It was the last place in the world where Amin Ahmed could have ever imagined himself.
A Syrian-born Muslim, on stage, in full view, before a predominantly Jewish audience at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy in Herzliya, four years to the day from the outbreak of Syria’s bloody civil war.
Still, he was careful about revealing his true identity, less out of fear of the Jewish audience than of the Syrian dictatorship he had fled.
“I didn’t hide my face. People could see me, but they were told they couldn’t take any pictures,” said Amin. In fact, he spent two eventful weeks on this, his first visit to Israel — the land he was taught to despise.
Amin Ahmed is a Syrian businessman in his late 40s. He’s fluent in lightly accented English, and, on the day we spoke, he called me on a Skype number from an undisclosed location to protect his anonymity. “My wife and children are also out of Syria, but I still have family members I fear for back home.”
Amin is a Sunni Muslim, as are some 75 percent of the Syrian people, a population that has been ruled by the dictatorial al-Assad family, Alawite Muslims, since 1970.
Amin is one of the “lucky” Syrians. He managed to escape war-torn Syria relatively unscathed, but the vast majority of his countrymen have been far less fortunate. More than 11 million people, virtually half of Syria’s population of 23 million, have been displaced.
Over 7 million are homeless inside Syria while another 4 million have fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.
Those numbers don’t include the more than 200,000 people who have been killed in the fighting — some gassed to death by chemical weapons. That figure includes 75,000 civilians and children. An additional 200,000 people languish in Syrian jails for opposing the al-Assad regime.
Syria’s unemployment rate is 50 percent; its poverty rate currently stands at 60 percent — a rate double what it was at the outbreak of hostilities in 2011.
A successful businessman in the medical services industry, Amin and like-minded individuals set up medical safe houses for Syrians who had been injured in the fighting. This was a vital step: The regime had been pulling injured Syrians out of the hospital for torture and worse, assuming that if they were on the other side, they were the enemy. Amin fled the country when he felt his life was in danger and, on the other side of the border, began his involvement with Israeli aid and rescue groups.
In the past year, Amin has joined forces with a New York–based humanitarian group called the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a coalition of more than 40 organizations formed in the summer of 2013 by Dr. Georgette Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, and Alan Gill, CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also known as the Joint or the JDC.
Working alongside groups of Israeli and Syrian NGOs who cooperate with each other quietly, the Alliance channels medical and economic aid to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, including those who have
crossed borders to receive medical treatment at Israeli hospitals.
“There is a great, untold story here,” says Dr. Bennett. “Here you have enemies, Israel and Syria, who are technically in a state of war, yet you have Israeli and Syrian organizations operating at risk all over the region to alleviate terrible suffering, rising above politics, suspicion, and hate and forming partnerships that can help plant the seeds for future stability in the region.”
Like Father, Like Son
It’s not easy to sympathize with Syria, a country that fought two conventional wars plus one war of attrition with Israel between 1967 and 1973, and still provides support to terrorist organizations whose intermittent rocket fire and ongoing threats keep more than a million Jews in northern Israel on edge.
Amin understands that sentiment, and says he hopes that a world that stood idly by, refusing to intervene in Syria’s humanitarian crisis, can learn the easy way what he’s had to learn the hard way.
“One thing I have reflected on is this sense of abandonment I have felt as a Syrian. But I’ve also said that we too should have cared about other people’s suffering in the past and we didn’t. We looked at horrendous events in history and we didn’t see them as a crime, and that was a mistake. I hope people in all nations will reflect on that and won’t make the same mistake. We have learned through hardship that supporting human dignity and opposing cruelty is the right thing to do, regardless of who those people are,” Amin said.
Syria, like the modern State of Israel, was carved from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire that collapsed after World War I. Just as the Jewish presence came under control of the British mandate, Syria was administered by France until independence was granted in 1946.
