Lebanon News

Syrian refugees unite to keep revolt alive

The word “freedom” is painted on the faces of the youngest refugees. (The Daily Star/Grace Kassab)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: In a small fabric store in Tripoli, Mustafa Saadeddine and Burhan Mousa Agha are preparing for the day’s rally supporting the Syrian uprising.

They have drawn up a stack of posters calling for the end of the regime.“Stop massacre in Homs” reads one, and “Stop the butchering” reads another. Against the wall leans a stack of pre-Baathist era flags and an amplifier.

Saadeddine and Mousa Agha are the rank and file of young Syrian activists who have organized into a sophisticated network to provide aid for refugees, spread the news from cities under siege and support the friends and family they have left behind. They work in spite of their uncertain welcome in Lebanon, where activists are allegedly kidnapped and President Bashar Assad’s security services are believed to be tracking refugee families.

Syrian Activists have banded together across north Lebanon, creating the Coordination Committee for Syrian Refugees. A small administrative council oversees the aid and activism work they do.

The Tripoli headquarters is modest: The walls are adorned with tassel samples and the back room is stocked with reams of fabric. Saadeddine and Mousa Agha sleep upstairs with their six other colleagues on thin cushions arranged in a rectangle in one room. Drying laundry hangs in the adjacent storage room and sewing machines line the walls.

But it’s here that dreams of regime change cultivated in Syria are again looking to take root.

“The Syrian people don’t have a voice,” 27-year-old Mousa Agha from Homs says. He’s taking it on himself to give them one.

Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee the bloody crackdown in response to the uprising against Assad’s rule. Many have taken refuge in Tripoli, which has strong family and religious ties to Syria’s western cities such as Homs.

Downtown, under the city’s central clock tower, taxi drivers cry out offers for rides to Homs, and Syrian revolution flags flutter outside several shops.

Tripoli is perhaps the safest place in the country for refugees, but it’s not nearly as safe as it seems.

Last month protests against the Syrian government ended in three days of gun battles against Assad’s supporters in the Lebanese port city.

But the idea of operating in other cities such as Beirut, with its many groups sympathetic to the regime, including Hezbollah and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, is unconscionable for the activists.

Even other areas like Hermel and the Bekaa city of Zahle have seen a recent spate of kidnappings of refugees.

“It’s safe but not so safe, but if you look to other places in Lebanon it’s more safe in Tripoli and Akkar,” says 26-year-old Saadeddine.

On a warm Sunday at the end of February the activists’ leader joins them in the fabric store’s lobby to hold forth on plans for the afternoon’s rally.

Polished and dressed in black rimmed glasses and a neatly arranged scarf, Amin Mando looks like a graduate student at university. But the 27-year-old, who owns the store, never attended high school and now cares for the 1,066 families that make up the Syrian refugee community in Tripoli.

Because of his strong ties to a number of families in Homs, Mando is responsible for spreading a small pool of resources to a fast growing community in need of shelter, heating and food.

But Mando’s network and other local organizations responsible for caring for the majority of Syrian refugees are running out of resources.

Their leaders travel with small wads of cash provided by local families and religious organizations, while lower level workers live on a more day-to-day basis. Other funding sources have yet to materialize.

“I have a dream that what the Syrian regime is saying, that all the Arab nations are giving money to Syrians, that that will come true,” Mando says.

A few hours after noon Mando, Saadeddine, Mousa Agha and the other activists from the fabric shop pile themselves and their banners, flags and loud speaker into two cars and drive to the rally site at the International Committee for the Red Cross office in Tripoli.

Unlike past rallies which brought together Lebanese and Syrians for the cause, this demonstration is for the refugee community alone.

Mando didn’t want trouble during the rally and knew the skittish refugee community would only turn out if they felt safe. Mando put out word to the refugee community the week before about the rally for the uprising.

And people do turn up, by twos and threes at first and then by car and bus loads, about 200 in all.

Women line up on one side, men on the other and children get their face painted in opposition colors and the word “freedom.”

Mostly from Homs, the people feel relatively safe here away from the daily shelling, but they aren’t entirely at ease either.

Eventually Mousa Agha, a long flowing black bandanna tied around his head, climbs up on the wrought iron fence surrounding the ICRC.

He bellows into the amplifier and fists and voices from the crowd pound the air in response. Calling out the names of the neighborhoods in Homs under siege, “Bab Sabeh, we are with you until death ... Inshaat we are with you until death,” he cries and the crowd chants back.

Saadeddine is in the crowd smiling, arms locked with fellow protesters. They sway back and forth to the rhythm of the chants.

The opposition flags wave, as do banners of the Islamic shahadah.

The media presence is small and the protesters are mostly performing for each other and the cell phone and pocket cameras that have become the identifying marks of Arab revolutions across the region.

The normally quiet and soft spoken Mando takes his turn on the microphone. He pumps his fist and yells out into the microphone.

“We obey you God,” he chants with the crowd. “God is the greatest.”

“We are the voice of Homs,” the people chant.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 29, 2012, on page 5.




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