June 25, 2019

Syrian Conflict is Creating Political and Social Change

People returning home to Syria must be certain that they’re safe there, says Rouba Mhaissen in this interview with Hille Hanso for Diplomaatia.

Rouba Mhaissen says that the war in Syria isn’t anything like over yet. Private collection

Dr Rouba Mhaissen is a Syrian-Lebanese economist, community mobiliser and development practitioner who works on development issues in the MENA region, particularly forced migration and the Syrian refugee crisis. She is the founder and director of Sawa for Development and Aid (founded in 2011), a civil society organisation that supports Syrian refugees in Lebanon and IDPs in Syria, and Sawa Foundation UK, which supports forced migrants in Europe and the Middle East. She has been involved in local and international campaigning, advocacy and lobbying efforts on Syria since 2011. She received her MSc in Development from the London School of Economics, and an MPhil/PhD in Gender and Economic Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She also holds two degrees in exponential technologies from Singularity University in Silicon Valley.

She has taught at SOAS and is currently a lecturer in Development at the American University of Beirut. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Queen Elizabeth Award (2011), the Marsh Award for Peacemaking and Peacekeeping (2016) and the AUB Most Distinguished Alumni Award (2017), and was one of the Forbes 30 Under 30 for Policy and Law in 2017.

Sawa for Development and Aid (SDAID) and the Estonian Refugee Council (Eesti Pagulasabi) cooperate in the humanitarian aid programme in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, where the two NGOs have set up a social enterprise for Syrian refugees under the brand name Master Peace. The programme is funded by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Hanso: What is the historical background that influences the socioeconomic situation of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon today?

Mhaissen: As you know, the relationship between Lebanon and Syria goes way back. In societal terms, a lot of Lebanese intermarried with Syrians, and politically Syria occupied Lebanon up until 2005. A lot of Lebanese families have grievances with the Syrian authorities over disappeared family members and so on, and there are additional tensions now because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Bear in mind that the Palestinian refugees have not had a great experience in Lebanon either, because they came in 1948 and stayed in camps which went out of government control. So all of that has complicated the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Lebanon is not a signatory to the [UN] Refugee Convention and the Lebanese government worries about repeating what happened with the Palestinians and creating further tensions. The country is divided between those who think Syrian refugees are running away from a dictator and those who think they are terrorists because they are not abiding by the Assad regime.

There was a lot of tension around this and the Lebanese government has decided the Syrians here [in Lebanon] will not be treated as refugees. They will be our “guests”, our internally displaced. And, of course, this is bad, because if you don’t have legal status, you won’t have refugee rights in Lebanon. Although officially we have 1.6 million registered refugees, unofficially we have almost two million. They are living in dire circumstances and badly need legal protection because of their inability to have residency and work permits, and the fact that they don’t have a right to work except in very limited jobs that are often linked to manual labour.

This is why we are so happy about this project with the Estonian Refugee Council in the livelihoods sector—because in this sector you actually build the resilience of the refugees so that, if and when they go back, they have learned a skill and when they are living here they are resilient, they are doing something, they are learning.

International donations for refugees are decreasing. Can you tell us more about the current situation of the refugees in Lebanon? What are their prospects?

The situation has become really difficult. The state school system has exceeded its capacity to take local and refugee kids, while at the same time NGOs are not allowed to give certifications to students, which means that, even if the kids do go to our centres—where we want to help them prepare to go to formal schools—the state school system is not able to accept them.

There are also widespread rumours that the war in Syria has ended—that everything is great, and Syrians can go back. The war is not over. And when we talk of a safe, dignified and voluntary return, we really need to make sure it actually is. Some areas are still unsafe; a lot of young men are scared to go back because of enforced conscription. If they have been involved in any way or just left as refugees from certain areas like Homs or others that have been proactive in the revolution, they are stigmatised and will be taken for questioning or other things by the government. The situation is not as safe as it is portrayed, and we need to be very careful when we speak of returning.

The return is happening, but it is very unstructured and in small numbers so far; we have seen structured returns mostly from Jordan, but fewer people returning from Lebanon—the last one was 180 families, through the collaboration between UNHCR and the Lebanese government. I think we need to be very careful not to insist on people returning prematurely, before conditions are safe for their return. In order for the return to be a real choice, they need to have at least some standard of living somewhere else. Otherwise, how can we really talk about a choice?

In our conversations, you have mentioned donor fatigue. What does that derive from?

It is the eighth year of the crisis. You know in international development there are sexy topics and sexier topics. There are new crises: the Rohingya, Venezuela, a lot of more interesting things for the donor. Plus the fact that at some point in time a lot of the donor countries’ foreign ministers were interested in supporting them for political reasons: the revolution was still aflame, and there were political motives behind the support. When the European “refugee crisis” happened, a lot of them wanted to support the region so the refugees would be contained. Today, when we speak of a return and the war is no longer as “in”, there is lot of underfunding while the needs are the same, if not growing!

International conditions are obviously changing, and SDAID needs to adjust, too. How do you keep up?

The good thing about local organisations is that we are here to stay. This is our cause, this is our country, our work. Even if the conditions change, we are not going to pack up and leave like international organisations do. We are here to find new ways to work. We don’t have access to Syria in the same way, and now that the refugees’ needs are changing, our role is to work in livelihoods and training, so that we can provide people with the resilience they need in Lebanon and when they go back. We are designing training programmes, and we bring people from Syria and train them, so even if we can’t work in Syria, we can still support people living there. We are also monitoring returns and try to see what the needs for return are.

It is sometimes said that NGO workers are just “humanitarians and well-wishing idealists”, although we are in fact well informed and realistic about what is going on in crisis or post-crisis regions. SDAID also collects data on these dynamics at first hand. Why do you do this?

We do a lot of policy research and advocacy. What are the needs of the people returning? What route do they take? What challenges do people face? We need information to design better programmes, and then to advocate and lobby for better policies. We also monitor any violations that are happening in respect of human rights and international humanitarian law. The refugees have a right to be protected and respected, and we need data to organise our work.

In the SOAS blog, you said: “In Syria we have lost half a million people and 12 million have been displaced because we wanted democracy. This is why in countries that have democracy we really need to push people to use it.”1 There are voices in Europe who doubt that Syrians know how to exercise democracy. There are orientalists who say “democracy is not in their culture”, “they need a despot”, “they want a strong hand”, because look what happened after the Arab uprisings—we’d better have these despots in place. How do you respond to these statements?

This discourse is very condescending and patronising. How long did the French Revolution take, how many lives were lost in the chaos that followed? A lot of European countries had monarchs and did not know anything about democracy. Democracy started on this side of the world, in the Mediterranean, and we had good examples of it. But what happened in Syria is not about the Syrian people. Everybody should remember that what happened in Syria grew into an international proxy war. You have Russia, Iran, the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, China and Hezbollah and all the interests of these big players. There were huge interventions by Western and non-Western countries. It is almost like the Cold War, but hot on Syrian soil. So the Syrian revolution stopped being the Syrian revolution as soon as the rebels were given weapons by outsiders, then abandoned and given weapons again. So let’s not pretend that we have all the conditions in place to create a democracy there.

But every time the shelling and the bombing stops in some areas, we see people going out on the streets again, demonstrating peacefully. One of the silver linings is that we now see a civic society. We are all humans and, if anything, Arabs had a history of commerce, scientific endeavour and all that long before anyone else. All the world’s religions came from this side of the world, as did the basics of science. It went down to hell from there, I’m not denying that, but the discourse you mentioned is borderline racist. We have had very bad luck in terms of geopolitics but that does not make us unworthy of freedoms and basic rights. To say that some nations deserve democracy and the others despots is elitist and patronising.

… and then there are those who narrowly blame Islam as a religion.

There have been instances when radicalisation played a very negative role. But we see radicalisation in all religions and long before these wars and interventions happened. I don’t want this to sound like a cliché, but I have lived in buildings together with Jewish and Christian neighbours all my life. We grew up in a society inherently pluralistic and multicultural in nature. I come from a place in Syria where we have a church that people come from all over the world to visit: Saydnaya. Religion has always been there, so how could it suddenly create all the problems? We have seen radicalisation, even seen radical people from other countries, including Europe, coming. By the way, ISIS’s most radical fighters are people who grew up in Europe on the margins of democratic European societies, being stigmatised and treated unjustly. So I think it is a very simplistic way to see things; the situation in the region is very complex and it is definitely not the only factor or element to keep in mind.