Syria’s government was chronically unstable until 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, a member of the socialist Baath Party, seized power in a bloodless coup. Assad stabilized Syria thanks to a military buildup financed by the Soviet Union. Al-Assad bought the loyalty of the Syrian populace with public works programs funded by Arab donors and international lenders. He eliminated his political opponents through arrest, torture, and execution. When the Muslim Brotherhood mounted a rebellion in Hama in 1982, al-Assad ruthlessly suppressed it. The exact death toll is a subject of dispute among historians, but his crackdown proved that the Assad family would be ruthless when it came to suppressing the aspirations of the Syrian people.
When Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000, his son Bashar eventually assumed power, amid high hopes that the British-educated ophthalmologist would liberalize the nation. Those hopes were soon dashed.
A decade of repression later, after the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria in March 2011, the Syrian regime arrested and tortured a handful of youth whose sole crime was scrawling antigovernment graffiti. Syrians took to the streets to protest the harsh treatment meted out to the youths, and the antigovernment protests soon led to an army crackdown that has spiraled out of control. Four years later, the al-Assad grip on Syria is tenuous. Large sections of Syria have fallen either to ISIS, or to Syrian rebels. Any day could be Bashar al-Assad’s last one in power, but only a prophet could foretell what will happen in Syria the day after.
“Unfortunately, no one knows,” Amin says. “Things could have been much different if the international community had shown the will to intervene much more forcefully. The regime is crumbling. It will probably lose its grip over Syria and it’s going to be very turbulent. But my focus now is to try and help my people.”
A Long Road
It was only at the end of a long and meandering road that Amin and the Multifaith Alliance he now works with found each other, with Amin abandoning the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiments of his youth, in exchange for a newfound appreciation of Israel and the Jewish People. We took a walk down that road, from beginning to end, during the course of our recent conversation in New York.
Can you describe your upbringing and early educational experiences in Syria?
The educational system in Syria is very weird. You learn all the normal subjects, but there is also compulsory military education from seventh grade on, where they teach you about weapons. They take us to camps for drills when we are in eighth grade. If you are a member of the Baath Party, you actually start weapons training at that age. If you’re not a member, you don’t train with weapons, but you do take physical drills and learn how to fight, tactically.
Were you a member of the Baath Party?
My family was, yes, but me personally, no. Normally, you join a group called the Baath Pioneers when you’re still in elementary school. You don’t have a choice. Most people will formally join the party when they’re in middle school, although some don’t. But if you want to advance and get more privileges, it’s better to join.
What did you learn about Israel in school?
It was very simple. Israel was the enemy. They are the ones trying to attack us, and take over our land and our homes and make it their own. It was always a hateful message. It was all about the bad things Israelis and Jews in general have done to Arabs and Muslims and how they’ve killed and slaughtered us. So we always had to prepare for that coming battle and if we could get to them first, then we should. They portray this in the name of self-defense because if you’re facing the devil, you have to fight the devil.
What percentage of the curriculum did this take up?
It’s not part of a fixed curriculum, but when you go through a history or geography book, or literature lessons, you will see paragraphs on it. It’s put in there so that it will come up for discussion. When I was growing up, there was no satellite communications or social media, only the state-controlled media, so we also heard this message on radio and television. You were surrounded by it everywhere. There’s no one book on how to hate Israel, but it was put in different places, on every level that they could.
How did you process this, personally?
I believed it. We all believed it. Maybe some people didn’t but when you’re living in such a controlled society you tend not to question it and accept it as fact. Everyone is saying it everywhere you go, so why argue with the facts? There were always programs showing witnesses talking about what Israel did to them, and how Jews oppress Muslims and Arabs in the region, so I didn’t question it. I went to university and studied business in the medical field, and even when I traveled outside Syria, if I saw someone Jewish I would try to steer away. We were also afraid of our government, and if they discovered us showing interest, or trying to communicate with Jews, it would have meant we were traitors or spies.
Where were you at the start of the Arab Spring in Syria?
