian NGOs with links to terrorist organizations.
OLAF replied in January that it had “dismissed the case on the grounds that there is no sufficient suspicion to open an investigation,” according to a letter seen by AFP.
Israel is not obligated to disclose the evidence it used to support the terrorism designation, with secrecy allowed under the 2016 counter-terrorism act.
The defense ministry has said the groups had hosted PFLP meetings, employed “convicted terrorists” and operated as a “lifeline” for the PFLP through “fundraising, money laundering and recruitment of activists.”
Tel Aviv University law professor Eliav Lieblich, writing on the Just Security website this week, argued that “it simply cannot be accepted that well-known and widely respected Palestinian human rights groups be designated as ‘terrorist organizations’ by executive fiat and on the basis of classified intelligence.”
An Israeli official told AFP that an envoy would soon head to Washington to share evidence after the US said it would be seeking “more information” about the designations.
Meanwhile, pushback persists against the decision.
Representatives from 25 Israeli civil society groups traveled to Ramallah Wednesday to show solidarity with their Palestinian colleagues.
“This attack on Palestinian civil society, on Palestinian organizations, is not new,” Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of Israeli rights group B’Tselem, told AFP at the demonstration.
“What is new,” he added, is that “they’re targeting some of the most respected and oldest civil society organizations in Palestine, like Al-Haq,” and that growing international outrage means Israel may no longer be able to act with “impunity.”


Arab coalition says 95 Houthis killed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasarah

Arab coalition says 95 Houthis killed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasarah
Updated 28 October 2021

Arab coalition says 95 Houthis killed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasarah

Arab coalition says 95 Houthis killed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasarah
  • On Thursday, the Arab coalition destroyed five Houthi ballistic missiles fired toward Jazan, Saudi Arabia
  • 11 military vehicles were destroyed in the 22 strikes carried out on Juba and Al-Kasarah

RIYADH: The Arab coalition said on Thursday that 95 Houthis were killed during air strikes on two districts near the central Yemeni city of Marib.
The coalition added that 11 military vehicles had also been destroyed in the 22 strikes carried out on Juba and Al-Kasarah during the last 24 hours.
Juba is some 50 km south of Marib, whilst Al-Kasarah is 30 km northwest of the city.
The coalition has reported heavy strikes around Marib in recent weeks.
Earlier on Thursday, the Arab coalition intercepted and destroyed five Houthi ballistic missiles fired toward the southwestern Saudi city of Jazan.


UN Security Council calls for ‘utmost restraint’ from all parties in Sudan

UN Security Council calls for ‘utmost restraint’ from all parties in Sudan
Updated 2 min 42 sec ago

UN Security Council calls for ‘utmost restraint’ from all parties in Sudan

UN Security Council calls for ‘utmost restraint’ from all parties in Sudan
  • Statement followed several attempts by council members to agree a unified position in the face of Russian objections
  • Moscow’s envoy refused to describe the military takeover as a coup, said “all parties” are guilty of violent acts

NEW YORK: The Security Council on Thursday condemned the “military takeover” in Sudan on Oct. 25, including the suspension of some transitional institutions, the declaration of a state of emergency, and the detention of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other members of the transitional government.

Council members noted that Hamdok has now returned to his residence, where he remains under guard, after initially being detained at the home of Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, the head of the armed forces. They demanded the immediate release of all others detained by the military authorities.

They also called on “all parties to exercise the utmost restraint (and) refrain from the use of violence,” and underscored the necessity of respecting human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

The statement was the Security Council’s fourth attempt at agreeing a unified position on the situation in Sudan, after the Russian representative objected to calling the takeover a coup and insisted that protesters as well as the military are guilty of violence.

Asked on Wednesday whether Russia was prepared to condemn the coup, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy said: “These formulas are tricky.

“It’s difficult to say (whether or not) it is a coup because a coup has a specific definition. There are many (similar) situations around the world but they’re not being called a coup. It’s not our task to label such a situation as a coup. It’s up to the Sudanese to decide whether or not it’s a coup.”

Polyanskyi criticized the US decision to halt aid to Sudan that was intended to assist the political transition to civilian rule, and said that the violence in the country is not restricted to the military.

While opinions may differ on the definition of a coup, he said, “I don’t think there are differences in the definition of violence. When people are being killed, when there are demonstrations, when there are attacks, (it) doesn’t matter (if it’s against) military, policemen, civilian population … violence is violence.

“Violence should stop, from all sides. As far as I see they’re not peacefully protesting. There are violent protests.”

The Security Council urged Sudan’s military authorities to restore the civilian-led transitional government, and all stakeholders to return to negotiations “without preconditions, in order to enable the full implementation of the Constitutional Document and the Juba Peace Agreement, which underpin Sudan’s democratic transition.”

Council members expressed their support for the hopes and democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people, and reiterated “their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and national unity of Sudan.”

They also voiced support for regional and sub-regional efforts to address the situation, including those by the League of Arab States and the African Union. The latter suspended Sudan’s membership of the organization following the coup.


US sanctions two Lebanese businessmen and a member of parliament

US sanctions two Lebanese businessmen and a member of parliament
Updated 28 October 2021

US sanctions two Lebanese businessmen and a member of parliament

US sanctions two Lebanese businessmen and a member of parliament
  • Jihad Al-Arab and Dany Khoury were sanctioned for alleged corruption related to state contracts
  • Lawmaker Jamil Sayyed was sanctioned for allegedly seeking to transfer $120 million abroad

BEIRUT: The US Treasury on Thursday imposed sanctions on two top Lebanese contractors and a lawmaker close to the Hezbollah movement over alleged large-scale corruption that undermined the rule of law in Lebanon.
Businessmen Jihad Al-Arab and Dany Khoury, close to former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri and Christian politician Gebran Bassil respectively, were sanctioned for alleged corruption related to state contracts.
Lawmaker Jamil Sayyed was sanctioned for allegedly seeking to “skirt domestic banking policies and regulations” and transfer $120 million abroad, “presumably to enrich himself and his associates,” a Treasury statement said.