18-Year-Old Syrian Refugee Exposes the Syrian Story, One Photograph at a Time.
By Olivia Nemec
Nearly seven years after the revolution against President Bashar al-Assad’s Regime began in Daraa, Syria, some members of the opposition fear whether their civil uprising still stands a fighting chance in what has become one of the deadliest civil wars in history.
Amongst these skeptics is Abdulazez Dukhan, rebel advocate and 18-year-old refugee from Homs, Syria. “Syria today isn’t what it once was when the revolution began,” he says.
Dukhan, like many others, is disenchanted watching his beloved country lose its people and become only a shell of the Syria that had once teemed with life, culture, and most importantly, he says, with dreams.
What had started as peaceful protests for democracy in 2011 when a young boy painted anti-government slogans on his school walls, had transformed into a full-fledged civil war between the Assad government and its people.[i] Now, with more than 500,000 casualties, over 6 million internally displaced persons, and more than 5 million registered refugees, according to statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency, the war in Syria has escalated to the second largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.
“These aren’t just numbers,” Dukhan says. “They are with names, victims of the war. A lot of people during seven years and it’s still increasing. I wanted to stay and fight, but now I know it’s not possible for us to win fighting physically.”
Until the end of 2013, more than 70% of the Syrian population was in support of the opposition. Toppling Assad’s dictatorship seemed possible then, Dukhan says. While the number of rebel advocates multiplied as violence against civilians continued to intensify, intervention by foreign allies interested in Assad’s political survival soon shifted the odds dramatically in his favor.
“We just need outside countries to stop sending guns for the fighting to be equal,” Dukhan says. “If it were equal, the government would be gone a long time ago. I now think the opposition doesn’t have a chance.”
A fighting chance, he emphasizes. Dukhan says he has no doubt that the sheer tenacity of the freedom-seeking majority would have sufficed to oust the regime had Syria’s foreign allies left Assad to his own defenses. However, since 2011’s peaceful uprising, Dukhan says his country has become a battleground for the power struggle between nations and groups with interests independent from those of Syria’s domestic population. “Syria today is for Russia. Syria today is for Iran. Syria today is for other groups,” Dukhan says. “It’s no longer about us the people of Syria, about the humans. It’s all about guns now.”
In the 2011 Arab Spring, civil unrest spread like wildfire throughout the Arab world; people were finally becoming the protagonists of their country’s fate. Syria’s unique geographic location in the heart of the Middle East, however, frustrated a Syrian coup d’état. While tyrants in Libya, Egypt, and Iraq all fell to the liberation movements, in 2015 President Bashar al-Assad was emboldened by the military strength of a global superpower: Russia.[ii]
Amongst the now pivotal players in the conflict, Russia provides Assad with diplomatic backing at the United Nations and remains crucial to asserting the dominance of regime forces in the region and reclaiming rebel strongholds. Though Russian-Syrian political, military, economic, and cultural ties predate the Soviet Union, allying with Assad presently benefits Russia on multiple fronts. Not only does the alliance ensure Russian access to the Mediterranean with authorization to use the Syrian naval base in Tartus, and the Hmeimim Air Base, but arming Assad’s forces is instrumental in President Vladimir Putin’s strategy to contain the militant Daesh at ground zero.[iii] [iv]
The internal fracturing of Syria has allowed for extremist groups to carve out significant territory in the region. Iran, as a Shia-majority state and another major regime ally, shares Putin’s containment efforts and provides Assad with military support to curb the spread of extremist groups known to target Shia Muslims.[v]
Iran’s political motivations in Syria must also be understood in relation to its historically strained relationship with the West and its allies. Since the Iran-Iraq war, Iran and Syria have been considered closest allies in the Middle East[vi], harboring a common resentment for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and working cooperatively against Israel and the United States. Both countries share ties with the Lebanese Shia Militia, Hezbollah, aiming to increase their influence in Southern Lebanon and further their anti-Israel agenda. Iranian backed Hezbollah fighters have also provided Assad with key military assistance at home.[vii]
Though Iran had declared support for the peoples’ uprising in Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain[viii], Iran considers supporting rebel groups in Syria equal to aiding the terrorists.[ix] This conflation has turned freedom fighters into targets. Rebel groups in Syria threaten Iran’s agenda in the Middle East, as ousting Assad would result in a Sunni dominated Syria and the loss of Iran’s final ally in the region, ultimately limiting Iran’s reach in the Arab World.[x]
Still, fighting radicalism in Syria has become a common interest amongst Assad allies and those backing the opposition, notably including the United States and Turkey. Finding an effective and moral strategy of containment has become a pivotal point of contention between nations. While both Russia and Iran maintain that destroying the militant Daesh requires strengthening Syria’s internal government[xi], Assad’s brutal treatment of his own people has presented opposition allies with a major moral dilemma.
