Tag Archives: Aziz Abu Sarah

Aziz Abu Sarah: What to do when your government collapses


How do you build a civil society that functions in the midst of civil war? Lessons from Syria.

Last week, forty Syrians took the risk of leaving their homes and crossing the border into Turkey. Unlike many who cross, though, these Syrians planned to return. Their goal in Turkey: an intensive week-long workshop on how to rebuild their society.

Leaders in their communities, they came from Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Homs, Hama and Dara’a to talk with a group of conflict-resolution experts in Istanbul, including me, about the toughest leadership challenge of our time — helping people not only survive day to day in the midst of civil war but create a vision for the future in the face of government collapse and unbelievable human suffering.

Syria’s population before the civil war was about 18 million. Today, more than 8 million people have been displaced within Syria or are refugees outside the country. Those who remained in their homes have many reasons not to leave; among them, the high cost of leaving, risk and dangers on the road, fear of humiliation as refugees, and the international community’s inability to provide services to the millions fleeing the violence. The risks are very real: Two years ago, I met an older man in a hospital in Turkey who had lost nine members of his family while trying to escape from Syria. He was in the hospital to be near his injured daughter, who lost her leg. She was the only other survivor from his family.

For those who cannot flee, town committees strive to fill the gaps in social services. Since it’s not possible to hold elections, the success of such committees depends on the respect its members have in the community. Once it’s formed, its first task is to map the community to figure out the needs and priorities of its residents — and the human and material resources they can tap to solve problems.

Our project’s goal is to support Syrian communities by helping the local committees that represent these cities, towns and villages. The project started two years ago, when a team from the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) was tasked with supporting local Syrian leaders. The group included Hind Aboud Kabawat, Abdul Jaleel Al-Shaqaqi, Riad Issa, Nousha Kabawat, Dr. Marc Gopin, and me, as well as many others. Together, we represent every religious and ethnic group in Syria. Our mission: Support local leaders as they learn how to function in the absence of government services, by building civil society organizations and finding creative ways to provide social services in the midst of continuous violence.

For example, since the vast majority of doctors and nurses have either fled Syria or are overwhelmed working in the field to help the injured, villages and even some cities are facing major healthcare shortages. In one village beset by bombings, there were no nurses or doctors to help with nighttime births, and the route to the nearest hospital was too dangerous. The local town committee worked on this problem by creating an emergency response team to help in the aftermath of airstrikes, and found a doctor who could train a few locals as midwives.

Schools and educational systems also tend to break down in times of civil war. A year and half ago, for instance, I visited a Syrian school with my colleague Nousha Kabawat. The school did not have a first-grade class, simply because it didn’t have materials for the first-grade level. Other schools had been destroyed, closed or moved, or were faced with an absence of teachers. In such situations, community members must be mobilized to find safe locations for children and to volunteer as teachers. In the case of the school we visited, Nousha worked with the community to provide the materials they needed to teach first grade. We also worked with communities nearby to offer trainings for new teachers.

Food quickly becomes a vital issue. Fresh meat, vegetables and perishable dairy products vanish, leaving dry food as the major source of nutrition, and some towns even have to plan how many meals each person will have per week. Depending on their resources, they might implement a strict plan for the whole town. Worse, some cities and villages are directly under siege, facing starvation; local committees and emergency response teams must help distribute what little food they have.

One of the riskiest jobs of the leadership committee is politically navigating between competing factions, since declaring support for any one group could be devastating if that faction loses the area. However, staying “objective” can be equally problematic. In these cases, negotiation and communication skills have been extremely important for Syrian villages trying to manage their relationship with the Syrian regime’s army, the Islamist militants, and the Free Syrian Army.

