AMR al-Hamad and Ahmed el-Ghamrawi both came to Istanbul out of compulsion. For the former, it was a feeling that he “couldn’t do anything” more inside Syria. Though he had been hosted by the Free Syrian Army when he travelled across the country, he was less welcome by the militant Islamic State group, who had called him a “secularist” and a threat to the movement they had hoped to incite within the Syrian state.
“I’m not secular, I’m normal,” the 33-year-old legal scholar says looking back on the 2013 experience. His personal opposition to the Bashar al-Assad government was based on political, not religious, principles — a fact that may have irked certain groups. While studying for his Master’s degree in law, Mr Hamad had his first glimpses of the graft that permeated across the Syrian state. “You had to pay a bribe for everything. There was no other way to get anything done,” he says, explaining that his experiences in the Syrian legal system were what led to his first inclinations that Mr Assad would not bring the reforms so many Syrians had hoped for. His greatest disenchantment, however, came when he left to study in France in 2009. “I saw how little we knew about our own country, the history, the laws and how much we were being taken advantage of,” he muses.
But it wasn’t just the so-called “hard-line” opposition groups who cast a suspicious eye on him. When demonstrations against the rule of President Assad first broke out in March 2011, Mr Hamad formed a network of like-minded Syrians who helped activists and residents broadcast footage of protests from rural areas in the country. The aim, he says, was to show the world the risks Syrians, who for decades had lived under autocratic rule, were willing to take as part of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ that had been sweeping the region at the time: “We thought if we could broadcast these protests to the world, that spotlight would keep the army from attacking.”
From there, Mr Hamad joined the Syrian Media Action Revolution Team, a group of young Syrians who worked to further the reach of opposition messaging by providing radio reception and electricity to rural areas of the nation. Though Mr Hamad made several trips between Syria, Lebanon and Turkey between 2011 and 2015, the unending war in the country left him with a sense that there was no end in sight to the violence in Syria that led him to move to Istanbul in the spring of 2015.
“The situation is out of control,” he states simply.
Mr Ghamrawi, an Egyptian national born in Kuwait and raised in Abu Dhabi, was driven to Istanbul by identity politics. “You can go back to where you’re from and no matter how well you think you may know the language or the customs, you’re always seen as an outsider,” he says. “So, I decided, if I’m going to be an outsider, why not be an outsider here,” the 30-year-old recalls himself as thinking when he relocated to Istanbul during the summer of 2014.
Both men have flourished during their time in Istanbul. For Mr Hamad, being in another Muslim state after years in France was a positive change. “I love Istanbul … people don’t have pre-conceived notions here because of your name or your religion here.” Yet for both men, the turmoil in their homelands was never too far behind. Mr Hamad at first continued to aid the Syrian opposition from the other side of the border. He helped opposition groups based in Syria and Turkey set up radio broadcasts to reach those still trapped in the country. He, Mr Ghamrawi and other young Arabs also began to work as translators and fixers for foreign journalists looking to build a career off Syria coverage, but that led to disenchantment.
“We have such little control over the stories and how they’re presented,” says Mr Ghamrawi. “I always wonder who these people are working for, other than themselves, of course.” “These people are just using Syria,” concurs Mr Hamad. “It’s only a story to them. One time I was translating a video where someone was lifting something heavy and the guy said bismillah as he lifted it. The reporter wrote a note saying the man was a ‘conservative’ just because he said bismillah.”
Despite the questions and setbacks, both men have found ways to help the Syrian people. For Mr Hamad, it is the setting up of a private company, WeDoTech, that will help Syrian media groups evaluate the effectiveness of their messaging and their online reach. With the situation in Syria now a full-blown civil war, he believes that understanding messaging and information is even more important. “These people put out their content, their messages, but they have no idea that only nine people may be hearing it or seeing it,” he explains. For Mr Ghamrawi, it is working with a group of volunteers as part of a service called Alarm Phone, which lets refugees aboard boats call for help through standard mobile phone calls, WhatsApp, Facebook and other services. “It’s something to help,” he believes.
Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2016