Saturday, 18 April 2015

Syria-sly Intense

Warning: Before I get started, just let me say this: in no way is my horrible attempt at a Syria pun for the title meant to make light of what I'm about to write. Please note, that some of the following may not be easily digested by all who read.

Okay, so here I am procrastinating once again. I did 16 burpees earlier in an attempt to not write term papers. THAT's saying something. Not that 16 is an impressive amount of burpees, more so the fact that doing them (or attempting to) sounded like a better option than writing term papers!

This has been one intense/interesting week. It's been filled with a lot of positive, a bit of stress, and ended with one eye-opening, heartbreaking, and humbling experience. To start, perhaps I should make a bit of a confession (not that I really need to). During my first week here in Manchester, I experienced the first few days of total aloneness since my Mom died. I'd been doing a good job of living life in what I like to call 'survival mode.' Having a few days of quiet and not knowing anyone meant I had time to think. One of my first posts after arriving in the UK indicated to some that things were not alright, and in fact, they weren't. I suffered a mild, but terrifying emotional breakdown, which resulted in me sitting in a counselling session a few days later. Every few weeks since, I have returned to the same office in an effort to actually deal with living without my Mom, and how to cope when it becomes too much. Well, this week I have graduated. I have completed, what I hope to be, my last session. This was an amazing way to start off my week.

Now, this also happened to be the final week of classes. That's right - as of yesterday I have completed all of the in-class components of my Masters degree. All that stands between now and graduation is 4 term papers, a dissertation and a whole lot of waiting time. This week also happened to include my final tutorial, for which I was the only one to show up!

So, yesterday, I left for my final Representations of Development class. I felt mixed about this, as it has been my favourite course by far in this degree, but on the other hand I'm ready to move forward! We had an interesting discussion, which had a slow start due to our collective end-of-week tiredness, but picked up as we went (I even spoke! ...which was a first, I think?). The class ended with the most epic selfie of all time! The perfect way to end a great course.

Beat that Ellen!
Photo credit: Dan Brockington/Salma Bouchiba
But, immediately after than, I had to rush to a session that was the conclusion of another course, Reconstruction and Development. This session focused on Syria (hence the title). It featured two Syrians (Dr. Ayman Jundi from Syria Relief and Dr. Haytham Alhamwi from Rethink Rebuild Society), and local filmmaker/photographer, Matt Norman (also with Syria Relief).

Admittedly, I wasn't looking forward to this session. There is a lot going on, Syria isn't my area of focus, and usually these types of presentations aren't overly useful. But, to be fair, I didn't know a lot about Syria other than what I've heard a good friend of mine tell me about her home. I was intrigued from that point, and as a result of my conversations with Samah, I have had a growing interest in learning more about this country. What we hear in the news is often doom and gloom, but I've been fortunate enough to hear about the beauty and culture within this country that is often left out of mainstream media. I think this is partly so it's easier for 'us' in the West to associate the area with a negative view, and also to prevent ourselves from seeing any connections between 'us and them.' You know, they way 'we' usually do it in the Global North...

Anyway, over the three and a half hours we sat in the lecture theatre we heard some remarkable stories. Stories that reiterated what my friend had shared with me, about the beautiful landscapes, and rich culture. Stories that gave us an overview of the country's transition into civil war status. But most importantly, we heard stories about everyday people. And they were heartbreaking, and at times difficult to hear. We heard about individuals who were arrested for opening a public library, for wanting to see change, and in one instance for recounting a dream (and listening, but not reporting it!). We heard about the conditions of the prisons, and the torture that often takes place. We heard about family and friends who lost their lives, and others who's whereabouts are unknown years after their arrest. We learned that schools and hospitals were key targets for attacks. Schools. SCHOOLS! These are places that we tell our children they are safe - and hospitals are an assumed extension of that.

Hearing these men recounting these experiences and stories was by far the most humbling experience I have had in a while, possibly ever. When I think about what the top news story is back home, and compare it to what is happening in the world around us (not just in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, as well), I simply cannot grasp how and why we allow ourselves to forget just how lucky we are. And, while I understand the insecurity, upset, and perhaps shock, of the cuts outlined in the latest budget, it is nothing in comparison. It's a sense of entitlement that comes with living in the "free world." I don't get it - I never have*.

But, let's get back to business here. For me, the most challenging part of this session happened in the first half an hour. We were shown an edited version of a Channel 4 documentary that Syria Relief was a part of. Those 14 minutes and 8 seconds were gut-wretching. Many of us fought to hold back tears. It was brutal, in the truest sense. It was putting faces to a crisis that hadn't been presented to me in this angle. Actually, angle isn't the right word here, because there wasn't one - it was just meant to show a view of the situation we don't get to hear about. Today, during one of my study breaks, I elected to watch the entire film. It wasn't any easier to watch. In fact, most of what we saw yesterday was tame by comparison. Even as I type now, thinking about what I saw, I'm struggling to hold it together.

Here's the documentary in full, and your second warning of the day: I would highly recommend everyone to watch the preceding film. BUT, take note, it is one incredibly difficult film to sit through. I would strongly discourage viewership of small children, or anyone with a weak stomach. But, watch it. It's important to expose ourselves to these opportunities to see a reality that is not our own. Sometimes accepting that is what makes it difficult to view. There are many advertisements which interrupt viewing, but sometimes at very welcomed points. 

On a lighter note, we ended the session by having a tea and sweets social. The representatives from Syria Relief joined us, and we had some interesting discussion on various topics. And, more importantly, we were treated to an incredible array of Syrian sweets, courtesy of my friend, Samah. Diet down the tube. But, boy! was it worth it!

Photo credit: Arafat Safi
Photo credit: Arafat Safi
Photo credit: Arafat Safi
Well, I suppose I should get back to it... See you on the other side of this term!

-the Orange Canadian

*But this isn't about a "let's shit on filmmakers in Nova Scotia" rant, - I'm a filmmaker! - or even an attempt at making us, any of us, feel guilty about the geographic location in which we were born and/or grew up in. It is simply just me thinking, stepping back, and reminding myself how unjustly and foolishly luck I am to be a Canadian - something I had no say over. 


  1. Emily! I have no words to say but: I love you!


    1. Samah - I love you right back! You are one amazing lady! Can't wait to visit you someday in Syria!

  2. Wow. You just said so thoughtfully what I know many of us were/are feeling, and somehow managed to make it personal and relatable while still all about what ordinary people in Syria are going through, thank you lovely x

    1. Thanks, Ros! I've not been able to stop thinking about it, which arguably perhaps I shouldn't. We need to be exposed to more of this, even if it is tough to hear/see. I'm really glad I went to that session. Wish you could have joined us for the 'social' afterwards, though!