Across the world people have grown numb to the seething cauldron of Syria. The conflict has gone on too long, simmering painfully and continuously, for its choking aroma to attract anything more than a passing comment. The concoction’s many conflicting ingredients confuse the mind and blur moral certainties, offering little to people who increasingly seem to desire only black and white principles and easy solutions.
Syria has become a byword for endless and bewildering conflict where the West dare not tread. It is referred to as the untreatable cause of the EU migrant crisis, the unstable and violent Muslim world as represented by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Jarosław Kaczyński, the incompetence and inability of the United States and the West in the face of an antagonistic Russia and Iran, and the definition of a failed state. For Mr Imad Kosa and Dr Ammar Kahf of the Syrian Forum, though, Syria is more. Syria is need. Syria is opportunity. Syria is home.
I spoke with Kosa and Kahf on a clear, sunny day at the Syrian Forum’s Istanbul offices situated halfway up a steep hill in Beşiktaş on the European side of the city. The office is one of seven located across Turkey and Syria, and serves as the headquarters for Fener, Omran, and AlSouria, three of the six non-profit organizations that make up the Syrian Forum. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr Imad Kosa, the Deputy Executive Director of Fener, and Dr Ammar Kahf, the Executive Director of Omran and one of the founders of the Syrian Forum.
Through its consortium of non-profits, the Syrian Forum works “to serve the Syrian cause in all aspects of life, and empower Syrians to overcome the challenges and set the ground for the establishment of a society of justice and dignity that is founded on internal capacities.” This entails supporting Syrians both inside and outside Syria in fields ranging from the distribution of food to the creation of Syrian sport schools for refugees to assistance in the creation and maintenance of local administration councils. The six organizations within the Syrian Forum focus on different aspects of their mission, with Ihsan working on direct relief and development, AlSouria serving as a media platform for the Syrian opposition, Bousla focusing on the training of locals in Syria and the creation of civil society, and Rizk working to rehabilitate Syrian refugees living in Turkey and help them become self-sustaining.
Meanwhile, Fener, which means “beacon” or “lantern” in both Turkish and Arabic, promotes Syrian integration into Turkish society through theater and arts programs as well as other miscellaneous assistance. Omran, a term that in both Turkish and Arabic refers to the construction of a prosperous society through human development, is a think tank that promotes understanding of Syria and the region and writes policy papers to support the work of local councils within Syria.
The work of each of these organizations deserves in-depth discussion, but since most are focused on work inside Syria or near the Syrian border, I decided to focus on Fener and Omran, both of which are based in Istanbul.
Within moments of arriving at the Syrian Forum, it was clear to me that this was, for lack of a better phrase, the real deal. To hear Kosa and Kahf discuss their stories and their work was to be a part of the Syrian revolution and the exodus of refugees and the struggle toward national renewal that has followed.
As Mr Kosa describes the difficult journey he and his family undertook to reach Turkey, he tells me that, although it has been a few years, he “can still hear the bombs as if they were now.” My translator, a woman who before the conflict worked for a pharmaceutical company in Deraa, a city in southern Syria where the protests against Assad began, stops translating for a moment to interject her own thoughts, “I think so many Syrians need psychological assistance. We keep having nightmares; we keep hearing the sounds [of bombs]… You can’t control it.”
Fener focuses its efforts entirely on Syrian refugees within Turkey like my translator and Kosa. As Kosa sees it, governments in the West are, for the most part, doing a good job supporting the refugees in their countries, but “the Turkish government is not able to support this number of refugees.” That number, by the way, is estimated at 2 to 3 million in a country of 75 million. While this has not reached the jaw-dropping ratio of refugees present in Lebanon, where about 1 in 5 people are Syrian refugees, this is nonetheless a huge amount for the government of a developing nation.
Fener began as a project under the aegis of Omran that was dedicated to bringing together all of Syria’s ethnicities through arts and theater and then broken off and expanded into a separate entity. While the Syrian Forum’s Ihsan and Rizk provide direct relief and training for refugees, Fener provides more psychological support. Kosa explained, “We are being threatened by the breaking of the fabric of Syria. What we are focusing on is reminding people that we are all together. Regardless of ethnicity, regardless of being Kurd, being Turkmen, being anything…” I asked whether Fener included religious differences in its work, and Kosa told me that no, religion was not their focus, though it “is included” as part of ethnicity. The plays the kids perform “refer indirectly to different [ethnicities] and religions” and the idea that “the Syrians are all one.”
“We are being threatened by the breaking of the fabric of Syria. What we are focusing on is reminding people that we are all together. Regardless of ethnicity, regardless of being Kurd, being Turkmen, being anything…” -Mr Imad Kosa
Fener also offers a comprehensive guide for Syrians arriving in Turkey.
Imagine arriving in a country as a refugee. I personally have trouble doing this. I have traveled to many countries, but always for work, for study, or for leisure. I arrive in the airport with a hotel and a return flight booked. Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey and other countries are faced with innumerable challenges making surviving, let alone thriving, an arduous struggle. Questions abound. Where do you go? Where are you allowed to go? Where can you get food, water, and shelter? What do you do with your kids? How can you enroll them in school? Where can you find a job?
In Turkey, the answers to these questions are even harder to find for Syrian refugees because they speak Arabic while Turks speak Turkish. Fener has tried to make this process manageable with their “Syrian Guide,” essentially an FAQ section for refugees on how to live and prosper in Turkey.
