DAMASCUS // In the courtyard of the Al Safina school for the disabled in the Old City of Damascus, a noisy class is taking place: music therapy. The classes help the school's pupils to improve their concentration skills, using drums and maracas to count from one to 10 and following instructions to play loudly or quietly, quickly or slowly.
Leading the class with boundless enthusiasm is Khaled Korbaj, a 27-year-old masters student and volunteer with Family International Community Services, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that runs the initiative. After the class, Mr Korbaj manages to squeeze in a lecture before donning a clown outfit for his weekly show at the children's cancer hospital. "I started to volunteer four years ago when someone told me that an extra clown was needed for the show and I love it," he said.
After years of suppressing civic society and limiting the role of non-government groups, Syria is now hoping people such as Mr Korbaj will help propel the country forwards. At a conference last month, the first lady, Asma al Assad, a long-time patron of Syria's fledgling voluntary sector, said the government would set out a new legislative framework to allow non-governmental groups to partner with government agencies. While there are just 1,500 non-governmental groups, mainly charities, in Syria, against an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 in Lebanon or 2,000 in Jordan, the concept of volunteering has been slowly taking hold in Syria. And the trend is not confined to the capital.
In Damascus the Syrian Environmental Association (SEA) recently transformed a rubbish site into a botanical garden and arranges litter clean-ups. In Aleppo, the Aga Khan Foundation's summer schools for children are run entirely by volunteers. Justin Davis Smith of Volunteering England, a volunteering development agency in the UK, said: "Volunteering isn't a western concept, people have been helping each other across all countries, cultures and religions for thousands of years."
Indeed, Syrians consider helping others and giving money to be central tenets of their religions - both Islam and Christianity. The past two years in particular have brought volunteerism to mainstream attention. Humanitarian disasters in the region have been an impetus. The 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon and the 2003 invasion of Iraq led to a flood of refugees into Syria. Signe Ejerskov, the former head of the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) programme in Syria, which recruited 70 young Syrians to work with the UN's refugee agency, said it had a big effect.
"The influx of refugees led to a much greater interest in the UNV programme and volunteering in general," she said. Mrs Assad has been an active proponent of the voluntary sector. In 2007 she organised a conference on youth and volunteerism and under her patronage the Syria Trust for Development was founded the same year - Syria's leading home-grown non-governmental organisation. "The first lady is absolutely key to the trend," said Nada Assaad, a social analyst, volunteerism expert and member of the cancer charity Basma.
"She has been proactive in encouraging volunteering groups and as a knock-on effect the ministry of social affairs has given permission to many new organisations," Ms Assaad said. She also points to rising affluence: "People's lives have become more comfortable, which makes them more predisposed to helping the less fortunate in their communities." The effect has been overwhelming. Farah Hwijeh, the volunteer co-ordinator for the Syrian Environmental Organisation, said the organisation had received 20 times more inquiries from potential volunteers in the last year.
Those volunteering come from a diverse range of backgrounds and religions. What is noticeable is that the majority of the volunteers are young, aged 18 to 35, and many are female. "It is definitely the youth who are volunteering as it is a concept they are now familiar with while older people are not," said Ms Assaad. "And in my experience more women volunteer, perhaps because they are more sensitive to other people's needs and because they are often at home during the day and have time."
Having free time was commonly cited by volunteers, women especially, as a reason for joining groups. Nesreen Albtihe, a 25-year-old student who volunteers at summer camps for children run by the Aga Khan Foundation, said: "I didn't have important things to do during my vacations and free time." Doaa Halaage, 19, who volunteers at a similar camp in Aleppo, agrees. "I decided to volunteer to fill my free time," she said. ""Before, I didn't know what to do with it."
Since the beginning of the recession and subsequent rise in unemployment, Volunteering England has seen an increase in inquiries, especially from young people finding it hard to enter the job market. Many turn to volunteering as an opportunity to gain work-based skills and career opportunities. While the economic recession has not hit Syria as hard as elsewhere, young people still say that volunteerism has been a good way to gain experience.
"Volunteerism has taught me patience, communication skills and about people from different backgrounds," Mr Korbaj said. Volunteers at the SEA said they are learning about the environment, while many summer camp workers said they wanted to be teachers and had gained valuable experience of working with children. What is still lacking, however, is the number of groups people can volunteer to work with. "Organised volunteerism is new," Ms Assaad said.
"People were willing to give their time but they didn't know how as there wasn't the structured framework of civil organisations." It is this the government hopes to address. While the majority of volunteerism takes place through NGOs, the private sector also has started to contribute. Rather than simply giving a percentage of their profits to charity as in the past, many businesses now organise events.
For example, MAS Economic Group in 2008 organised a group of volunteers to pick up litter along the Syrian coast; last year it recruited people to plant trees to prevent desertification. The government is waking up to the benefits of supporting volunteer groups. In its latest five-year plan it pledged to promote volunteerism and social engagement. Since last year, students applying to state universities have been asked to fill in details of the number of hours they have spent doing voluntary work.
"There is a realisation by the government that it can't do everything. It sees that civil society can be useful to Syria's development," Ms Assaad said. "For example, the government provides the medical treatment for cancer sufferers but Basma provides psychological care and entertainment." * The National