Despite these dangers, it has been rewarding to see leaders come together to save their communities. In the past two years, we have worked with more than 160 local leaders who are now helping and advising one another, sharing strategies that worked in their towns. One of the cities we worked with was Manbej, a city led by a group of young people, mainly in their twenties and committed to democracy. While under air strikes, the city held elections. The leadership of the town negotiated with the militants to keep them from interfering in civil issues, and meanwhile created a police force of men and women. And in a moving display of solidarity, after the city fell to the Islamist terrorist group ISIS, hundreds of thousands of city residents launched a strike, a nonviolent action that forced ISIS to negotiate with the town.

As these forty community leaders head back to Syria, I find myself on one hand afraid for their lives, and on the other motivated almost beyond words by their courage. There is nothing more moving than a group of dedicated human beings who believe they can change the world. While these leaders are not able yet to change the political and violent conflict around their homes, they are able to save and inspire many people. They are the true hope of Syria, and I remain hopeful because of them.

TED Fellow Aziz Abu Sarah is a Middle Eastern American peace activist and founder of MEJDI Tours, a travel company that offers intercultural, bridge-building tours led by both Israeli and Palestinian guides.

Featured image by Richard Messenger/Flickr.

Cross-posted from the TED Ideas Blog >>>

From 3D animated molecules to tethered kite-copters: A recap of the TED2014 Fellows Talks, Session 1

Janet Iwasa. Photo: Ryan Lash

Janet Iwasa. Photo: Ryan Lash

With the TED Fellows, expect the unexpected: 3D animated molecules, tethered quadcopter cameras, death row inmates turned lawyers, quantum chaos. It’s the fifth-anniversary edition of TED Fellows talks, live from Vancouver, and here’s what happened in Session 1.

Usman Riaz, musician + artist
The Fellows stage comes to life quietly with the melodic strains of Pakistani composer Usman Riaz’s guitar. The piece, called “Boneshaker,” accelerates into one of his signature percussive pieces. Hammering on strings with his fingers and knocking on the body of the guitar with his knuckles, the piece crescendoes and crashes. The 23-year-old multi-instrumentalist from Karachi is also a composer, filmmaker and visual artist.

Ziyah Gafic, photographer + storyteller
Ziyah Gafic photographs simple, everyday objects: books, keys, shoes, combs, glasses. But these mundane items tell a violent story. Exhumed from mass graves 20 years after the Bosnian War of the 1990s, these objects belonged to the victims of genocide, and are cleaned, catalogued and used to help identify the bodies found with them. Afterwards, they become what Gafic calls “orphans of the narrative,” either destroyed or stored away out of sight and out of mind. His quest is to keep them in view as a last testament to the fact that these people existed, preserving them as an easily accessible visual archive that tells the story of what happened — integrating an objective forensic perspective with human compassion.

Alexander McLean, African prison activist
With quiet intensity, British lawyer Alexander McLean tells the tale of Susan, a female prisoner living in a 7-by-9-foot cell, whom he met while volunteering in a Ugandan prison. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable when they come into conflict with the law, says McLean, often suffering torture and rape at the hands of interrogators and punished for crimes committed by their husbands. Susan, for example, was sentenced to hang for killing her husband when he tried to attack her with a machete. To help people like Susan, McLean founded the African Prisons Project, an organization that offers prisoners a legal education via distance learning so they can defend themselves in court, help empower fellow prisoners, and pave the way for a promising future. Susan finished her degree, spoke for herself in court and had her death sentence overturned. She opened a legal aid program in her prison, and will practice law upon release. This year, the project will launch a class of female inmates from Uganda and Kenya, establishing a new generation of prisoners-turned-lawyers, proving that one’s future need not be determined by one’s past.

Dan Visconti, composer + concert presenter
Dan Visconti wants to update the image of the composer from an old man in a wig with a quill pen to a figure deeply integrated and in service to his or her community. Growing up listening to pop but trained as a classical violinist, Visconti creates vibrant new ways to present classical music, letting it serve as a locus for engaging in social issues. One recent project, a work commissioned by CityMusic Cleveland, was a weeklong musical event based on the experiences of the city’s 30,000 refugees — including musicians and dancers from refugees’ home nations. This project gave voice to typically sidelined communities, helped young kids learn about their own cultural histories, connected the city’s refugee groups, and helped identify and empower community leaders. With this kind of public engagement, Visconti is embodying a new classical composer’s role for the 21st century.