Over the years, the mass slaughter and violation of human rights in Syria has fueled debates among Western nations over the extent of NATO involvement in the region. In the past, the U.S. has sent weapons to aid moderate rebel factions. Still, its military aid remained minimal to avoid the exacerbation of tensions with Russia and Iran. Former United States President Barack Obama maintained, however, that a diplomatic compromise in Syria would be contingent upon Assad’s fall.[xii] Though many criticized Obama for his timid foreign policy, his administration’s prudence was largely informed by cautions that fighting Assad more aggressively would only further embolden militant groups and anger Assad’s allies.
Current United States President Donald Trump’s vows to fight extremism more forcefully and to improve relations with America’s historic foe, Russia, have been clear in his approach to Syria. In a meeting between Trump and Putin held in July of this year, talks centered around issues both countries could agree upon, particularly stemming the growing global terror threat. Trump’s security and military advisers assured they have no plans of intervening to remove Assad, nor would they back Russian-led or U.N. peace mediation efforts between the regime and rebels.[xiii]
Several months earlier, Trump’s decision to arm the separatist Kurdish Y.P.G., a rival of NATO and opposition ally Turkey[xiv], also suggested that the United States’ priority in Syria would be fighting radicalism rather than interfering in the Assad–Opposition conflict.
Now, Abdulazes Dukhan says he only hopes that the world won’t forget about those who started the revolution, simply dreaming of freedom and democracy. In spite of the devastation that has cost him his home, Dukhan maintains with no hesitation that the revolution had to come. “It was just people asking for freedom,” he says. “We had no freedom.”
In his Letter to President Donald Trump, published on January 12th on Aljazeera, Dukhan writes:
“We started the revolution holding roses hoping for support from the international community… roses turned into guns, but the hope remains.”
While Dukhan continues to hope for Syria’s liberation, he fights in his own way. With art and without guns, he says. He now calls upon the Trump administration for the support that requires no weapons, only open minds.
After burying close friends and family members, Dukhan fled the carnage back in 2014. Still, he has fought persistently throughout his journey, encountering a less expected enemy along the way: racism. Hope for Syria, he says, now lies in exposing its story and the inherent goodness of its people, one photograph at a time.
Following his escape from Syria, Dukhan spent a year and a half living in Turkey before moving to refugee camps in Greece, where he would spend another year and a half volunteering and helping others with similar experiences. He heard stories of loss and suffering, and he began looking for ways to document the lives, he believes are so frequently forgotten or misunderstood.
“I saw the way the media was talking about refugees, it’s just sick,” he says. “Lots of people were very interested in doing things, and they ended up at a refugee camp somewhere. I saw people losing their dreams, hope, every day. That was one of the most difficult things, and you cannot do anything. Just watching them every day.”
Through his project Through Refugee Eyes, he seeks to reveal the horrors endured by the Syrian people to the larger global public and to dissolve the misconceptions so widely held about refugees. He hopes that his photographs will humanize the debate that has turned the lives of many into a question of economics and politics.
Three years after his escape, Dukhan received refugee status in Belgium. He says he frequently thinks of all the people still stuck in the violence and the thousands of refugees still seeking safety. With his photo exhibitions, appearing in venues across Belgium under the title “The Story Behind Syria,” Dukhan makes it his responsibility to open people’s minds to the Syrian situation. “I miss you Syria,” he writes, “I will always do my best to tell them about you.”
In a moment when international tensions are especially strained, Abdulazez Dukhan hopes his story, and those of his fellow migrants will remind people of the sanctity of all human lives, everywhere.
“I hope the world can look back just 200 years, that history teaches people,” he says. “You can learn a lot from history but, we don’t learn. Less than 200 years ago there were world wars. I hope people can realize that money, guns, power are not everything. All that remains are the humans. Humans are all that remain.”
Photos by Abdulazez Dukhan
Olivia Nemec is the Prague/Czechia reporter for Praguepost.com and can be reached at [email protected]
[ii]Simmons, Ann M. “Russia has been Assad’s greatest ally – as it was to his father before him” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 6 Apr. 2017
[iii] Nasr, Vali. “Why the Russians Aren’t Likely to Break With Assad” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 11 Apr. 2017
[iv] Simmons, Ann M. “Russia has been Assad’s greatest ally – as it was to his father before him” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 6 Apr. 2017
[vi] Bakri, Nada. “Iran Calls on Syria to Recognize Citizens’ Demands” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Aug. 2011
[ix] Jazeera, Al. “Russia, Iran vow continued military support for Assad.” Syria News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2017
[xi] Beattie, Victor. “Russian, Iranian Leaders: Assad Must Remain in Power.” VOA, VOA, 28 Sept. 2015
[xii] Deutsche Welle. “Syria conflict: What do the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran want? | Middle East | DW | 02.11.2017.” DW.COM
[xiii] Salama, Vivian. Lederman, Josh. Thomas, Ken. “US, Russia Announce Syria Cease-Fire After Trump-Putin Talks.” U.S. News & World Report, 7 July. 2017
[xiv] Gordon, Michael R. Schmitt, Eric. “Trump to Arm Syrian Kurds, Even as Turkey Strongly Objects.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 May 2017