As conflict rages on at home, many young Syrians have fled to Cairo and made the Egyptian capital a base for their continued long-distance activism, Frederick Deknatel writes
Young Syrians who fled to Cairo choose to continue to protest for their nation
Arwa works out of a walk-up office in Heliopolis, near Cairo's international airport, amid the din of low-flying passenger jets overhead. The 27-year-old former state television producer, who declined to give his last name, left Damascus in late 2011 to avoid being drafted into the army. After months of inactivity in Egypt, he and another Syrian friend founded SouriaLi, an internet radio station focused not on news of the brutal government crackdown and uprising devastating his country, but Syrians' common history and culture (the name means "Syria is mine".)
"We try to remind people of our connections," said Arwa, his cigarette nearly done. "We're speaking about how to build our society, how we can live together tomorrow. Like Mahmoud Darwish wrote, 'we love life'."
The opening lines of that Darwish poem - "And we love life if we find a way to it. We dance in between martyrs and raise a minaret for violet or palm trees" - is an unlikely elegy for Syria today, where the death toll, according to the United Nations, exceeds 70,000. One million Syrians have fled abroad, most to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, bringing the realities of war across a region that has known too many refugee crises.
The trauma of displacement is often captured in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to some 146,000 people, or similarly squalid camps in the mountains and valleys of Lebanon and Turkey. Cairo has no refugee camps. But new Syrian communities, displaced by war, have formed in its urban sprawl, from the city centre to the desert satellites, just like the Sudanese and Iraqi ones before them. For many young Syrians who joined the earliest protests against Assad and then were forced to flee, Egypt's capital has become both an activist base and a refuge.
A wall of television screens dominates the unadorned Giza office of the Ana New Media Association, formerly known as the Syrian Activists News Association. At a table partitioned into eight computer workstations, self-described Syrian citizen journalists collect and distribute video of regime brutality and conflict from a network of some 350 activists in Syria, which they upload to their own YouTube channel and provide to satellite networks.
"The whole idea is to organise independent, non-violent reporting," said Rami Jarrah, who cofounded Ana with Deiaa Dughmoch in early 2012. Ana trains citizen journalists still in Syria, and recently launched its own news radio station, which shares SouriaLi's commitment to combating creeping sectarianism.
Jarrah, 28, born in Cyprus to Syrian dissidents, grew up in London but moved to Damascus in 2004. Before the uprising he worked as an import-export consultant for a prominent businessman close to Assad. "I met with Bashar a number of times," Jarrah said in his office, pausing to reply to a stream of phone calls and Skype messages.
He left the company when the protests and crackdown began in Deraa, to help organise and document demonstrations. After being detained and, he said, "subjected to mild torture" for filming an early protest at the Umayyad Mosque, he adopted a pseudonym, Alexander Page, with which he became one of Syria's most prominent online activists, speaking regularly to international media barred from the country. In late 2011, one of the many branches of Syria's mukhabarat leaked his identity and accused him of being a spy. Jarrah fled to Cairo with his family. Though he dropped the pseudonym, Jarrah returns to Syria often, to document the increasingly stout resistance to Assad and to shuttle foreign journalists into cities such as Aleppo and Homs with the help of the Free Syrian Army and local coordination committees.
Before returning to Aleppo the next day, in fact, he reflected on the mutating conflict in his Giza office. "When I was in Damascus, any activist could prepare something really small - filming a video, talking to someone who had lost their son - and cause this rumble. You could suddenly be on CNN and have some effect on the situation." Now, "it is a revolution on pause", overtaken by political wrangling between outside powers supporting Assad and others tepidly behind the opposition. Media coverage, in Jarrah's mind, has amplified the role of groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra. "We don't feel like we have the effect that we did before."
One evening in January after work, half a dozen Ana employees prepared for an evening protest outside Cairo University, in solidarity with the students of Aleppo University. Over 80 students had been killed in a bombing on the faculty of architecture, and a nearby dormitory, as they sat for exams. One of Radio Ana's new employees, Leila, 27, who is Kurdish from Ras Al-Ain (and also declined to give her last name), made protest banners. She hadn't joined the demonstrations when they started in Damascus. Since 2007, she had been under constant surveillance by the mukhabarat, because she was Kurdish and because, she said, she befriended an American student. "I knew what was inside their offices," she said.
Security agents often called her in for interrogations just before she was to sit exams at Damascus University, or "anytime there was a break in classes, to ruin my mindset", she recalled later in her Cairo apartment. "They erased two years of my university life." When an outspoken activist friend was caught by state security in the summer of 2011, she said, "I couldn't even think about staying another day. I knew that they would come." With only a small bag, she fled Damascus for Istanbul, then Cairo.
Calling her parents, who are still in Ras Al-Ain, fills her with fear and apprehension. "When the phone is ringing, I feel a rocket will come and cut the ring," she said. "The ringing alone, you feel something horrible is happening." Like other Syrians, Leila chafes at Cairo's traffic, relative social conservatism and food. But the city, unlike Beirut, is largely outside the reach of the mukhabarat. "Cairo is very strict, but there is political freedom," she said. She called Egypt "the first country where I am politically free", echoing Arwa, who said that in the year since he got to Cairo, "No one - no police - have talked to me."
For Majid Hallak, 28, Cairo is not a place to freely engage with the revolution, but more an isolated hideout.
"I feel like I'm not doing anything: not for me, not for my family, not for my country," he said in the living room of his tidy central Cairo apartment, curtains drawn to the traffic outside.
Hallak had a well-paying job with an international car company in Damascus and joined his first demonstration in the capital in April 2011. While he chanted against the regime with friends, a government sniper shot a protester nearby. Hallak ran; he had also been photographed. As police ransacked his house multiple times, he stayed away for weeks. Later, returning from Beirut from a business trip, he was accused by the mukhabarat of smuggling weapons from Lebanon. He fled, first to Beirut, then Amman, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. By late 2011, he had settled in Cairo, because, as thousands of other Syrians have found, at least there he could get a residency visa.
His ailing father, still in Damascus, died last year, but Hallak couldn't return for the funeral. Nor could he find permanent work in Egypt, or funding to attend university.
Disillusioned by some Syrian activists in Cairo - "you can't lead the revolution from here" - Hallak thought about the students, merchants and carpenters who are now fighters in the fractured militias that make up the Free Syrian Army.
"Some of them fight, some of them bring flour," he said. "They are Syrian; I am not. Why am I staying in Egypt doing nothing?"
So with a fellow photographer he went to Aleppo, where "the most dangerous thing is going to get bread".
He wanted to document the lives of rebel fighters, to know who they were before the war. In his Cairo apartment, he showed videos from that trip late last year: in one, a small group of fighters creep through holes in the interior walls of adjoining buildings, to avoid regime snipers and rockets.
"When I went to Aleppo, something happened. I felt I had to be there." But when Hallak got back to Turkey, he said, "I realised I didn't want to be selfish. I have a fiancé." He met her in Beirut, but now they live in Cairo.
After dusk, a dozen young Syrians, including Leila, stood around an elevated column outside the main gate of Cairo University, holding their banners for the students of Aleppo.
They chanted and sang to no one. Leila and her co-workers looked at each with solidarity, but also resignation.
Egyptians poured out of the gate, looked quizzically at the Syrians and their banners, then boarded microbuses to go home. Only a few approached to ask what they were protesting.
Frederick Deknatel is a freelance journalist who writes for The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications.