Highlighting the humanitarian impacts of the Syrian crisis with Celine Kasem

12 years have passed since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, during which millions of people have been displaced. In this episode, Celine speaks about the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the politicisation of aid and the treatment of Syrian refugees. (*this transcript has been edited for the website)

Can you tell us about the work of the Syrian Emergency Task Force?

The Syrian Emergency Task Force was founded based on the Syrian crisis and everything that’s happened since 2011 to this day. Our work is mostly political, advocacy and accountability but we also do humanitarian work as well and ever since the earthquake happened on February 6th we’ve been responding to the earthquake as a humanitarian organisation.

We’ve also been working on a lot of cases with the Syrian international community all around the world, just yesterday there was a case opened in France and we helped with that. The organization is based in D.C. but we’re kind of all around the world at the same time.

There is one thing I would like to highlight. What happened in Syria is not a war. It’s not a civil war. It started in March 2011, and people were inspired by the Arab Spring. In the regions surrounding them, Egypt, Libya and Tunis, people came out and were protesting for freedom and for their dignity.

In Syria, people saw this and they were inspired. It was children that came out and wrote on the walls of their school, Ejak el door ya Doctor or your turn is next doctor. They were just kids; they didn’t know what was going to come out of this. They had no idea. They didn’t know how deadly this regime is. So, they wrote this on the wall and then the next day they were arrested and tortured and some of them killed. I couldn’t imagine myself in the shoes of their parents.

People were peacefully protesting in the streets with flowers and with water in their hands and they just said we want freedom, we want dignity, and we don’t want to be oppressed by this regime. They were peacefully protesting but the Assad regime met them with bullets, harassment, and torture so it was not really a civil war it was a dictatorial regime that killed anyone that opposed it.

More than half of the Syrian population is outside of Syria right now. Half of the population has been displaced by the Assad regime. They have been forced to leave their homes and everything they’ve ever known. It has tortured and killed their children. There are so many people who have disappeared, and their families know nothing about them.

It’s understandable that the world doesn’t know the reality, but it’s not a civil war. The regime is much stronger and killed so many. A civil war has to be two equal entities, and in Syria that was not the case.

It’s been 12 years now since the start of the crisis. Can you tell us about the humanitarian crisis and how it’s unfolded in Syria since 2011 to the point we’re at now?

Since the beginning of 2011, Assad besieged certain towns if they were controlled by the opposition. He wouldn’t allow any food, or any provisions humans need to live in the besieged areas that had thousands of people living in them who were being bombed every single day. Assad besieged these areas along with Russia, Iran and their allies and no humanitarian aid would be allowed to enter.

When the UN came, they would bring aid to Syria, but there has been evidence to show this regime and Asma al-Assad have stolen this aid and resold it. There has been obvious evidence of this all over the internet and if you know about this regime and the people in the government this won’t surprise you at all. If they’re killing people, what does it matter if they’re also stealing the aid that’s coming into the areas where they’re killing?

We don’t even need to mention how badly the UN responded to northwest Syria and how badly they were ignored and humiliated.

Northwest Syria is held by the rebels or is held by the opposition and it’s also a besieged area with a couple of cross borders that can be accessed from Turkey. These borders can be used to bring in aid, but they’re controlled by the UN and when the earthquake happened, the UN waited seven days to get approval from Bashar Al-Assad who has no control over those borders.

We don’t even need to mention how badly the UN responded to northwest Syria and how badly they were ignored and humiliated. The people thought because it was a natural disaster and not Assad killing us maybe the UN will come in and help us. Maybe they won’t see it as a political situation, maybe they’ll see it as a humanitarian situation. These people only have very limited resources and they needed around $50,000 worth of diesel and fuel to dig bodies out of the rubble. There were thousands of people trapped underneath the buildings and you could hear them. Their families could hear them trapped under the rubble, but they couldn’t do anything because they didn’t have the right equipment.

The White Helmets were the only on-the-ground civil defence organisation helping to dig people out, but they only had access to limited equipment. They didn’t have enough for people affected by the earthquake. Northwest Syria is a besieged area of around four to six million people who were displaced from other regions in Syria like Damascus, Hama, Aleppo, and Hama. No provisions are allowed in from Syria and they’re being bombed, so when the borders opened on the seventh day after the earthquake and there was no UN aid coming in it was such a disappointment.

These people have lived absolutely everything for the past 12 years. They’ve lived killing, torture, gassing and chemical weapons. The earthquake was the only thing they hadn’t experienced. Going and talking to them face-to-face, they’re just so heartbroken and they just wanted someone to listen. They knew nothing was going to happen, that nothing was going to come out of this. There was no humanitarian aid that was adequate for these people during this time.

It’s also important to mention that the aid coming into Damascus was literally being sold on the streets. I know people in Damascus who would go to the market, or to the street and see the aid. Whoever was receiving money from outside Syria to help buy things for people who were affected had to go to municipalities, to government buildings and give them that money. In the end, they were allowed to give like 20% through themselves. All the humanitarian aid that was reaching Damascus that was reaching regime-held areas was not reaching the people. It was not reaching people the way it should have, and it was not reaching people in northwest Syria.

