Syrian Active Citizens are determined to bring peace to their ravaged country. Helen Clifton hears about the incredible courage of the Mobaderoon activists.
As the conflict continues, one group of courageous Active Citizens dare to believe that a better future is possible for the Syrian people. Mobaderoon – ‘the Initiative-Takers’ – are a thriving group of 5,000 local activists and 52 local organisations across Syria who are risking their lives to defy the conflict. Their work is challenging. Planning workshops are held in underground shelters to avoid shelling. Yet these near-impossible circumstances, as Mobaderoon Communications Officer Tayma, 24, explains, have only made them more determined.
‘Syrian youth have always had a sense of frustration that they are incapable of making a change in their communities,’ she explains.
Active Citizens restores the power to make a change to the individuals and communities. It’s a fundamental tool to rebuild the Syrian institutions as empowered citizens, with rights and duties.
Mobaderoon, first established in 2010, was initially concerned with developing project planning skills. But with the onset of the conflict in 2011, their priority has been to challenge the deep divides that have opened up across the country.
One of their most successful projects has been the ‘We Are Here’ project, in which Syrians are encouraged to wear bracelets designed with messages of peace. One of the Active Citizens behind ‘We Are Here’, 30 year old Rahaf, says the conflict has turned her life ‘completely upside down’.
Forced to leave her job as an English teacher in a Saudi Arabian university, she has been living with her family in Aleppo. The northern city was under siege for almost two years.
‘The strange thing about the Syrian community is that the conflict has shown their best and worst sides at the same time,’ she explains. ‘There have been more crimes – but also more charity.’
She says Mobaderoon and Active Citizens ‘opened her eyes’.
‘I wanted to support the idea of being able to work together for our country, regardless of who we are.’
‘We Are Here’ has had a startling impact, uniting people across the country. People wearing the bracelets have even been saved from persecution after fellow followers recognised the symbol and offered them a safe haven.
‘I wanted to remind people that we are human before religion, race, colour, gender or nationality,’ Rahaf explains. ‘I want Syria to be a better place than it was before the conflict.’
Active Citizens in Syria
Active Citizens first started in Syria in 2010, when the British Council identified a need to train local leaders. They were funded with L2,500 to cascade their training to others, and the Active Citizens network and Mobaderoon were soon established.
‘The Active Citizens programme was the cornerstone of Mobaderoon and is based upon Active Citizens tools and concepts,’ explains Tayma. ‘Both promote individual contributions to building society, at both national and local level.’
However, the outbreak of war in 2011 resulted in the British Council closing its Damascus offices in 2012. The director and a few senior staff were moved to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, and London, while others were dispersed throughout the Middle East.
Yet despite the fact all programmes inside Syria were suspended, Active Citizens still continued through Mobaderoon’s network of facilitators. In order to support their work, Mobaderoon was invited to a 2012 Beirut partner-networking event. Seeing their dedication, the British Council decided to help them out with L20,000 seed funding to continue their work inside Syria’s conflict zones.
Beirut-based staff managed the funds on behalf on the group, and over the next two months, Mobaderoon held 15 workshops in areas including Damascus and Aleppo, and over 450 Active Citizens were trained.
The programme then linked up with two Syrian NGOs and expanded into two more provinces. The website was launched and they extended even further – to Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqa, Lattakia, Tartous, Hasaka, Souyada and Homs.
‘The Active Citizens are from a mixture of backgrounds and religions. But they have decided to work together,’ explains Elie Gemayel, a Beirut-based British Council project worker who has been supporting Mobaderoon.
‘The Active Citizens programme has helped broker understanding between the diverse Syrian identities. The training has built an unbreakable trust between participants from different backgrounds who have shared a common space.’ Tayma
These Active Citizens have subsequently cascaded their training, growing the network even further. Mobaderoon has secured funding to continue its work – through the UK’s Arab Partnership initiative and the Swedish government, among others – and has now become an official NGO.
Social action projects teach children whose schooling has been disrupted, running crafts and informal artistic sessions. Mobaderoon provides emergency food relief, and has set up traditional storytelling projects to enable people to maintain and celebrate their identity. Psychosocial counselling projects help people deal with the trauma of the conflict.
Its Facebook site has become an effective networking tool for sharing stories with over 10,000 followers. Just how much dedication has been necessary to maintain the programme? ‘There are huge risks,’ replies Elie. ‘They [the activists] are operating in very challenging circumstances, so some of the workshops have been held in safe spaces in Lebanon.
But they believe in the power of Active Citizens. In the midst of the conflict, it has brought people together. It is giving hope for the future of Syria. Mobaderoon is talking a different language.
Now Mobaderoon has become a national movement, offering workshops on community leadership, psychosocial support, participatory strategic planning and conflict resolution.
Mobaderoon facilitator Rana, 35, shares Rahaf’s view that just as the war has divided Syrians, it has also seen many come together.
‘Some parts of the community have put their opinions aside and volunteered side by side in humanitarian relief,’ she explains.
Rana is determined that her country is not defined by the conflict. She believes Mobaderoon’s message of peace is being heard.
‘Some of our Active Citizens were involved in violence. But they were actually convinced to let go of their weapons, and go into peace work.
‘And they have now become examples to others.’
An estimated nine million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighbouring countries or within Syria itself. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over three million have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq; 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. (source: www.syrianrefugees.eu)