I grew up in Damascus. My son and daughter grew up there too, in one of the oldest parts of the old city -- a neighborhood where Christianity goes so far back that it was a five minute walk from our home to the Chapel of St. Paul, which incorporates materials from an ancient city gate through which Paul was lowered in Biblical times.
I have devoted my life to seeking avenues for non-violent conflict resolution in a Middle East that is so often torn apart by violence. For decades, as a lawyer, I have worked to help people who had to leave Syria for economic reasons or because their political views have put them at risk. I stood in a court in Damascus by the side of Michel Kilo, a Syrian human rights activist, as he was charged with "crimes." I spoke out for the rights of women and citizens. I have always wanted Syria to be a democratic state.
For a long time, I believed that we would achieve a revolution, peacefully, from within. I believed that pressure against the right officials and support for particular initiatives would gradually widen the freedom that we Syrians enjoyed. I believed that one day this quiet emancipation would reveal itself -- perhaps in a free and open election.
But then the revolution began. And what started with peaceful protests against the government, in solidarity with revolutions sweeping Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, became violent after government forces detained, tortured, and killed some village children who had been participating in a protest. It was too much -- too much for all of us.
In the name of peace and security, we could (and did) accept a lot: our phones tapped, muhabberat (secret police) following us in the street, even certain kinds of sectarian prejudice. After all, we did not want to become like Iraq after the American invasion.
But what people, what parents, could stand by and live in a country where, when you send your child off to school in the morning, they may be tortured and killed by the government that is supposed to protect you?
I have lived in Toronto for some years now, but since the beginning of the revolution my heart and mind have been with my fellow Syrians. From the first day I knew it was my responsibility to stand with the oppressed against oppression -- after all, isn't that what it means to be a Christian?
One effect of the decades of dictatorial repression under the Assad regime is that ordinary Syrians have little to no experience with ground-level political and civil organization. As a conflict resolution expert, I have been leading courses on conflict resolution in the liberated areas of Syria and in the refugee camps beyond Syria's borders, trying to empower youth to work together to rebuild civil society.
Every two months or so, I have been going to the liberated areas of Syria and the refugee camps to help my fellow Syrians, bringing humanitarian supplies collected from my Torontonian friends (Canadian and Syrian-Canadian). We have delivered medicine, toys and winter cloths to the people trapped in the Turkish refugee camps, and spend time with the Syrian refugees teaching conflict resolution and capacity building. It is from those refugees that I have been taught what it means to be a good human being and what it means to actually practice humanity.
When someone asks me if I prefer cancer (their reference to al Qaeda) or an infection (referring to the Syrian regime), I want to tell them that they are comparing evil to evil, and that they are forgetting the activists on the grounds who have no affiliation with either group.
Since the beginning of the revolution the civil actors and nonviolent activists have been on the ground, calling for freedom and for liberty.
The Syrian regime replied to revolutionaries who came bearing water and flowers with military squads and chemical weapons. Today, those civil activists are dead, in prison, scattered across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, or fighting for asylum in Europe. Or like Giath Matar, one of the founders of the nonviolent movement who started by giving security forces water and flowers, they have been tortured to death.
The more starvation, the more destruction carried out against Syria and the more deafening the silence of the world to their plight, the greater the foothold for extremists in Syria. During my last trip to Aleppo I was with my friend Ghassan Yassin, chanting in a demonstration that was celebrating the liberation of the Mineg Airport. Abu Steif and Rifat and Hussein were with me, carrying the green flag of the Syrian revolution. A foreign extremist approached and asked Ghassan to carry the black flag, but Ghassan and Abu Steif said that all flags should be the green flag.
Abu Steif has been busy for the last month recording his TV show The Three Stars of Revolution. Rifaat and his friends created media reports. Ghassan and Abu Steif built a beautiful garden in Aleppo called "Hope" so that the children of Aleppo might have a place to go and play. Every time I arrived at the liberated area I find things have changed -- more of the civil activists, my friends, are dead or disappeared. And there is always more destruction.
When the West asks whether we prefer cancer of an infection, I say they are both cancer, and because of the silence of the world and the ignorance of the West, both are killing our activists, our friends.
I named the last course I ran in Aleppo after one of the martyrs who died the same day I finished the course: Hassan, who was killed by the Assad regime. Two weeks ago I learned that his brother had been killed by an al Qaeda-affiliated group.
While Abu Steif was busy working on the Hope Garden in Aleppo, he was kidnapped by an al Qaeda group. He is also on a wanted list generated by the Assad regime.
When the West sees the news of a fight in Syria between the Syrian regime and al Qaeda they forget that the Syrian regime prefers to bomb a school in Al-Raq rather than an al Qaeda center. They forget that the same names, the same activists, the same Syrians, and being killed by both.
I don't know where the al Qaeda group is holding Abu Steif, or why they killed Hassan or the humanitarian women working in Aleppo.
All I know is that all the civilian activists involved in the Syrian revolution are targets of both the Assad regime and al Qaeda. Who is the cancer and who is the infection, I don't know.
But I do know that they are both killing Syria.