Syrian activist, Haytham al-Hamwi, remembers how in 2003 he decided to join forces with the young men and women from his hometown Daraya, in the southern suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus, to organize a public cleansing campaign.
At age 27, al-Hamwi hit the streets with dozens of young people, sweeping the roads and picking up trash. The campaign was a project of the Community Daraya Group, which al-Hamwi and his friends founded 2 years prior. They handed out posters warning against of smoking and bribery in their city, and opened a library, which they called “The Ways of Peace”.
Few knew al-Hamwi that he and his friends would end up in prison cells for the community work they were doing. “At that time, we didn’t have any political motives,” al-Hamwi told Al Jazeera. “The only political event we organized was a silent march against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.”
In Syria, civil society groups, which non-profit, non-governmental organization’s working in the interest of citizens, like the one al-Hamwi helped set up, have long been targeted by the Syrian government. The Act of 1958, civil society is lawfully subject to supervision and requires the approval of security services.
“When I was in prison, during the trial period, the officer asked me: What is your field of study? I answered, ‘preventive medicine’. He said: ‘Aha! There you go. I know that your group is not a political party, but if we leave you alone, you will become a political party. Therefore, we are going to imprison you as a preventive measure,'” al-Hamwi recalled.
In a period called the “Damascus Spring”, after Bashar al-Assad inherited power, Syria saw the beginnings of the rise of civil society and calls for reform, but that was quickly suppressed, with members of such groups facing arrests and bans.
Rana Khalaf, an expert on Syrian civil society with the Chatham House, a UK-based policy institute, told Al Jazeera News, “Civil society has become a dangerous concept, which many associations shied away from by pursing non-political goals.”
In 2000, Mutasem Syoufi, a native of Damascus, was one of the students who took part in the creation of a political forum for discussion called the Committee for the Revival of Civil Society.
“Our main priority is to save souls. We want the Syrian case to stay alive. We are not hopeful of any political settlement is reached soon, but we want to achieve something on the humanitarian front.”
Director of Istanbul-Based NGO, Mutasem Syoufi
In 2011, when the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad broke out, the civil society scene in Syria flourished. With the war entering its 7th year, thousands of civil society organizations have developed both inside and outside of Syria, amid a security vacuum and bloodshed, to fill the role of state institutions meant to save and inform civilians.
At least half a million of Syrians have been killed in the war & one million injured so far. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in besieged areas with extremely restricted access to basic survival necessities, while at least 13 million – half of the country’s prewar population – have been forced to flee their homes.