As the refugee crisis in Europe steadily worsens, the gutsy few that are heading against the wave, back toward their home countries, are often absent from the picture.
Zaina Erhaim is one such intrepid individual. Having traveled to London in 2010 to pursue an M.A. in international journalism from City College, she watched from her television just months later as people from across Syria took to the streets to demand the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad’s. The ensuing violence and all-encompassing chaos, strangely, left her itching to return home. She wanted to use her expertise as a journalist to teach those skills to others, to help out in any way she could.
Just recently, Zaina was awarded the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism after single-handedly training 100 Syrian citizens in journalism. Syria Deeply spoke to Zeina on Skype recently about her decision to return to her war-torn homeland and what things are like these days on the ground in Aleppo.
Syria Deeply: When and why did you decide to come back to Syria?
Zaina Erhaim: I never thought of living outside of Syria. When I left in 2010 to get my M.A. in London, I told all my friends that I was coming back and that I would never live away from Syria. When the revolution started, I was almost done with my studies, and as soon as I finished, I returned to Damascus. I first worked with the BBC, and although I had to travel a lot for my job and for personal reasons, I never stayed away for longer than six months. Starting in 2013, I was moving between Turkey and the liberated areas of Latakia and Deir Ezzor. One year later, I moved to live in Aleppo.
I returned because I belong to Syria. I felt it was my responsibility to help my country and my people. I knew that I would not be able to help if I was far away. Additionally, the death and arrest of many friends made me feel intensely that I must do something. It is hard to explain this feeling – my mother calls it addiction.
Syria Deeply: Why did you choose Aleppo and what was your goal?
Zaina Erhaim: When I returned, Aleppo hadn’t been liberated yet. I felt that Aleppo would be the best place for me to work since I share a social and educational background with many of the activists who live there. I thought that having such a network would help me endure war, fear and the increasingly conservative society.
When I left London, my goal was to go back to Syria – the city didn’t matter. All I wanted was to help, and since I had just finished my masters in journalism, I thought the best thing to do was to go back and work in my field of study. I believed that I should help in every possible way. In addition to my work in journalism, I help with translation. I’ve also trained activists not only in journalism, but sometimes in how to write an email or how to write an official letter. Help can be achieved in many ways. I mean, I’ve cooked for my activist friends who are living far away from their families for a long time. I help out wherever I can. Once, I filled in at a friend’s wedding because his mother lived in a regime-controlled area and couldn’t [make it through the checkpoints] in order to attend. Some of my happiest moments are when I help friends of mine get jobs here in Syria, so that they can secure income and so that they don’t have to leave the country.
Syria Deeply: What was the situation in the city when you arrived?
Zaina Erhaim: The situation two years ago was very different from today, and although it was very bad, it was much better than it is today. There was a little bit of freedom of movement and much more revolutionary activism. Aleppo today is in complete chaos. Death is literally everywhere. When Christoph Reuter from Der Spiegel visited me in Aleppo, he told me that we all looked as if we were dead. He was right. We might not be physically dead, but we are dead in many other ways.
People in Aleppo have proven that they are incredibly resilient. They continue to live despite all the chaos around them. When ISIS blocked fuel, for example, people turned to bicycles. Car owners turn their cars into cabs. We see little buses with broken windows filled with people running everywhere. People continue with their lives until the helicopters come back. That’s when everything stops. Everybody looks up to the skies. A friend of mine says that when there is an airplane in the sky, you could pee in the street and nobody would even notice. The hardest part is that people listen to walkie-talkie chatter in order to learn the airplane’s route and whether there are any more explosive barrels left to be thrown on them. It’s absurd.
Syria Deeply: What is your work and what is its importance?
Zaina Erhaim: I help media activists get their voices and words heard. Many activists are killed while recording a video. If and when their cameras are ever recovered, people don’t get to watch it until much later on, on a site like YouTube. This is not fair. If these activists were foreign journalists, their lives would’ve had value. I am part of a big network of people who are still working for Syria and for Syrian people.
Syria Deeply: Tell us about your daily life in Aleppo.
Zaina Erhaim: My house is in the Salah al-Din neighborhood. I spend my time between work and friends. We have some social and educational activities, but since we established the My Space Center for women, I’ve been spending most of my time there. The center is an internet cafe for women that provides them with training on how to use the internet, social media and emails. The focus is on how women can search and find jobs online. I founded the center in cooperation with the organization, but now a young woman named Zein, who was recently released from the regime’s prisons, is in charge of it.
Syria Deeply: What have the local reactions in Aleppo to the Russia’s military intervention in Syria been like?
Zaina Erhaim: Everybody is angry, but unfortunately, no one can change anything. It has become clear to us, over the past four years, that Russia is an enemy of the Syrian people. Their intervention means that Assad is not going anywhere. While the rest of the world treats all Sunnis as terrorists, the Shiite militias, like the Iraqi militias and Hezbollah, are backed by states. My friends and I believe that by not fighting against al-Assad and those who fight on his side, and by only fighting ISIS, the world fuels terrorism and transforms every Syrian into a potential terrorist.
Syria Deeply: Living in Aleppo now, do you see the divide? Is there more normalcy on the government-controlled western side?
Zaina Erhaim: People in liberated Aleppo go shopping, but with their eyes looking up in constant fear of sudden, violent death. Of course, there are not any places for people to party, and restaurants are very rare and very expensive. There is life in the liberated areas as well. It is a different kind of life – a life that, in my opinion, is stronger and deeper than most people think.
Syria Deeply: Aleppo was listed last year as the most dangerous city in the world. What’s been the toughest experience for you since returning?
Zaina Erhaim: The airplanes and the explosive barrels are the things that scare me most. I’ve been through many experiences in which I was very close to death. But the hardest is when a barrel falls and kills women and children. We get there to help and we feel guilty that the barrel missed us.
Syria Deeply: What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to stay in Aleppo?
Zaina Erhaim: I do not know what will happen tomorrow. I do know, however, that I do not want to leave Syria and that I cannot go back to Damascus any time soon.
Syria Deeply: How do you imagine the future for Syria?
Zaina Erhaim: I am swamped with details and I do not have the time or the ability to think of the bigger picture. All I dream of right now is for the bombs to stop, and this will not happen until the world realizes that ISIS is a symptom and not a cause, and that in order to get rid of ISIS, the world should get rid of the regime first.
Top image: Zaina Erhaim stands in front of a wall that reads: “Swear allegiance to whoever you want, I swore allegiance to my country. And the people scream freedom … freedom.” (Zaina Erhaim/Syria Deeply)