Basmet Amal are one of four local relief and development organisations, each dealing with a region of the town, that feed into a broader council comprised of relief and social affairs, military-security, political and media-comms committees. The fire service consists of Free Army soldiers and locals legging it to burning buildings with whatever supplies of water they can muster. Ambulances have been targeted by the regime, with those donated from outside re-sprayed to disguise their function. These too are run by volunteers.
Basmet Amal have big plans and they want to see replicated these throughout the country. They’ve re-started a primary school for children who have missed two years of learning; they’ve opened a low-priced products supermarket to counter local over-inflation through scarcity and unscrupulous traders (inflation in Ma’arra is currently at 400%); they have managed composition and distribution of 30,0000 monthly aid packages of flour, cooking oil, dried milk, salt, sugar, and beans; they support widows through 500SP donations from overseas donors as well as development of crafts projects; they are building a shampoo and soap factory; sourcing low priced and free medicines; supporting the local field hospital and yet to come, – a womens’ recreation centre with gym and swimming facilities, to strengthen women physically and emotionally for generations to come.
Relief is revolutionary when it helps communities stand their ground and keep up the project of liberation. Basmet Amal’s goal is self-sufficiency. There has been a total transformation of society after ousting the regime. Sitting in the Shaheed Hassan Hossam Kamil school, Lateef*, a teacher, explains how regime text books had all hailed Bashar’s father, Hafez al Assad. He was made into an idol, with even simple maths exercises including references to him. ‘We had to salute him and sing the praises of the regime every day. We were not taught to think for ourselves, we were taught to fear, we were taught to obey. Now our text books are free of these references. We are bringing up a new generation to think freely and to have confidence in themselves and their community’.
It’s not lost on anyone running relief that different interests are competing for influence, local, regional and international. ‘Aid is being used to buy peoples’ loyalties’, explains Loay*. ‘That’s why independence and self-sufficiency are so important for us}. He is senior surgeon working on food relief. Loay rises early, daily, and sees his work as struggle against not just physical poverty but the spiritual and social poverty that this leads to, and which governed so many for so long under the regime. “A human being needs a full stomach. It’s hard to do good when you are empty. Hunger can lead to desperation and corruption. Feed a family and you feed a community”.
Solidarity and connection with organisations like Basmet Amal should be coming from our movements at a time when millions of Syrians are being dispossessed, losing their own agency and ability to set up their own initiatives. The new dictate is being told that it’s over, to give up, that the Syrian revolution has been overtaken by militias, al-Qaeda, Iran, Saudi Arabia. This blood-drenched chessboard is held up as their game, the game of the biggest powers in the world who control the rules. The message is the same to the people of Syria and the UK This is not your revolution – do not identify with this.
Self-representation, self-organisation, self-determination. These are universal desires driving democracy struggles all over the world, from Turkey to Brazil, Iran to America. We build for them here and people are building for them there. We have much in common. When people keep organising, despite cuts, repression, criminalisation or live fire, there is still everything to hope for.
*Some names have been changed
This is the final part of a six day serialization of Ewa’s trip to Syria. It accompanies Jon Sack’s beautiful reportage from the Syrian border in comic form: The Physio.
Ewa Jasiewicz is a journalist and campaigner. She is part of a small international solidarity initiative working to support grassroots groups in Syria. Please support these organisations: