What's it like to flee your home and become a refugee? What's caused Syria's conflict, and why has the country descended into long-term violence? We asked Abed, a Syrian who has been talking to fellow Syrian refugees, what they thought.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I used to work at the British Council in Syria as a project co-ordinator until 2012. I fled to Cairo at the end of 2012, after being called by the Assad regime for reserve military service. In Cairo, I worked on the British Council's art programmes until the end of 2013, and then I left to Turkey to work in humanitarian research and to pursue a Master's degree in Peace and Conflict Studies.
I'm currently collecting data for my thesis in south-east Turkey by interviewing Syrian refugees and talking to NGOs and civil society organisations. I'll be writing about obstacles to peace in Syria, analysing local and regional factors, and finding out what local people's perceptions are. A lot of it is getting people to talk. I ask them what they think are the obstacles to peace, and what their expectations are for the future.
My family is still in Damascus. It's not as bad there as in other places in Syria, but that is because the authoritarian regime still controls the city. They have a daily dilemma about whether to stay or leave.
When you talk to Syrian refugees about the conflict, what do they say?
Many people have told me that they think regional actors are the barriers to peace: countries around Syria's borders, who are getting involved. They say that outside interference and growing extremism are clouding the original causes of the conflict. When Syrians first took to the streets in civil protest, it was to lobby for human rights, political rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In the beginning, these were the basic demands. But radicalisation has moved the focus of the battle away from getting rid of the authoritarian regime. And we still have the same regime in Damascus.
What do you think has caused this movement towards radicalisation?
It's a complicated question. One big issue has been the lack of any international action to stop the bombardment and brutal violence against civilians. This has left a vacuum that has been filled by organised extremist groups and sectarian discourse. Syrians feel the world has forgotten about them, and their despair has created a fertile atmosphere in which extremism can grow. You have jihadists coming into Syria and telling local people, 'You're being killed, and nobody cares or is helping you, so why not look at what we're offering.' Joining them seems a way for people to not only resist the regime, but also to make a living.
Can education and culture combat radicalisation?
I definitely think there's a significant role that an organisation like the British Council can play. There are millions of young Syrians living outside the country, with no opportunities and no hope. If they had basic English lessons, were taught how to write a CV, fill out job applications, and present themselves in interviews, it would open a whole new future for them.
The war has been going on for five years now, so there's this generation of children who have grown into adulthood within a culture of violence. They see violence as normal. In countries like Rwanda and South Africa, which have had protracted conflicts, there have been reconciliation projects to try to deal with this trauma. One class at school a week, giving children the opportunity to talk about their experiences, could go a long way in encouraging them to stop thinking that violence is inevitable and normal, and help in the reconciliation process.
What do refugees need beyond shelter, food and water?
It's not enough to just meet basic needs. People think that refugees are somehow different from them. They are not. They are decent people with proper lives, who had futures and plans. They had ordinary jobs, working as civil servants, entrepreneurs, taxi drivers. Then one day, all of that is taken away from them.
When I ask people what they need, they want to tell me stories about their lives. They are so happy to be in my company and to be listened to. I've worked with Syrian artists and activists who have also interviewed refugees for their work, and I think that art is one way to process trauma. Interacting with artists allows people to tell their stories and feel supported, so they don't get demoralised. It helps them feel that what has happened to them means something, that their lives are still important. They need that hope.
Which stories have left a particularly strong impression on you?
One person I spoke to was a taxi driver in Aleppo. He ran his own business driving a taxi, built his own house, and he and his wife carefully picked out every piece of their furniture themselves. Then their house was bombed, and they were forced to leave with nothing. He takes out photos of his destroyed house to show me. Every time his wife talks about their home, she cries. They just want to have the simple life they used to have.
There's another guy who's an electrical engineer. Before the war, he managed a large department which installed technical equipment for big companies in Damascus and made a lot of money, with all the social status that entailed. Now he's living in a refugee camp, and no one knows anything about him. He called me recently and said he's planning to go to Europe to find a job, because he has the skills to do so, and he can't see a future here.
When educated, thoughtful Syrians leave, it means there are no role models left for all the young Syrians who are hanging around on the border. Three of my friends are about to head to Europe, but none of them want to go. Nobody wants to claim asylum, to leave their families behind. But they don't feel they have a choice. A friend of mine recently lost his brother; he was killed by ISIS. His parents are terrified they will lose him too, and are pushing him to leave Syria, to go as far away as possible. They want him to be safe. But he doesn't want to go. And I can assure you that thousands of other Syrians feel the same. They may be safer in Europe, but they are not happy. It's not home.
An exhibition by Syrian artists who are showing us the conflict in new ways will open at the Naughton Gallery at Queen's University Belfast in October 2015. It is called 'Syria: Third Space' and was previously shown in London and Brussels. In the meantime, take the digital tour.