If this regime has been bombing, killing, and torturing people for 12 years, why would you expect them to give people aid after an earthquake? It makes absolutely no sense to me. I don’t know how it can make sense to the UN or any other international organisation or government.

We have more proof against Bashar Al-Assad and his regime than people had during World War II against Hitler.

What are your thoughts on countries sending refugees back and normalising ties with the Assad regime?

The Syrian crisis is not as complicated as people make it seem. It’s a dictator who has committed mass human rights abuses against his own people. We literally have more proof against Bashar Al-Assad and his regime than people had during World War II against Hitler. We have photo and video evidence against his regime. We have prosecution against his guards, against people that would torture in prison and against people that have killed others.

But the international community just does not seem to want to step in, we can’t do this by ourselves. We’ve been trying for 12 years. We literally cannot achieve what we wanted. The revolution is alive in our hearts, and we will continue until the day that it succeeds but the geopolitical environment that we are in right now is just not allowing for this to happen.

When it comes to normalisation and countries wanting to send refugees back, we have seen what happens when these refugees are sent back to Syria. Look up Mazen al-Hamada and see what happened to him after he went back to Syria. Mazen was detained and tortured. You can see the pain and misery in his eyes and the scars on his body. Mentally, he was not well but the regime convinced him to go back to Syria because they said they would free his family and promised a bunch of other things. He went back and he disappeared once again. He was imprisoned and he disappeared.

Bashar Al-Assad is still bombing Syria, and Russia is still bombing northwest Syria. Maybe they’re not bombing his regime-held areas anymore, because it makes sense, he got them back, but he is bombing northwest Syria. The Syrian Emergency Task Force has an app that you can download on your phone called Syria Watch which tracks these attacks. We report on attacks, whatever it is, whether it’s an airstrike or if it’s a bombing or whatever. It’s reported with the coordinates of exactly where it happened in Syria. The bombings have not stopped, the airstrikes have not stopped, the torture has not stopped, and the fear in people’s eyes and in people’s life has not stopped.

Nothing that has happened in 12 years has stopped. It’s just being cleaned up, or it’s just being portrayed differently. There are YouTubers coming to Syria and they’re doing tourism in Syria. It’s very important to recognise that this is all propaganda, and the regime is paying these people and sending fixers with these people to take them around to certain places and showing these specific places to the rest of the world.

Now the normalisation that’s taking place in the Arab region is just disgusting and there are no words to even describe it because these exact same people that are shaking hands with Bashar Al-Assad, 10 years ago when the revolution started, they were saying why are we allowing this regime to trick us? This regime is killing its people and there is footage of these people saying the exact same thing. I don’t know how to describe how Syrians feel towards them.

It just makes no sense and if you’re sending refugees back, I mean they’re doing it now, they’re doing it in Denmark, in the UK, in Turkey, they’re sending people back or they’re working on sending refugees back to Syria. What you’re doing is putting these lives at risk.

There has been proof that when these people are sent back, they’re disappearing and what does disappearing mean in Assad’s prison? It means that they are being tortured and they’re being killed. So that’s just the reality that no one seems to be seeing.

Countries are trying to claim Syria is safe now, just so they can say Syrian refugees aren’t our problem anymore. What do you think of the response to Ukraine versus the response to Syria? 

The Syrian and the Ukrainian people are both living Putin’s war crimes and Russia is the number one ally of Bashar Al-Assad. It’s the reason why he’s still powerful, why he still has his people and his weapons. Russia has also been his partner in crime for a lot of the massacres that took place in Syria over the last 12 years.  So, when you sit back and watch how the world is reacting differently, it’s honestly hard to put into words. It’s very ignorant and it’s disgusting to see. But at the same time, Syrians, and Ukrainians, we’ve lived the same thing. It’s the same perpetrator.

If people are now trying to prosecute Putin because of his crimes in Ukraine, then it’s also good for us Syrians. If Putin is out, then Assad loses his power, and he won’t be able to continue bombing us. So, on the one hand, it is very heart-breaking but at the same time, it’s like we are living the same experience by the same perpetrator.

What would you like people to know about Syrian refugees right now, 12 years after the crisis started?

Refugees are just like me and you. They were sitting one day at home, and then they were attacked, and they lost their family. They’ve lost everything. They could have lost everything. They couldn’t live at home anymore. So, when you talk about refugees, just remember that these people are normal human beings, just like me and you, normal human beings who had dreams. Normal human beings who had land, jobs, and their whole lives in their countries. When these circumstances happened to them, they had no other option.

When this dictator came and started bombing their town in response to someone peacefully protesting peacefully, they had no other option but to flee. This is human nature; we want to strive to survive. I’m a refugee myself and in the US, people would say go back to ISIS. If this is what I had to hear looking the way I do, I can’t even imagine what people go through daily.

Try to understand their story, try to ask them what happened, and just be a kind human being to these people because they need it after all this time.

It’s important to recognise refugees as normal human beings with normal dreams, with normal lives. They left everything they ever loved, they ever knew to flee to a whole new place, to learn a whole new language, to learn a whole new culture. Give them credit where it’s due, it’s very, very difficult. You don’t even know if they’ve lost family or if they’ve lost their loved ones or if they’ve lost absolutely everything. You have no idea what they’ve been through. It’s been 12 years and these people are exhausted. They just want to feel at home, and they want to have safety and security. Wherever it is in the world that they ended up in, try to be there. Try to understand their story, try to ask them what happened, and just be a kind human being to these people because they need it after all this time.

They’re not aliens, they’re just humans with a story that could be a little bit different than yours. They had a childhood, they grew up, they fell in love, and they went to school. They had a normal life just like yours, but they were put in circumstances that you probably also wouldn’t be able to survive, so you would leave as well.

When people ask, oh but why didn’t they stay, I recommend watching a movie called For Sama. People stayed until the regime was on the other side of the wall and they were getting calls from the UN saying you have to leave now because the regime is coming, and you have no other option. People did stay and fought for their land. Syrians stayed until today, they are still in the northwest of the country being bombed and under continuous air strikes from Assad and Putin, but they still stayed. They’re still there.

You have to understand what these people lived through. I know people that didn’t care about their lives, but they cared about their kids’ lives, they cared about their wives’ lives. At that time, you’re being selfish if you stay, and if you force your family to stay there with you, you are putting them at risk of being killed.

What are some practical ways our listeners can support the Syrian Emergency Task Force, other Syrian organisations, and refugees more widely?

If you just make sure that you are educated, that is good enough for me. If you know what these people went through and what forced them to leave was and continues to be the Assad regime along with its allies, that is enough for so many Syrians. Whatever it is, even if it’s the tiniest little thing, and if you think that it will help, I think that it’s important to do so. Especially now, especially after 12 years, especially as the world is normalising ties with this regime.

When it comes to the SETF, we have a lot of things that people can be a part of. The number one is to look up the Caesar Files. Caesar is a man that defected from the Syrian military, he used to take pictures of tortured bodies that were killed by this regime. He took around 55,000 photos and then he defected from the army. We used those photos to get sanctions on the Assad regime.

You just have to be a human to help Syrians. You literally just have to be human. And if you have that humanity in you, you can find a way to do something about it. You can find a way to teach someone about it, to educate someone about it, and to better educate yourself.

There are no words to describe the photos, but we use them to raise awareness amongst universities, colleges, and Parliaments to draw attention to what happened in Syria and the war crimes this regime inflicted upon its people. We can bring a Caesar exhibit to your school If you want to create more awareness about Syria We always collaborate with universities and with colleges to do this.

We also have projects in Syria that you can be a part of and donate to. If you have any ideas, you can also reach out to us and volunteer with us. We have an orphan kindergarten in Syria called Wisdom House and these kids are beautiful. I went and I saw them, and they’ve lived the hardest lives, but they still have so much hope and so much love and laughter in them, it’s amazing.

We also have Tomorrow’s Dawn, which is a women’s high school. It’s for women that never got to finish high school because they were displaced. We even offer certain classes that wouldn’t be in a normal high school. We offer art classes and workshops where they made a bunch of cute clothes we use to fundraise for the school.

We also have the House of Healing which is a rehab centre in Gaziantep, on the border of Syria and Turkey where we house people who have been injured because of the war. We provide them with a place to stay and give them assistance while they’re in Turkey. They don’t know how systems and processes work in the country, and we help them with that too.

The final project is Letters of Hope and it’s a beautiful project. Wherever you are in the world, you can send a letter to Syrian kids in Syria. It can be colourful or cute. Your kid can make it and then you can send it. We hand these letters out to the kids in Syria and they love it so much. The fact that someone from the outside is thinking about them and is writing this letter to them in whatever language you speak is amazing. We’ve had letters sent from almost every country in the world. You can send a letter of hope to kids in Syria.

If you’re a teacher, you can get your whole class to write it for a certain project and then you can send us these letters and we take them to Syria with us. This project is beautiful, and it brings so much joy to these kids. I’ve seen their happiness with my own eyes and sometimes when I lose hope or feel tired it gives me hope and allows me to keep going for these kids who have endured so much.

You just have to be a human to help Syrians. You literally just have to be human. And if you have that humanity in you, you can find a way to do something about it. You can find a way to teach someone about it, to educate someone about it, and to better educate yourself.

Guest: Celine Kasem

Celine is a Syrian Circassian Canadian and a human rights activist. She has been a part of the Syrian revolution since it started peacefully with roses when she was only 11. She is the Media Coordinator for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a role which always reminds her that for real change, the most important step is advocating and sharing the devastating reality that Syrians have been living under for over 12 years. Celine has worked on the ground in Syria and on the Turkish-Syrian border to share the voices of the Syrian people and the reality of the Syrian humanitarian crisis with a worldwide audience to push for change through policy, advocacy, and real justice.

If you would like to learn more about Celine’s work you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.