Life in the digital shadow of the Syrian war

Even when the Syrian conflict is on the other side of the planet, digital connections put refugees, activists and humanitarians at risk. 

By: /
October 18, 2016
Samir Najjar at his home. Chloë Ellingson/OpenCanada.org

This piece was awarded best investigative article or series, news media category, at the 2017 Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

Mariam Hamou lives in a modest house in suburban London, Ontario, with her husband and two little girls, who are five and seven years old. She has the best laugh. It comes easily and it’s loud and bold, originating deep in her gut. It’s the kind of laugh that even if you’re not in on the joke, you’ll play along just to hear her enjoy it. As we talk, she finds ways to joke and laugh even when she’s recounting something terrible.

Hamou sits in an overstuffed chair, her feet tucked under her, and tells me that the five years working non-stop for the Syrian revolution “has taken its toll.” She worked as a media liaison for the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group of political and military factions that oppose the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. For those years her cell phone was an extension of her hand, as she tried to get messages of both hope and horror from the Syrian conflict out to the wider world.

Hamou left that job early in 2016 and says she is only now coming out of the fog of distress. Yet, she still receives a steady stream of updates and emails and can’t keep herself from checking her phone at every ping and ding.

“There is a PTSD component and I have a lot of flashbacks from pictures and videos. The tears have really gone down since I’ve stopped working. But I can tell you that there are times that I just cry like a baby. My husband asks if I’m OK and I just say that I need to cry it out.”

Back in early 2011, it was a different story. Hamou was pregnant with her second child and throughout the last weeks of her pregnancy that spring, she had received constant texts from her parents, who were in Syria visiting family. The messages combined encouragement and prayers for Hamou with shocking political updates.

In March, Syrians had started to take a stand against the Assad government. Buoyed by mass protests throughout the Arab world, Syrians came into the streets to shout their discontent and demands for change. The Assad regime made some accommodations but increasingly responded with bullets and torture. Hamou’s parents were unsure whether to be hopeful or fearful, but it seemed clear that Syrians were straining to replace their long-standing authoritarian regime with a new political order.

On April 15, while Hamou laboured with her second child, tens of thousands of people rallied around Syria and tear gas hung in the air in Damascus. Shortly after her baby was finally nestled in her arms, Hamou’s phone pinged with a text from a Syrian-American friend. The message said it was time for supporters of political change to get organized, including those outside of Syria. There was a sense that a line had been crossed, that Syrians wouldn’t return to a life of fear or back down from their demands for political change.

Hamou remembers thinking her situation was serendipitous. She would be able to engage fully with developments in Syria because she would be off work for a long period of time. She had already planned to take an extended maternity leave but, as it turned out, she ended up losing her job when her employer, a federal member of parliament, was voted out. When the text from her Syrian-American friend arrived, she now says, “I thought to myself, that’s it. I’m in. I’m in. I’m all in.”

She now looks on that decision with mixed feelings. She went all in: supporting informal protests, lobbying journalists and politicians, working around the clock, seven days a week. She eventually became the North American director of public relations and media for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, or as it’s popularly known, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). She did all of this from her suburban Ontario home. But after five years of living the Syrian conflict via desperate text messages, bloody Facebook videos and emailed threats, Hamou says that she now feels traumatized, depressed and broken.

Living in a digitally extended conflict zone

Just as the digital space allows people to connect globally and act as forces for positive social and political change, it also offers a way to connect with distant conflict. In Canada, the risk of connecting to conflict is often framed as the potential for threats to military, critical infrastructure and intellectual property. We don’t often think about the risk to individuals unless it’s in the context of radicalization and recruitment.

This article investigates ways in which the distant Syrian war is woven into the fabric of Canadians’ everyday lives through their use of digital communication technologies. It is part of a larger OpenCanada exploration of people’s digital connections to conflict, and the policy issues and risks of harm that arise.

Harm to individuals can take different forms. Activists around the world are targeted for hacking and harassment. They participate in propaganda wars that have turned Twitter and Facebook into theatres of virtual combat. People who try to stay connected to family and friends in conflict zones are fearful they will put their loved ones at risk. Despite such dangers, digital technologies also give remote actors an opportunity to influence events on the ground, including much-needed humanitarian aid.

The hazards of digital connections to distant conflicts are acute in the case of the Syrian war. The Canadian public often hears of the war in news media, and have learned more about it through the stories of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled to Canada. People who follow the news may have read stories about the Syrian Electronic Army, the Cyber Caliphate, America’s so-called “cyber bombs,” and so forth. But little attention has been given to the fact that people may live in the digital shadows of the war they fled. In their living rooms, in their cars, in their beds at night, the war is often just a click away.

The digital activist

Mariam Hamou
Mariam Hamou at home. Chloë Ellingson/OpenCanada.org.

Driving up to Mariam Hamou’s home in London, you’d never know it was once a media operations centre for a revolutionary movement. It’s an ordinary house with a small front garden on a quiet tree-lined street. Even when her life was consumed with work for the SNC, her tools were never more sophisticated than an ordinary laptop and cell phone.

Hamou was born and raised in Canada. Her mother’s connection to this country goes back generations but Hamou always felt closely tied to her father’s country of origin. He was born and raised in Syria, was an activist, and had seen and felt the violence of the security state of Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father. He raised his four kids steeped in the politics of Syria and stories about his life there.

When news of protests in other Arab countries hit the media in 2011, Hamou became hopeful for a similar movement in Syria. She watched as widespread protests forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee Tunisia and pushed Algeria to lift a nearly two-decades long state of emergency. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak gave up his three-decade iron grip as crowds cheered in Tahrir Square and, in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government was overthrown. All over the Arab world leaders were making concessions and changes. Why not Syria?

When Hamou got the message, just after giving birth, that members of the Syrian diaspora should help, she felt that she had a role to play. Social media had become a tool for political change and Hamou figured she could make a difference, drawing on her experience working in public relations and as a political staffer in London and Ottawa. She set up a virtual office with her American counterparts and began building contacts and networks through Facebook and Twitter, working her phone and Skype for hours a day.

Syrians, excited by the possibility of change, came to those social media platforms like bees to honey, she says. Thousands of Syrian expatriates found each other online, and connected to localized networks in Syria, often through the work of people like Hamou. In those early days, she says, it was no exaggeration to say it really was a revolution through social media.

Through these platforms, Hamou and her colleagues gathered information about protests and rallies: who was being arrested and tortured, who had disappeared, and who had been killed. As the violence increased, the images and video Hamou was seeing became more brutal. The goal was to take them all in, set aside the most gory images that would be unusable in public, and get them to the media, analysts and government officials.

That work made her a target and her enemies would go on to use the same tools and networks to attack her.

Hacked and defamed

In November 2013, Hamou was at a family dinner. Her husband had convinced her to leave her phone at home so she could focus on the people around her and enjoy a few hours of relative peace. When she returned home she found her phone lit up with dozens of urgent calls and messages.

“My brother texted me and said, ‘I think you’ve been hacked,’” says Hamou. “When I asked why, he forwarded me an email that he’d just received.” The email consisted of sexually graphic pictures. Along with the pictures were comments written in the first person, ostensibly by Hamou, describing all kinds of sexual behaviours she enjoyed. Her SNC email had been taken over by adversaries.

To her horror, she realized that similar graphic emails were sent to every man in her contact list along with every person who shared her last name. She quickly turned to her Facebook and Twitter accounts to alert friends and followers about what was happening. She found that while she still had control over her Twitter account, she was locked out of Facebook.

The loss of access to her Facebook account could have terrifying consequences. Hamou was one of the administrators for the SNC’s page. If that account was commandeered, it could be disastrous. Not only would they be able to take over the SNC’s messaging, they would be able to identify and send false information to thousands of contacts, including those in Syria. Hamou sent an urgent message to the SNC’s team in Turkey that dealt with IT issues, and they immediately removed her as an administrator. The group that took over her account hadn’t tampered with any pages, but the SNC was still unsure what information might have been gleaned. It then took several weeks, and a helpful contact at Facebook through the U.S. State Department, for Hamou to regain control of her own account.

Hamou spent the next fretful hours trying to figure out how the hack happened. She went back through her recent emails and found a suspicious one. It was supposedly from a Saudi source, and it sent her to a site that asked for her password to access a video. She had typed it in. Given that a big part of her job was gathering information, Hamou was constantly clicking links and accessing files from people she didn’t recognize. “I didn’t think twice, it was the kind of email I got all the time,” she says.

Looking back, she admits that was risky behaviour. “I basically should have taken a course in how not to be dumb on the computer 101,” she says.

Hamou had been struck by what is called a spear-phishing attack. Rather than spammed “phishing” expeditions, which cast out nets of thousands or millions of messages, spear-phishing attacks are crafted to strike particular individuals or groups. The attacker reaches out to potential victims to try to hook them into divulging important pieces of information, like account names and passwords. More sophisticated attacks trick people into downloading malware onto their devices — usually by including it as an attachment in their message. Malware can hide surreptitiously on victims’ devices, and different types of malware can enable hackers to monitor keystrokes, watch and take pictures through the camera, record calls, upload location data and execute commands.

In Hamou’s case, the attackers not only wanted her accounts and contacts — they wanted to vilify her and sabotage her reputation. She says that their use of sexually explicit material to embarrass her reveals a carefully crafted plan to poison people’s minds.

“It was disgusting stuff, saying I like to have sex with animals. It was to shame me and embarrass me. They know we’re conservative Muslims and we don’t like to have our fathers and brothers reading those things. They know that once they plant those thoughts people will start to focus on those images and think about those things and then people can’t not think about you in that way.”

“They don’t always act through torture and violence,” she says.

In addition to smearing her reputation and wrestling her SNC email and Facebook accounts from her control, the hack may have posed a risk to Hamou’s colleagues, particularly those in Syria. This was a constant worry. Since 2011, several contacts inside Syria had been killed by the regime. Others had been detained and tortured. She says activists would come out of detention and tell the most awful stories about what was done to them.  “It was terrible,” she says. “To have put people at risk felt like a violation of everything we were trying to do together.”

"The attackers not only wanted her accounts and contacts—they wanted to vilify her."

Syrian activists have long talked about a campaign of hacking and harassment by actors affiliated with the Assad regime or, more recently, ISIS. The attack on Hamou was consistent with the actions of the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-Assad regime hackers that has tried to counteract anti-regime stories coming out of Syria, and which later turned to premeditated attacks against political opposition groups, news outlets and aid workers.

But the Syrian Electronic Army is far from alone in such activities. A different regime-allied group pulled off an elaborate and highly successful spear-phishing campaign several years ago, using attractive female avatars on Skype to strike up conversations with members of the Syrian opposition. The online beauties would then share “personal” photos, conveniently pre-packaged with malware that allowed attackers to access documents and Skype logs. As the cyber-security firm FireEye discovered, this information included battle plans of future opposition attacks.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs has identified five different groups that target Syrian opposition members. These include an ISIS-affiliated group whose malware operation was used to track down members of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a media group that documents ISIS abuses in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Most recently, the Citizen Lab identified a hacking attack that appears to have been conducted by an Iran-based group.

In Canada and elsewhere, it’s not clear what people can do to repair the damage or seek accountability when they are hacked by foreign actors. Mariam Hamou called the RCMP, who came and asked questions. Agents from CSIS also came and spoke to her. In the end, neither agency could tell Hamou much about what happened.

In general, hacks on individuals that come from outside of Canada are difficult for police to trace and harder for them to prosecute. And while CSIS has the mandate to investigate such matters in case they might be considered an issue of national security, they likely won’t take any disruptive action in response to an attack on an individual. (The payoff for countries to pursue tit-for-tat cyber attacks is questionable, even in high-profile cases like the Russia-backed hack on the Democratic National Committee.)

In the end, Hamou couldn’t do much more than change her passwords and be more careful where she clicked.

Social media as theatre of conflict

The hack was a sobering experience for Hamou. The apps she had used and enjoyed for years had also become platforms for propaganda wars. The Syrian government and its allies called for crackdowns on opposition activists, labelling all who opposed them as terrorists. Groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army used the same platforms to blast Assad and put out images and videos of the regime’s carnage. The Islamic State, meanwhile, focused on recruiting followers and promoting the slaughter of religious and ethnic factions.

Hamou was in the thick of a disturbing shift in the use of social media platforms. Long a space for individuals, political activists and civil society to make connections and promote their messages, social media platforms were increasingly a terrain for state and armed group propaganda, hate speech and harassment. ISIS is widely regarded as winning the social media war, through its innovative messaging strategies. Promoters of sectarianism have flourished online, generating thousands of anti-Shia and anti-Sunni messages on Twitter each day. States are in on the act as well, creating armies of cyber-trolls to push their narratives or spread misinformation. Recent analysis suggests that the Chinese government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year, and Russia’s use of net-trolls is well-documented. Western countries are also in on the game, such as the “Facebook warriors” of the British Army’s 77th brigade and GCHQ’s “Human Sciences Operations Cell.”

