Refugees pass border between Macedonia & Greece / (c) Freedom Hous

03/05/2016 - 16:53 0
Fear Experiences of Syrian Refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon: An interview with Dr. Wendy Pearlman

Kurdish websites have mostly covered the Syrian civil war based on the struggle of Kurds in Rojava (Northern Syria) against jihadist groups. However, the Syrian refugee crisis has not been covered sufficiently except for the violation of human rights both in and outside of the refugee camps within Turkey, at the Syria-Turkey (West Kurdistan (Rojava)-North Kurdistan border.) This interview was conducted in the hope that Associate Professor Wendy Pearlman’s study will provide and its followers with more individual aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Wendy Pearlman is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. Besides articles published in various social science journals, she is the author of two books, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada (Nation Books, 2003). She is currently writing a book of oral histories about the Syrian revolt and civil war, which will be published by HarperCollins in 2017. She was invited to Sabancı University on March 23, 2016 to present a talk about narratives of fear of the Syrian people who left their country upon the civil war in 2011 and settled in the refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Dr. Pearlman interviewed 250 Syrian refugees from 2012 to 2016. Her talk was based on individual stories of the civil war, struggle, and ‘revolutionary’ experience in Syria.

In her study Dr. Pearlman says political fear has been very obvious and wide in Syria and that studying experiences with fear may open a window for understanding the war more accurately. Dr. Pearlman argues that experiences of the Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon during the civil war indicate four types of fear: silencing fear, surmounted fear, semi-normalized fear, and nebulous fear. She argues that silencing fear was present for decades before 2011 when the Syrian regime created fear as an element to silence people so that they wouldn’t rise against its authoritarian rule, sectarian policies, limited political freedom, and suppression by the military. The most important experience of this period was the Hama Massacre in 1982 when tens of thousands of people were killed by Syrian government forces. Dr. Pearlman says people interviewed for the project say they did not have a government, but a mafia that kept in place security rule as an essential power to keep society silenced.

In surmounted fear according to Dr. Pearlman, people in Syria broke the personal barrier of the fear and discovered how to challenge and actualize mass protests in big cities like Damascus and Dara. Admitting that the fear never disappeared completely, Dr. Pearlman says people continued their struggle even though they know they would be injured, killed or arrested. Referring to her interviewees’ individual stories, Dr. Pearlman says Syrian people believed that it was a chance to rise up and they did not want to let this chance go. Some of her interviewees further noted that they had no choice other than continuing what they started because otherwise young people who were arrested by the Syrian regime forces would be tortured and probably killed in the prisons. Dr. Pearlman also points out that Syrian refugees’ surmounted fear emerged as they thought that “it is not fair to stay at home and do nothing while many people got killed by the Syrian regime forces” and felt themselves responsible to participate in protests and later on the collective struggle. Dr. Pearlman defines this experience both emotional and transformative because some of the interviewees reported that “it was the first time they heard their voice” or “it was the first time that one felt himself/herself as a true citizen of Syria”.

According to Dr. Pearlman semi-normalized fear has created new contradictory spaces because on the one side living under bombardments was terrorizing for the Syrian people and on the other hand the Syrian people got used to fear because it has become an everyday act. Experiences of a doctor interviewed by Dr. Pearlman reveal an example how people got used to semi-normalized fear: every Friday I would go to the hospital and wait for the people wounded in the protests and the security would come to arrest people who helped the wounded. A former Free Syrian Army (FSA) member said in an interview with Dr. Pearlman “the first day one or two people got killed, then 20, and the number was increasing every day. When 50 people were killed, people would say thank God today only 50 people were killed!”

In nebulous fear, Dr. Pearlman argues, there are different sources and targets of fear. More specifically, especially after the emergence of several armed groups and radical Islamists, the Syrian refugees started perceiving Syria as everyone else’s battlefield. Dr. Pearlman says this phase is the period when people whisperingly asked themselves if they have done things at the right time and in the right way. Dr. Pearlman further argues that a strong psychological aspect of fear emerges and people are very likely to feel guilt and depression. Some of the interviewees even asked if things should have gone differently. Another interviewee said she forgot how to relax after being  tortured many times and exposed to images of mass killing!

Apparently the fear experiences of the Syrian refugees not only describes how the sense of fear was intermingled with the motivation to struggle for freedom, to revolt, and to transform both the citizens themselves and the political system in Syria. The devastating war left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions of people displaced. Fear, under the continuous bombardment and attacks by multiple parties in Syria, seems to have affected the refugees profoundly. After hearing Dr. Pearlman at Sabancı University, I thought it would help people who are following the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis understand the current situation. I thank Dr. Pearlman for giving me this interview.

Duman: In your talk you explained both the past and present fears and how they shape the refugees’ perceptions. If you asked interviewees any questions on how they imagine the future, could you please share their expectations and plans? More specifically, how have their fear experiences affected their imagination of the future?