What actors do you blame most for the situation Syria is in now?

Western countries supported the revolutionaries but did not go with them all the way. Russia and Iran chose to back Bashar Al-Assad. The US had its own interests in the region. Turkey supported Syrian refugees to some extent, but of course every country looks at its own interests first. Hezbollah’s intervention is based on its interests in Lebanon. The opposition did not play a big role, because there was not a good structure and the Free Syrian Army diintegrated over time.

It is a very unfortunate collision of many failures and a lot of interests and geopolitical gains happening at the same time. Even the emergence of ISIS just sidelined the real demands of the revolution and the real work that was happening on the ground. It doesn’t matter who you blame but, in the end, the ones who pay the price are the Syrian people, people like you and me, families and children who want to go to school.

So our work has been to support the children, because they are the future. Even if you want to say our work is inherently political, because we are working with a future situation, they are illiterate and don’t know anything about values or what elections are or even don’t know they are Syrian. If you ask some of the kids in the camps where they are from, they say, “I am from camp 01”. I say: “No, you are from Aleppo, one of the prettiest cities on Earth!” or “You are from Damascus, the oldest inhabited place in the world!” These are the people paying the price and this is why our work is really important.

Are there any winners at this stage?

No one is a winner. There is a saying about “winning the war but not winning the peace” because any form of agreement that comes today without any justice and rights does not solve the root causes of the problem—the injustice that existed in the first place, the lack of institutional capacity, the lack of human opportunities, the young as a human resource—all of the problems combined with a very unjust economic system and the lack of freedoms. Today we are adding grievances on top of grievances. This is only going to be bad news for us in the future. As soon as the war ends, we have a lot of work to do. We have to reboot and start over.

Is there any chance of doing so with the current power lines, mechanisms and institutions?

We have to find new modalities and new ways of thinking long-term, of working bottom-up and rethinking the whole approach. As I said: we are Syrians, we are here to stay!

I am keeping a close eye on various international attempts to reach a political solution, and work on the Syrian Constitution by assorted actors. In your opinion, are all the key actors from the Syrian side involved? What kind of constitution should a multireligion, multi-ethnic country like Syria have to function well as a state?

That’s a big question. It should be a constitution that recognises and protects all the rights of different groups in Syria. It needs to be a real reflection of Syrian society. This is why any kind of imposed, top-down effort that does not include the Syrian people and actors at the heart of this effort is more likely to bring about a weak peace and disequilibrium. What kind of transitional government there will be, if any, and similar questions are still up in the air. There is still a big question mark over Idlib and the area east of the Euphrates too, at this stage.

Should it be a secular constitution?

I dream of a pluralistic secular country that still preserves the right of the people to exercise their religion, because today there are bipolarities and there is no healthy environment to speak outbout very delicate issues—the Islamists think the secular ones want to block them and the secularists think the Islamists want to Islamise everything. There are a lot of sensitivities today and we need to build trust and the social fabric all over again.

Many of my Syrian friends in Turkey have concerns about returning to Syria; some, in fact, plan never to return. They say if the regime, its elite and the whole structure stays in place, it will be too dangerous and unendurable.

There is a spectrum of people outside. A lot of those in Turkey were involved in revolutionary activities. But in Lebanon we have many who are just civilians. They have different concerns, like military conscription—they don’t want to serve in the army. Some are concerned their family members might be taken because they are activists; some are worried about not being able to pay their dues or fines; and some have problems over property rights, for example if they go back, will they be able to get back their property in this chaos? Governance is a big question. Some have concerns over the education of their children and think: “It took us five or six years to integrate our children into schools in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. How are we going to go back? Are there schools, are there services?”

So there is a spectrum of questions. I believe the return will happen in a phased way. And we really have to admit that there are some Syrians who will not go back—Syrians who have learned Turkish, Syrians who have taken Turkish nationality, Syrians who are now in Europe, integrating and assimilating, learning German, Estonian, Swedish; the young, who have travelled to study or have found jobs outside—they won’t return to a country where there are absolutely no livelihood opportunities. We will see people linking their return to political change. So, it is not like you press a button and everyone is going to return.

Let’s discuss how life in exile changes the lives of Syrians. There has been some research which indicates that gender roles have started to change amidst the rather conservative segments of Syrian refugees, and the reason for this is development aid. In an article in the University of Chicago Press journal Signs, you said: “There is nothing more political, nothing more revolutionary, than women fighting daily battles, resisting hegemonies of states, crossing constructed national borders, questioning traditional gendered roles, and depoliticizing everyday life”.2

The issue is that, out of a lot of families that came, only women came with their children because the men were fighting, had been taken by the government or were dead. So women took over the households, which became headed by females. At the same time, because of the lack of protection and the lack of documents, there were more restrictions on refugee men in Lebanon. If the men go out, security might stop them, they can’t pass through the checkpoints and so on. That, coupled with the fact that most donor programmes really emphasised women empowerment and left men out of their programmes. It reached a stage that gender roles are really changing. Women are working more and don’t have as many restrictions on their mobility, and they were the ones who were sent out to bring food and other things, because they are not stopped as much since they are considered harmless.

How has this affected the refugee men?

All this sidelined men and we have seen a huge masculinity crisis—all of a sudden, men are stigmatised. If you are here in Lebanon, it means you are not fighting in Syria and are labelled as a coward; you left your family behind, so you are useless; you are sitting here, not earning money, so you are not a breadwinner; you are sitting with 15 other people in a tent so you can’t even have regular intimacy with your wife, which all raises the question: who are you? Are you even a man anymore? Your masculinity in the context of a very patriarchal society where the man used to be the breadwinner, used to have a great relationship with his wife, used to be the protector of the family—all of a sudden, you are no longer protecting your family, you live in very undignifying circumstances …

We have heard of a lot of cases of suicide because they could not provide for their family, and cases of gender-based violence have really increased, which is why we are working with men and women on GBV issues and with men who are turning their frustration on their families. And this is why we want to work with men, too, in our programmes; gender-based programming means working with both, especially under current circumstances.

SDAID has a programme called Harmony, which involves activities ranging from counselling to football. What results do you see in each cycle?

Yes, through sport men can really release their frustration and through psycho-social support and awareness-raising on the gender roles there has been more acceptance of the fact that women will work and get out of the house, and we have seen positive feedback and positive change in the community. I think this is an opportunity for a society to change and for women to gain more empowerment in society.

So you see a fundamental change in gender relations and lasting empowerment for women?
There is the question of how you measure empowerment, of course. Women in the Middle East did not really participate much in the “official” labour market—capitalism and individualism did not have much effect on women. But in the Middle East women are the decision-makers of the family, the matriarchs that hold the family together. They are raising their children, supporting their husbands in agricultural work and so on. So the constitution of the community and society is different; I am not saying women have all their rights and indeed we have a long way to go.

And let’s ask who defines what empowerment means, and who decides whether, if women are working, they are automatically more empowered. When I see women in the West with jobs, while still doing their work around the house, still raising their kids and spending their earnings on consumerism and paying half of the bills and ending up super-tired at night—while still needing to look amazing—is that empowerment? No one has the right definition of empowerment. Of course, Europe has reached much better standards in terms of laws, etc. But we [in the Middle East] are also in the process, and there are things that have changed forever.

Even now, if we look at the fear about lack of freedoms, both politically and in the media, and at activism, you cannot undo what has been earned.


1 Jack Neenan/Shreeta Lakhani, “Rouba Mhaissen on the challenges of aid work”, SOAS Blog, 8 March 2017. Available at: https://www.soas.ac.uk/blogs/study/humanitarian-system-messed-rouba-mhaissen-work-syrian-refugees/

ˇ2 “Redefining Revolutions in the Spaces of the Tents”, Signs 40(1) (Autumn 2014) pp. 74–9.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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