Facebook, Twitter and others have struggled to address their use as platforms for conflict. On one hand, social media companies and state regulators are warned against impinging on freedom of expression. In another difficult trade-off, Facebook’s policy of using real names makes it easier to identify and neutralize online trolls. The same policy, however, is a threat to online anonymity that, for some, is the last line of defence against verbal or even physical violence.

On the other hand, they are pushed to crack down on violent extremism, images of graphic violence and targeted harassment. Since the middle of 2015, Twitter has suspended 360,000 accounts for violating its policies related to promotion of terrorism, and the company claims that the “time for suspending reported accounts, the amount of time these accounts are on Twitter, and the number of followers they accumulate have all decreased dramatically.” Research backs up the claim. Facebook, too, regularly suspends accounts that are reported to violate its community standards. But Facebook and Twitter policies are themselves used by conflict actors, who report their opponents’ accounts to shut them down.

Hamou encountered these issues regularly. Supporters of the Assad regime continuously complained about the SNC’s posts and updates, saying they supported terrorism. Facebook would shut down the account and Hamou would need to petition to re-open it.

"I tried not to get too attached to people because I didn’t know if I would lose them."

But these cat and mouse games on social media didn’t get to Hamou. What did was the torrent of graphic images and videos that people sent her. She had to sift through each and every one to identify what was new or important. Often she would sit up at night, breastfeeding her baby, and with one hand would scroll through images of death and destruction. Hamou says, “I just had this baby and I’m looking at these pictures of all these dead children. My God. A body part here. A body part there. Kids with their heads cut off. And you try to think to yourself, it didn’t happen to me."  

“You feel guilty. But then you feel bad about feeling guilty. It’s a lot of emotions.”

The problem was not only the images that Hamou saw but her personal connection to people at risk. Hamou is always quick to qualify her experiences by saying what she went through was in no way comparable to the risk and trauma faced by activists inside or close to Syria. It’s a comment echoed in my conversations with other people affected by the Syrian war but who are in the U.S. or Canada: ‘I may be traumatized but others have it worse.’

To deal with fears and sorrow about injured colleagues, Hamou tried to keep an emotional distance, particularly from those in Syria who were at greatest risk. “I tried not to get too attached to people because I didn’t know if I would lose them… and then fall apart,” she says. “I’m a mom to two young children and if they see me fall apart then they fall apart.”

Hamou says she had two complete emotional breakdowns in the last five years, and it’s no wonder. Her job consisted of managing the public face of a violent and bloody conflict mostly from her living room in Canada. She was going on very little sleep – her baby had colic – and her waking hours were a blur of breastfeeding, toddler management and curating images of dead people and bombed out buildings.

“I don’t know if I felt it in the beginning because I was so tired, but I just remember wringing my hands at the end of every night. I was just like, ‘Oh my God these people.’ I thought about all the moms trying to do for their babies what I was doing.”

Hamou watched from a distance as the Syrian revolution transformed into a grinding civil war. As it consumed more and more of the country, a mass exodus began. The world watched as thousands and then millions of Syrians crossed borders in search of safety, often with mobile phones clutched in their hands to guide their escape.

The digital family

Samir Najjar
Samir Najjar. Chloë Ellingson/OpenCanada.org.

In May of 2014, Aya and Samir Najjar (not their real names) crossed into Jordan from Syria with their five children, taking the trip by taxi, foot and truck. The couple received frequent WhatsApp messages from Aya’s sister, who had already made it to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Aya, heavily pregnant with her sixth child, was terrified, and depended on her sister to tell her what to expect, step by step along the way. But even she couldn’t prepare Aya for everything. The worst part of the journey was the hours-long truck ride crammed with dozens of people with standing room only. At times the crowd pushed in so tightly Aya didn’t have enough space to stand on both feet at the same time. She still has pain in her leg from standing perched on one foot, hour after hour, trying to keep her children close to her.

The Najjars were among hundreds of thousands of refugees who relied on social media and messaging apps to guide them away from violence. At the height of the refugee exodus from Syria, it became clear that refugees and internally displaced people were turning to Facebook or other sites to learn which routes to take and which border crossings to head toward. Family and friends might send them WhatsApp or Viber messages to navigate unfamiliar forests and cities, like digital beacons for them to follow.

