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Syrian Civil Society Takes Root in Lebanon
Article published on 12 August 2023

Syrians in Lebanon are establishing civil society organizations devoted to media, politics and civil and human rights

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are living in Lebanon today–refugees fleeing the armed conflict at home, activists who chose to leave Syria due to political oppression, and those who simply prefer wait out the war in relative stability.

The presence of so many Syrians outside the country has led to a parallel explosion in the number of Syrian civil society and aid organizations in Lebanon. This community can be divided into roughly two parts: those organizations that seek to enact change inside Syria, and other organizations that provide relief to Syrian refugees.

Among the new civil society organizations devoted to media, politics and civil and human rights are Dawlaty, Bidayaat, Waw al-Wasel, and Noun. Most organizations, however, provide aid and support directly to Syrian refugees, organizations such as Sarda, Basma wa Zeitouneh, Sawa li Ajl Souria, the Ward Team for Psychosocial Support, and Najda Now.

The emergence of these organizations has sparked a heated debate over their effectiveness, both when it comes to influencing politics on the ground in Syria, and for alleviating the suffering of refugees. Critics accuse relief organizations of acting like charities, doling out aid with no eye to sustainability.

Ashraf Hefni, the founder and director of Ward Team for Psychosocial Support, says that the team has an important role to play because “the nation must be built on a healthy foundation, and we must stand with the children and support them because they will follow the path of change and renewal that we dreamed of and that we continue to dream of.”

“If we do not address the psychological trauma these children have lived, they will be unable to build a nation on solid foundations,” he said.

Hefni, who left Syria because of his political views, said he chose to switch from political activism to relief work and specifically psychological support because of the huge number of Syrian refugees pouring into Lebanon in need of such help.

Ward offers counseling and extracurricular activities for refugee children under a program titled Fashat khileq (Letting off Steam) designed to relieve stress resulting from psychological trauma and stimulate creativity. Ward also runs film screenings to raise awareness about people who have successfully overcome a physical disability, and offers courses in English and computers.

Mustapha Haid, the director of Dawlaty, says that when it comes to Syria, complicated issues like militarization, civil peace and democratic transition are treated as “commodities” with their own market.

(Full Disclosure: Haid has worked with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting IWPR, the organization that operates The Damascus Bureau, in the past and wrote several chapters for IWPR’s Transitional Justice Handbook).

Haid complains that most of the external support and funding is being directed into military channels, which, he points out, are far less sustainable than relief work.

Since its founding in May 2012, Dawlaty has organized workshops for Syrians living inside the country, mostly focusing on non-violent struggle and community organization, but it has also worked on human rights issues, peace-building, and video and media training.

Haid responds to criticism that Lebanon-based organizations can only have a limited effect.

“One cannot measure the impact on the ground because there are no tools to measure it,” he says. “Dawlaty has had a significant effect on the target group, which consists primarily of activists.”

Haid, who hails from Atareb in the countryside outside Aleppo, goes on to say that Dawlaty has so far produced 16 tutorial videos with three more on the way. These videos will be copied onto DVDs and distributed along with a written brochure inside Syria starting from mid-July. The videos will also be broadcast on the opposition satellite channel Souria Ash-Shaab as well as over the radio in the rebel-controlled provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.

Haid acknowledges, however, that “although we did the best we could, given the circumstances and logistics related to the situation in the region and in Lebanon, we cannot offer more than what we have.”

“We managed to have a positive impact on activists both inside and outside Syria, but it might be difficult to notice because it’s part of a long-term strategy.”

Mays, (not her real name), a volunteer at a Syrian relief organization working in Lebanon, says she also shifted from political activism in Syria to humanitarian work outside the country because she believes that Syrian refugees should avoid the “problematic” opposition in Syria.

Mays went on to say that working in relief “soothes her conscience” because she feels she is able to help directly. In Lebanon, there is no room for the types of activities she was doing in Syria, for neither protests nor publications in Lebanon will make a difference.

Ayman, (not his real name), is a coordinator for the Waw Al Wasel organization, one branch of which is active in Lebanon. He says that the organization has an effect on its target demographic, and has already produced several visual and audio projects, participated in advocacy campaigns, and distributed written materials to the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria to raise awareness. These materials seek to educate members of the FSA about ethical conduct in wartime.

Waw Al-Wasel has other initiatives in the works, and is also assisting with what Ayman describes as “friendly projects,” coordinating virtually with activists inside Syria and around the world.

“Syrian civil society in general, not only in Lebanon, has been unable to [come into its own] because of the catastrophic scale of the refugee problem,” Ayman said. “All of our energies are directed toward the relief effort but we can’t meet a quarter of the need.”

Haid echoes Ayman’s sentiment, saying, “humanitarian projects come first, because people are in need.”

He emphasizes, however, the diversity within so-called the civil society sector, which includes immediate relief in the fields of medicine and education, as well as medium and long-term projects focused on civil peace and democratic transition.

Haid also stressed the need for activists in Lebanon to learn from the mistakes of those who attempted such relief efforts in Syria and failed, dealing a significant blow to the peaceful protest movement.