Listening to the Stranger: A Sojourn in Syria

By Virginia Baron
Fellowship Magazine, July/August 2002

“Syria is the best kept secret,” Angela Williams, UNRWA director in Syria, told us on the morning of our second day in the country-and we were already inclined to agree.

We were a group of fourteen Americans from every region of the country and from many professions, members of the first delegation of The Compassionate Listening Project to travel on a “Compassionate Listening” trip to Syria and Lebanon last March. TCLP is a non-profit organization dedicated to people-to-people peacemaking with a 12-year track record of peace building between North Americans and peoples of the Middle East. Many delegations have traveled to Israel/Palestine but this latest itinerary was a ground-breaking experiment.

Family and friends exclaimed in horror and fear when we broke the news about where we were going. As Ted Kattouf, US Ambassador to Syria, remarked wryly during an informative and congenial meeting on our first day in Damascus, “We don’t see many US delegations over here.” He added that Syria, with all its rich historical sights was an untapped tourist destination. These comments were sprinkled between the more serious subject of US-Syria relations, and what the ambassador referred to as the Israeli-Palestinian “dance of death.” The solution of this problem, he said, would remove one of the chief aggravations in the Muslim world. He offered insights about the way the new Syrian President Bashar Assad has been attempting to bring the country out from behind the walls of secrecy he inherited from his father’s reign.

The daily itinerary for our delegation was packed, one of those trips where you needn’t have brought along any reading to do in your spare time because there was none. Early on the the first morning (after arriving at 1:00 a.m.), we rushed to a meeting with Ali Mustapha, Director of Administration for Palestinian Refugees. We barraged poor Mr. Mustapha with questions. Some of the group reacted with horror at the news that in spite of receiving generous treatment from the government, Palestinians are refused Syrian citizenship. Already we had landed on one of the bones of contention cited by those who maintain that the Palestinian problem would be solved if the refugees would just move to an Arab country and forget about UN Resolution 194 (right of return or compensation). It is difficult for the ever-mobile American who has never had to face forced displacement to understand how unthinkable this solution is to an Arab.

At UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees) headquarters, Angela Williams described the work of the agency. Historically, since its founding in 1950, it has provided primary education, health care, job training, and other major economic programs for refugees. She emphasized the contribution made by the Syrian government; for every dollar provided by UNRWA, whose largest contributor is the US, Syria adds $3. In most respects, Palestinians receive the same advantages as citizens of the country. Students compete equally for higher education, Palestinians have the right to own businesses (unlike in Lebanon where they must have a Lebanese partner), and they can own property, EXCEPT for agricultural land, because, as Williams explained, “Agricultural land has to do with where you belong.” The significance of this short comment from a European who has spent much of her life working with refugees was to echo in many later conversations.

Palestinians in Syria have always been aware of the generally poorer conditions suffered by refugees in Gaza and the West Bank but when they reached crisis proportions after the start of the second intifada in 2000, Palestinians in Syria established a “Hand-in-Hand” campaign to send emergency assistance to the camps. To date, they have raised $1.4 million dollars in contributions from the general public. “Palestinians have a sense of an extended family,” Williams said. “Their old ties of community continue, from Jaffa to Safed” [Many of the refugees in Syria originally came from Safed, a city in the north of Israel.]

Our Compassionate Listening program in Syria was planned cooperatively by Hassan Ahmad, a Palestinian who works in income generation programs at UNRWA, and Ehab Al Khatib, a Syrian, whose expertise is in the historical and cultural aspects of the country, otherwise known as “the cradle of civilization”. It is almost painful to write a sentence so dry about these two remarkable men whose energy, good humor and enthusiasm never lagged. Requests that might have seemed outrageous to less devoted guides and consultants were taken with amazing grace by these two, who, along with Omar, our driver, became heroes to all of us. Nothing took precedence over their mission to show us the kind of unsurpassed hospitality and kindness their country offers strangers.

When our consultant in charge of meeting arrangements, Hassan Ahmad, asked if there were any special people we would like to meet, we said we’d like to talk to religious leaders. It was Sunday, our first day, and by late afternoon, our bus was squeezing through the perpetually clogged traffic of Damascus, heading for the Christian Quarter. When we reached the Via Recta, the Street Called Straight, where St. Paul is said to have had his blinding conversion to Christianity, we peered out at a maze of small shops, until our bus turned into an impressive church courtyard.

Hassan had arranged an audience for our group with none other than the Patriarch of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church, whose full title is: His Beatitude Gregory lll, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Jerusalem and Alexandria, Thirteenth Apostle and Successor of St. Peter. He was one of many who were willing to make time for an unexpected and unknown group of Americans, sometimes on the spur of the moment. As he joked on greeting us, “Not only did you give me no notice but you expected me to drop everything to see you on a Sunday!”