Almost two years after they crossed into Jordan, Aya and Samir Najjar came to Canada as government-sponsored refugees in January of 2016. They now live in a modest home on a wide street in Toronto with their six children, the youngest of whom is now two years old. Mismatched donated sofas and chairs line the walls of the living room, and the kitchen is a hodge podge of plates and utensils.

Both Aya and Samir are from the same thousand-year-old village in south-western Syria. Before the violence, the couple’s life revolved around their community and extended family. From their new home in Toronto, they struggle to maintain connections to loved ones who stayed behind. Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes the risks and limitations of these communications seem to outweigh the benefits. But the calls and texts give them some chance to maintain a fragile continuity with their old lives. Aya, more than her husband, is anguished by the loss of her old life: “I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

#RefugeesNotWelcome

Samir made the decision to leave Syria without telling his wife. It was not long after he and 150 men from his village had been arrested. He spent the next month in jail and when he was finally let out, he was told he could no longer work as a teacher. Afraid of being picked up again, he spent the next six weeks or so sleeping in different homes. One day in early 2014, Samir simply walked away from the village and didn’t stop until he reached territory held by the Free Syrian Army. Aya only found out he’d left when he called and said to pack up the kids and join him. They crossed the border together.

The family stayed for almost one month in the Azraq camp in Jordan, where Aya gave birth to her baby boy. But there was little water and no electricity. Her husband knew someone who lived in Azraq, the town adjacent to the camp. One morning they left the camp, telling the authorities they’d return in the evening. They never came back. They lived precariously in Jordan for nearly two years. In the meantime, Samir applied for asylum at three different embassies, hoping that someone would take them in and they could start their lives again.

The couple wanted to go to the West, but they also worried about the journey and about how they would be received. They heard mixed but often troubling stories about how refugees were treated as they tried to cross Europe. And they learned that Syrian refugees were sometimes vilified online, or blamed for the very violence they were in fact trying to flee.

REFUGEES ON TWITTER
Tweets welcoming and attacking Syrian refugees have appeared by the millions since the crisis began.

As refugees moved across the Middle East and on to Europe and North America, family and friends – and even a dedicated news service – provided information to help them avoid obstacles and seek asylum. Their arrival was preceded by often toxic public commentary about the dangers posed by refugees and warnings they would bring terrorism with them. While some social media campaigns, like #refugeeswelcome, were focused on showing the humanity of refugee populations and the need for compassion, others cast them in darker light. Right-wing groups from Hungary to the United Kingdom to the United States (including Donald Trump and his supporters) have portrayed refugees as economic parasites, terrorists in waiting, or both. And ISIS supporters have portrayed fleeing refugees as traitors to their religion and deserters of the Caliphate.

Aya and Samir were eventually granted asylum in Canada but it was bittersweet. They didn’t know much about this country except that it’s cold, and that coming here would mean that it would be a long time before they saw their families again. Who would they be, without the village and the family members that had been the foundations of their lives? Would this new life in Canada be the end of their old one?

Calling home to a war zone

Back in Syria, Samir had two cell phones, one of which was filled with a catalogue of his everyday life. Along with the phone numbers of everyone he knew, it also held pictures and videos of family and friends and picnics in the countryside. His favourite was a video from his younger brother’s wedding. Not long after that wedding, his brother was killed.

Samir lost the phone on the trip to Canada. He mentions it each time we meet. “I had everything on that phone,” he says. He especially misses the wedding video. He says his brother was very handsome and, as the baby of the family, loved by everyone. As we talk he suddenly sends his daughter to fetch something from his room. She returns carrying a small pink vinyl bag with a Jordanian soccer team logo. Aya unzips it to reveal the remnants of their life in Syria and their short time in Jordan.

The bag is filled with folded reports from the kids’ schools and dog-eared copies of various application forms. The couple pulls out decades-old pictures of their parents. Aya shows me a photo from when her mother went to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage. Samir waves an old Polaroid of his father sitting on a camel. The children crowd around their parents, peeking over their shoulders to look at old classroom certificates celebrating one achievement or another. Samir spreads the handful of photos on the coffee table and stares at them: “It’s all we have left.”

Momentos
A photograph of Samir Najjar's father — a momento from home. Chloë Ellingson/OpenCanada.org

Many of Samir’s closest friends have either been arrested or killed, but he tries to keep in touch with those he can track down on WhatsApp. He also tries to keep in touch with members of his extended family, spread across the Middle East and the Unites States. And he tries to get news of the village and his house in Syria. He says there’s a price to pay for reaching out to people. Conversations initially make him feel better, but they often later make him feel much worse.