Dr. Pearlman: It was the last stage of the common narrative of the people’s experiences of being refugees or becoming refugees. What I found most striking there is the sense of profound instability. Nobody knows where they are going, how long they will stay, where they are and people say again and again that it is so difficult to plan, to think about the future. Because you feel like your entire life is destroyed. You do not know where you are going. I think that sense of instability affects people at all levels, psychological, familial, and their relationships, and their plans to invest, to study. It is really a profound uncertainty that I think is shaking so many people in many aspects of their lives. What has been interesting for me is this narrative shows the very human side of what this conflict about. In that sense, I think a lot of media representation focuses on the questions of geo-politics, the US, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. I think the main point is that the narrative I am collecting is very humanistic narrative. It expresses what all of these conflicts mean for human beings, which is different than one common part of media narrative which focuses on the issues of geopolitics. The media narrative focuses on states and their interests and power. Or there is a focus on the Islamists and the increasing role of the Islamist groups like ISIS. All these narratives focus on ideologies, actors, terrorism, states, but they ignore the life of millions of Syrians who have experiences and what all these conflicts mean for them. This is what I am hoping that my work will remind us.

Duman: Did you collect any narratives in favour of the radical Islamist groups?

Dr. Pearlman: No! Most people would say over and over again that they saw ISIS as another form of oppression and another form of tyranny. People would say, “we are in rebellion against oppression and tyranny, and now we are fighting another form of tyranny. Now our revolution is fighting on two fronts: one against Assad and one against these radical Islamists”. So most people I talked to saw the rise of the Islamists, especially ISIS, as something that has taken their revolution hostage. They saw ISIS as people who are not from Syria, but those who come from outside Syria with their own agenda, imposing their agenda on them. So most of the people were angry and sad about the rise of this whole phenomena.

Duman: What about Kurds? Did you hear any negative expression or emotion about the presence and mobility of Kurds in northern Syria?

Dr. Pearlman: I did several interviews with Kurdish Syrians. Even among the Kurdish Syrians with whom I spoke there was a lot of scepticism about the main Kurdish political parties. As also having their own agenda, as their own interests, and not necessarily representing the will even of the Kurdish Syrians, not acting in a way that is democratic. They say it is still hierarchical and top-down. There are mixed views. I think there is a lot criticism that goes around all the parties. For them nobody has their hands quite clean.

Duman: Rojava or Northern Syria has been a relatively safe zone for the internally displaced people. Camps in Efrîn Canton in the northwest and Cezîre Canton in the northeast of Syria have been hosting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. People who leave Syria, sometimes stay for a while in these camps and then leave the country. Did you meet anyone who stayed at these camps during your research? If yes, how did they describe their fear experiences in the camps in Rojava?

Dr. Pearlman: No, I have not! I think the most time I spent in the border areas like Antakya and Gaziantep was in 2013. Unfortunately I did not talk to anybody coming from that situation.

Duman: How do the interviewees frame the relation between ethnic and religious groups in Syria? Was there any narrative about inter-ethnic or inter-religion conflicts?

Dr. Pearlman: It was interesting because many people I spoke with were proud of the multicultural character of Syria. Most people seem to have the sense of pride that Syria has so many people from different religious groups and different ethnicities. They take pride that they see Syria as a history of co-existence. Many people talked about how they had friends, their neighbours from a different ethnicity or different religious group, and how people lived together in the past. And that translates into a hope that people can live together in the future. Some people may critique that as being a bit nostalgic or romantic, or painting a too rosy picture. Other people would say, for example, we had coexistence in Syria in the past, but it was a forced coexistence. Some interviewees would say, “We were prevented from talking about our differences. Part of Baath Party ideology was, “We are all Arabs”, which, of course we know, is not true. Looking at ethnic and religious differences was considered divisive and people should not talk about these things. There was no space where people could learn about other people’s languages, traditions, cultural habits and so on and so forth. There was not a space to talk about these types of differences. People knew that there were these differences, but there was no space to talk about it, to learn about it in a healthy and respectful way. It was pushed under the rug. There was a certain type of equality under this authoritarian state. You could see, there were maybe lots of spaces of not really knowing others. Knowing this person is Shia or this person is Jew, but not really knowing what that really meant. State media, the state educational curriculum and what was considered sort of permitted discourse did not allow these differences to come forward in a healthy way. So it is a complicated picture. On the one hand people are proud of their multiculturalism and on the other hand that the way that the state and the regime handled it created a foundation that could go in a destructive way, I think.

Duman: What was the most common element of fear of the refugees in Turkey?

Dr. Pearlman: I was in Gaziantep just shortly after the assassination of the Syrian activist Naji El Jerf (Naji was assasinated by ISIS in December). It was January and people were very scared. They had a tremendous feeling of vulnerability. A feeling like “Oh! We came to Turkey because we thought we will be safe here. Maybe we are not really safe anywhere”. There was a new fear about pyhsical safety that even violence in Syria could follow you and find you wherever you are. So, I have to say that among the refugees I spoke with there is a profound sense of vulnerability. The recent violence in Turkey probably reinforces that for Syrians. Certainly for the citizens of Turkey, too.