“This is why we are always trying to reach Syrians… trying to tempt them to stay here in Turkey… because once the war is over they [refugees in Turkey] are very close to go back to Syria, but those in Europe are more likely to stay there…. So we are stopping the brain drain of Syrians. That is basically the focus of the Syrian Forum in general.” -Mr Imad Kosa
Omran, the think tank of the Forum, offers solutions to the problems faced by Syrians both inside and outside Syria. When I first heard that Omran was a think tank, it made me think of academics writing policy proposals and research papers from afar; useful, yes, but also rather detached from happenings on the ground. Omran is not like this. In founding the organization, Dr Ammar Kahf decided that “everything we do has to be something that can be used by people.” Omran is not a place for platitudes. It is a place for ideals and dreams to be converted into reality.
Kahf was living in Los Angeles, California when anti-government protests began in Syria. Early on, he got involved in Syrian-American organizations such as the Syrian Emergency Task Force and the Syrian-American Council in the United States. Later, he and a few other Syrian-American friends “took it upon [themselves] to be a part of the process” toward sustainable political and economic development in Syria. Thus the Syrian Forum and, eventually, Omran were born.
On the birth of the Syrian Forum, Kahf told me that, at the outset of the Syrian revolution, the need for human development was immediately apparent. Kahf and other Syrian-Americans tried to help meet that need. “For any sustainable type of recovery and development in Syria,” he explained, “there needs to be a minimum level of human development…. Perhaps not on the education level because most Syrians have a high education level, but more on the social society skill sets, on the capacity to administer services to people… So we helped local councils to establish.”
This was no small feat. As Kahf put it, “After 25 years of being kept in the dark, now [citizens] had the chance to take ownership of their own cities.” For years, opposing government policies and offering your own opinion was responded to with subjugation and threats. Now those ideas and opposition were needed to establish a post-Assad government. “In a lot of places in Syria, all of the sudden the regime moved out,” and Kahf and the Syrian Forum “felt that the only way to reestablish order on a grassroots level was to actually work with the grassroots and empower people to be able to govern themselves…. So we worked with Syrians and have helped establish over nine hundred local councils since 2012.”
“It is wherever there is a vacuum of power and anarchy that terrorism and radicalism breed.” -Dr Ammar Kahf
Omran has played an important supporting role in this work. At Omran, Kahf and other researchers “help decision-makers in those local councils make the right choices and decisions.” They “research experiments and experiences of other local councils in similar countries that have transitioned from state of war to state of stability.” They take this information and research and use it to present solution. Beyond issuing policy papers to local councils, Kahf and the others “hold workshops, roundtables, seminars, and… hold bi-monthly webinars with local councils across Syria.” They present on topics such as “what a federalist state structure is [and] what a decentralized state structure is.”
Kahf was quick to say that the Syrian Forum could not claim all the credit for local councils. Other organizations and people also helped. But Kahf thinks that the Syrian Forum is “one of the unique organizations that have a complete set of services… able to offer more things to local councils. Not materials, not funding, but more training, more capacity building…” For instance, through Omran, they published papers on the best tax structures that local councils could implement, on how to legitimize councils, on how to deal with an unstable electorate, on how council-member resignations should be dealt with.
As a guiding philosophy, Omran believes in “empowering local populations to take control of their own destinies and enable a formation of a free, democratic, plural society.” Beyond that, though, Omran focuses on the practical. As Kahf puts it, what local councils have to provide is “not speeches, not rhetoric, not secular, not Islamic… [local councils] have to provide services, full stop.”
“Not speeches, not rhetoric, not secular, not Islamic… [local councils] have to provide services, full stop.” -Dr Ammar Kahf
The Syrian Forum has faced myriad challenges in its short life. From the beginning, it has faced a challenging environment within Syria, with continued bombardment of many towns by government forces and ISIS takeover of others. In areas taken over by ISIS, some council-members have been killed, others have fled, while the rest have gone into hiding. In other towns, local councils face the innumerable challenges of everyday governance compounded by a still fragile civil society.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Forum itself has continuously faced difficulty finding adequate funding. One of the biggest issues it faces is that “a lot of international donors are giving zero [funding for overhead]…. They will only pay the direct cost of administering those grants, and no overhead. And this makes you unable to grow the size of your organization and handle higher levels of grants.” While it is understandable that donors want grants to benefit the people in need, there seems to be a common unwillingness to fund the creation and operating costs of the organizations that actually provide that aid directly. Too often people seem to forget that the overhead costs are essential in creating a well-run, professional organization.
The Syrian Forum itself, a consortium of six financially and legally independent but cooperating non-profits, is, in fact, a solution to this problem. “The unique model that we have allowed us to minimize this challenge by having six entities… being sister companies.” The non-profits are able to share experience, expertise, and operating costs, enabling it to remain professional despite its lack of grants for operating costs.
“The unique model that we have allowed us to minimize this challenge by having six entities… being sister companies.” -Dr Ammar Kahf
This still has not made it much easier to find grants. According to Kahf, governments virtually refuse to grant money directly to the Syrian Forum and other Syrian NGOs working directly on the ground, preferring instead to give the money to trusted middlemen who dole it out minus their own operating costs to Syrian organizations.
Despite the many challenges that the Syrian Forum has faced, the good work that people like Mr Imad Kosa and Dr Ammar Kahf are doing is palpable. If the roadblocks placed in front of it were removed, it would be remarkable to see what it would be capable of.