Samir also worries that he will endanger the people he contacts. It is well-known that the Syrian government monitors calls and Internet activity. For that reason he never uses Facebook. He prefers WhatsApp, which introduced end-to-end message encryption this year. Even so, Samir and his friends, like many Syrians, use coded language too in case someone is eavesdropping. “The weather is clear” means that no soldiers are present, and “there is no rain” means there hasn’t been any shooting.  

Aya uses Facebook to stay on top of news about Syria. To avoid any trouble she never comments or posts anything, afraid that her words could have consequences back home. It’s not uncommon in Syria for people to be punished for what family members do or say. When Samir’s brother joined the Free Syrian Army, the government destroyed three homes of family members as punishment.

Nevertheless, while Samir was sure he could no longer stay in Syria, Aya regrets leaving. She frequently speaks of the house that she and Samir left behind. In Syria, as in other places, families build their homes over long periods of time, expanding them as the family expands. The roofs of homes often have rebar and cables sticking out and up, a nod to an imminent future when the family will grow through marriage and birth and a floor will be added on. Aya says they were getting ready to put a second floor on their house and preparing to welcome the new baby. Syria is a challenging place, she says, but life in the village was good, and that’s where she would prefer to raise her children.

"Aya has lost the feeling of happiness that came with hearing the voices of her mother or sisters."

Painfully for Aya, her children appear to be slowly forgetting their lives in Syria. The toddler’s words are half Arabic, half English. It’s bad enough that her country and extended family have been left behind, now her children’s connection to her homeland is fading before her eyes. She tries to coax the children into speaking to her family back in their village several times a week. The connection is often poor and they don’t get much past ‘How are you?’

Aya has lost the feeling of happiness that came with hearing the voices of her mother or sisters. She feels compelled to speak to them, just to make sure they’re OK and to hear a familiar voice, but the exchanges often leave her deeply sad. These and other virtual connections make her loss all that more palpable. “It’s emotionally very difficult for me to have all of them over there and be here by myself.”

She hasn’t had a decent conversation with her father since she left, either. He has a government job and is too scared to talk to her. He just listens to Aya’s voice, then hangs up. It always takes her several moments to realize the line has gone dead.

The digital humanitarian

NuDay
Nadia Alawa. Photo by Josh Gerritsen, from his short film Alison and NuDay Syria: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFtBBg8Q_40#action=share

Nadia Alawa posts a picture to Facebook of a young child with a dirt-smudged face and wide eyes. The child, barefoot, is wearing pink pants and a pink t-shirt. She’s perched on top of a small cardboard box filled with donated clothes at a distribution centre in northern Syria. The clothes are part of a larger shipment sent from New Hampshire that include warm blankets and jackets, boots and tarps to help displaced Syrians prepare for the coming winter. One by one the “likes” build and people begin commenting with commitments for in-kind donations or volunteer hours to wrap, pack and load containers for the next shipment. This pattern of post, collect, pack and send repeats over and over throughout the year.

In the same way Mariam Hamou decided she was ‘all in’ on the political front, Alawa chose to be all in on the humanitarian front. While Hamou used digital media to publicize details of the Assad regime’s brutality and push for political change, Alawa uses the same tools to aid those most profoundly affected by the violence. Her New Hampshire-based humanitarian organization, NuDay Syria, has proven to be a tremendously effective small-scale relief operation. Each month they ship tonnes of food, clothes, sports gear and educational materials into the war zone.

Remarkably, Alawa runs the operation almost entirely on Facebook and WhatsApp. It’s a strategy that would have been inconceivable a few years ago, and it underscores the fact that digital connections to conflict can provide opportunities for good as well as ill.

From Facebook posts to aid convoys

When Alawa first joined Facebook she barely used it. With a laugh, she tells me she did it to “be a hip mom” when her daughter went off to college.

When the revolution started she wanted alternate sources of information and started looking for news on Facebook. She soon found a page called ‘We Are All Hamza al-Khateeb,’ named for the 13-year-old boy from Daraa who was arrested at a protest on April 29, 2011. Almost one month later his lifeless body was sent to his parents, after having been beaten, burned, tortured and mutilated. He quickly became a symbol of resistance. Posts on the tribute page became a key way for Alawa to get information and form networks.