Aziza Chaouni, architect + ecotourism specialist
The river that runs through the ancient Medina in Aziza Chaouni’s hometown of Fez was once considered its soul, sending water to both public and private fountains throughout the city. But since the 1950s, overcrowding, over-development and pollution from such industries as tanning  turned the stream into a toxic sewer. The city responded by covering the river over with concrete slabs, in the process destroying houses and creating dumping grounds. When Fez received a grant to divert and clean the water, Chaouni proposed the Fez River Project to uncover and restore the riverbanks, create pedestrian pathways, reclaiming these areas as public spaces and reconnecting them to the rest of the city. Over the course of years, the river is gradually being uncovered, illegal parking lots are being transformed into playgrounds, trees and other vegetation are being planted, revitalizing Fez as a living city.

To read the full post, visit the TED Blog >>>



Give me your fussy, your bored, your hard to buy for: the TED Fellows gift guide

Still hurting for gift ideas? Never fear. The inventive and iconoclastic TED Fellows are coming to the rescue with the recent fruit of their labors. These inspired and unusual items — from Chinese-inflected banjo music to a remote-controlled underwater vehicle — are sure to delight your loved ones. Just be gentle stuffing that all-terrain vehicle into the stocking, or Grandpa George into the mushroom burial suit.


The gift: The littleBits Synth Kit
Perfect for: Aspiring musicians and actual musicians
The latest ingenious offering from Ayah Bdeir’s littleBits electronic building block company lets you snap together a modular synthesizer from 12 pieces. The product of a three-way partnership among littleBits, comedian-musician-anthropologist Reggie Watts (watch his TED Talk) and famed synth maker KORG, the littleBits SynthKit can be mixed and matched with any other littleBits kits to create all manner of musical artworks and toys with sound.
Get itOrder it through the littleBits website ($159)


The gift: The Muslims Are Coming!
Perfect for
: The social-justice-minded comedy fiend
Comedian and filmmaker Negin Farsad‘s hilarious documentary follows a group of Muslim-American comedians as they tour Middle America on a mission to combat Islamophobia and convert it to Muslim love. Featuring Farsad, and co-produced by TED Fellow Andrew MendelsonTMAC also features public interventions like the “Ask a Muslim” booth and the game show “Name That Religion” — not to mention special appearances by comedy heavyweights Jon Stewart, David Cross, Janeane Garofalo and Rachel Maddow.
Get it: Order the DVD ($15), or purchase it via iTunes or Amazon ($9.99)



The gift: OpenROV Kit
Perfect for: Explorers, your resident Jacques Cousteau
David Lang and his friend Eric Stackpole wanted to explore an underwater limestone cave in California, but they didn’t have the remote-controlled robot that would make it possible. So they decided to build one — opening up the process for instructions and advice from the public. In the process, they not only invented the OpenROV, the world’s first affordable, open-source, remote-controlled underwater robot, but formed a thriving global community of underwater explorers.
Get itBuy the latest iteration of OpenROV ($849)


The gift: City of Refuge
Perfect for: Fans of pop, folk and bluegrass, and folks with eclectic ears
Singing, songwriting, Illinois-born, Nashville-based, Chinese-speaking clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn weaves together disparate musical traditions and genres from the past and present to create an exuberant and soulful sound. Features My Morning Jacket’s Carl Bromel, the Decemberists’ Chris Funk, Turtle Island String Quartet’s Jeremy Kittell, atmospheric jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and Mongolian string band Hanggai.
Get itAvailable via Amazon ($14)

To read the full post, visit the TED Blog >>>