“We are a church of the Arabs, living in a Muslim culture,” the Patriarch said during our long. informal meeting. “We can’t live without the other. We are one-and-a-half million Christians in Syria and we must continue to be present.” Asked about Syria under Bashar, whose ever-present photo hung directly below the crucifix on the wall, he said,”Democracy must grow from the inside and not be thrust on a country from outside.

“The government is doing good things for us. Just think, they gave us a plot of land in Aleppo to build a new church. ONE plot of land for the Greek Catholics and the Greek Orthodox. So you know what we are doing? We are going to build one church and worship together. You see, the government is encouraging ecumenism!” The sprightly, grey-bearded little man had a twinkle in his eye as he announced that he would consecrate the land on the following Sunday.

Hassan had introduced us as a Christian, Jewish and Muslim group, which we were. This impressed the Patriarch as it was to impress all those with whom we talked during two weeks of appointments. Not only were people taken aback by the make-up of the group, but imagine what a shock it was to learn that Americans had come with the intention of listening to what Syrians and Lebanese had to tell us. (I should add that after our first crash encounter with Mr. Mustapha, we got ourselves together and vowed conscientiously to practice compassionate listening, which, for the most part, we succeeded in doing.)

We visited a Palestinian Women’s Federation, picnicked in Quneitra, a town destroyed in the fighting between Israelis and Syrians in 1973, stood at the border of the Golan Heights close enough to see the Israeli flag flying on the other side of the fence. This is one of the places where separated families shout to each other across the rolling green fields of the no-man’s-land. It is one of many places where we heard stories of sudden, forced departures from home, of longing to go back, if only, the old people say, to die on their land.

At refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, children greeted us and parents told their stories about difficult lives, overcrowded living spaces, job shortages, and always their yearnings. We also saw glimmers of hope when we visited development and housing projects designed to improve conditions both for refugees and for Syrians living in poverty. In each encounter, after hearing officials report on projects, we asked them to tell their own stories. It was then that we saw the magic of successful listening. A thoughtful look would come over their faces, and they would smile as they reminisced or recounted turning-points in their lives.

Often we were inspired by the spirit of Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese. We were astonished and pleased to discover that funding for many projects came from USAID. It was encouraging to know that some US foeign aid money is directed toward life-affirming endeavors instead of weapons.

We were invited to the offices of the Ministers of Health and Higher Education where we had long and friendly conversations. Dr. Mohammad Eyad al-Chatti, the Minister of Health, spoke with an American accent acquired during some of his schooling in the US. He has a daughter living in Richmond, Virginia, and comes here fairly often, either on business or for family visits. The Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Hassan Risheh, chatted with us about his plans for increasing computer availability and expanding opportunities in information technology.

Not to paint a completely rosy picture, I should add that there were some things about Syria that reminded me of the old days in the Soviet Union. One of our group members was interested in making contact with the Kurdish community. Friends at home had given her names and numbers of relatives in Syria. The morning after she tried to phone from our hotel, we noticed twice as many men in gray suits hanging around in the lobby. At internet cafŽs, we sometimes had trouble getting online because some servers were blocked. But for those who worry about their safety, there is no safer place than Syria. Everyone knew that “The Americans” were in town and we knew that someone was always making sure we were all right. We also knew that some subjects were taboo in casual conversations.

Lebanon is another story. One night in a disco in the Christian Quarter of Damascus, I asked a young woman about relations between Syria and Lebanon. “I’m not going to talk about that,” she said, “but you can ask people in Lebanon. They’ll tell you.” And they did, but that is something for another article. It is enough to say that the relationship is complicated and not without problems.

Our contact with the American Embassy was very helpful. Steve Seche,Director of the American Cultural Center, assisted us with appointments, and Ambassador Kattouf encouraged us to continue sending Americans on citizen diplomacy tours. During our meeting, he mentioned that President Assad was interested in a “dialogue of civilizations” and after our return home, a news article announced that the first stage of a US-Syria dialogue was scheduled to take place at the Baker Institute in Houston. Institute Director and Former Ambassador to Syria, Edward Djerejian, was quoted as saying that Assad is “a very intelligent interlocutor and I think that he does understand the tremendous challenge of moving a country like Syria forward given all the problems,” he said.

When I heard about it, I was optimistic about the prospects of improved relations between our two countries. I wished we could advise the diplomats and government leaders to start by asking each other to tell their personal stories. They might be surprised at how much difference it could make.

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