Facebook is at the centre of NuDay Syria’s work. Scroll through its page and you’ll see pictures, posts and calls to action, along with a steady stream of people asking to have their names added to lists of volunteers who can help pack containers with donated food, clothing, toys and medical supplies which are then shipped to Turkey. From Turkey the containers are trucked to the Syrian border where NuDay Syria’s partners distribute goods in besieged areas around Damascus, in the “liberated north,” and in small isolated villages.

NuDay Syria
NuDay Syria. Courtesy Facebook.com

NuDay Syria’s aid is focused on women and girls, it was founded by women, and the board is made up almost entirely of women. “That’s important for me,” says Alawa. In Syria, women and girls are among the most vulnerable. Sexual exploitation is a problem and early marriage has become more commonplace as parents try to shield their daughters from sexual violence by marrying them off at ever-younger ages, often to much older men.

Alawa’s main concern is making sure that resources can get to Syria without anyone being harmed. She built her network inside Syria with the same methodical discipline that permeates her life. She reached out to ex-pats, local survivors of regime persecution, and activists from the early days of the revolution. They, in turn, helped her access people at the very local level who could be trusted partners on the ground. Despite the chaos in those parts of Syria that she targets, she has a fairly clear sense of what is happening and how to get aid there.

NuDay Syria’s aid is part in-kind donations and part funding programs. Alawa says they work closely within the recommendations of the United States’ Department of Treasury, keeping detailed documentation of how goods and money move and where it all ends up. Broad sanctions placed upon Syria by the US and Canadian governments, designed to weaken the Syrian regime, make it illegal to send some goods. And don’t bother trying to send money to Syria, she says—banks make it difficult to send money even to Turkey.

When Nadia Alawa started this work she thought it was just the next thing she’d be working on and would move on to something else soon enough. For individuals and organizations focused on Syria, in those early days there was a sense the violence would abate and the government and opposition would come to a political solution. Alawa felt she could keep an emotional distance. But as six months turned into a year and then became two years, she realized she had to learn to deal with the horror.

“I had never looked at even a dead pet before the revolution, much less a dead human being. But I decided that in order to fully comprehend the level of suffering and the depth of killing and annihilation, I had to face what was happening in Syria on a daily basis. I started looking at the images of children who had been killed and other victims,” she says.

"In those early days there was a sense the violence would abate..."

Despite her toughness and strong personality, she was initially overwhelmed by the images of people’s suffering and need. She says she couldn’t eat or sleep, and found herself getting emotionally distant from her family. She is now better at handling the images of war, but she won’t watch videos of shelling and rescue work. She says those images have a way of making you feel utterly helpless.

Alawa is well aware of the fickle nature of attention from the international community, and now thinks NuDay Syria will be needed for at least 25 years. The work needs to keep going even when the world is no longer interested in Syria. “I can’t compete with world powers or with huge organizations but I can reach some people,” she says.

With that mission in mind, Alawa posts a new appeal asking people to help feed women and children in Aleppo where regime bombs have reduced parts of the city to dust. The likes start piling up and, soon, people begin committing their money and time. As the numbers grow and the comments gather, Alawa begins working her networks and figuring out how to reach the most vulnerable yet again.

No end in sight?

There is no sign the Syrian war will end soon or that any kind of political breakthrough is imminent. The focus has mostly shifted from finding a political solution to managing the human toll of the war.

Digital tools have enabled people to stay in touch even in the most chaotic places inside Syria. It is not uncommon to see real time tweeting from active frontlines, or for a journalist to reach a soldier or fighter via WhatsApp in the immediate aftermath of a skirmish. People in besieged areas of Aleppo are still able to offer the world a look into the hell they live in.

Nadia Alawa continues to spend entire days on Facebook and WhatsApp looking to reach those in greatest need. Aya and Samir continue to reach out to family and friends, not knowing if each connection will be a wound or salve for their ruptured lives. Mariam Hamou, so hopeful at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, is conflicted about whether all the death and chaos is a reasonable price to pay for an attempt at living freely. She thinks about the trade-off constantly. “Maybe we shouldn’t have done this revolution because so many people died. But then maybemaybeit will turn out for the better.”

Hamou has stepped away from her activism to focus on her family’s well-being, and her own. But she still feels a surge of excitement and dread, not knowing what will follow, when a new email pings its arrival.


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