Even before the Arab Spring, we already had Internet and cell phones. What that meant was we could discover more ourselves without fear. Even though the Internet is monitored, we were innovative in how to hide our proxies and IP addresses. We were watching the Arab Spring unfold. Syria is a very brutal dictatorship. We saw what Syria did [in Hama] in the 1980s and we knew what they did in Lebanon. Then this incident happened in southern Syria, where children wrote graffti with slogans they saw on the Arab street in other countries. The authorities captured them and took them to prison. They were all between 12 and 15 years old. They tortured them. Their parents tried to get them out, and said, “they’re only copying what they saw on TV,” but the answer from the security chief was very blunt. He said: “Go back home, forget about these children and have new children.”
Weren’t Syrians used to this type of cruelty from the authorities?
Syrians are religious people. We’re not fanatics, but we have strong family connections, and this came as a total shock to them. When word got out what the parents were told, and that the children had been tortured, people started demonstrating. The government’s response was very brutal. They started firing with live ammunition and killed four people at a demonstration. After their funerals, more people came out and demonstrated in other cities. As word spread, the frustrations started bubbling to the surface and spread over Syria in a matter of weeks.
How did you participate?
I was in a position to help people. There were more and more incidents of people getting shot who were not allowed to go to the hospital for treatment, because their names would be reported and they would be taken to jail. There were cases where people were in the middle of treatment and people were taken to jail, still bleeding, and they were tortured in jail. I wasn’t active in politics, but I was very well off, and had very good connections. At the time, I actually didn’t have problems with what was going on with Syria but I just couldn’t stand seeing people getting killed and injured and not getting treated. So together with some people, we formed cells and makeshift houses in which we could treat them. If there was a need in other areas for emergency medical equipment, we would provide it under the cover of our facilities. It soon became the most targeted profession. Everyone helping these people would get shot, or captured and tortured to death. We were very careful to stay underground, but the government was after us and cracked down. Then some of our members began disappearing.
Is there any one particular incident that caused you to flee?
We designed our operation so that we could cut the connections between cell members if we had to, but when two people in our core cell who knew everyone in our group were taken, that’s when I knew I had to move.
How did you get out of Syria?
You find your way along the border. There are always channels. When I fled, there were already some border areas that the government no longer controlled and already, about one and a half or two years into the civil war, there were areas where you could openly oppose the government without fearing for your life, and I crisscrossed them. It was also from those areas that we would go back and forth and deliver supplies.
When did you have your first meeting with Jewish NGOs seeking to aid Syrian refugees?
Another Syrian group approached me. They knew I could get back inside Syria and that I had the connections to deliver aid effectively. I already had name recognition and everyone trusted me. So when they approached and told us a new group wanted to help us, I said, of course. We needed it. We had nothing. We were a group of Syrian expatriates who had burned all of our personal savings during the previous two years. The only aid the UN was providing was either to refugee camps, or directly to the Syrian government, which of course wouldn’t provide aid to areas not under its control. The government was trying to seal off those areas and starve people as a punishment, so we had few resources. So I said, yes, bring them over, what’s the big deal. They said, it is a big deal: they’re from Israel.
How did you react?
That was the moment that everything I told you from the beginning — the hate, the evil, the bloodthirstiness and how Israel wanted to destroy us came back to me. I asked: Why do they want to help us? We thought the Israelis were really happy about what was going on in Syria; that Syrians are being slaughtered by their own government. This moment changed my perspective. Lots of thoughts came into my mind. Why are they coming to help us? Is it for real, or do they really want something else? But we were desperate, so we said let’s meet.
Can you describe that first meeting?
The meeting was held at the end of 2013.
We were surprised to learn that some of these groups had already been providing aid from early April or May 2011, under a different association trying to hide their identity. Our meeting was probably one of the first approaches where they openly said who they were. They showed us what they had already done and how they did it. We were impressed. I can’t elaborate, or give you their name, because we’re still working with them and it’s a dangerous mission. We provide food, hygienic and life support supplies, and medical supplies for rescue missions. We have come to really love our partners in Israel and we don’t want to endanger them and they don’t want to endanger us.
What was your takeaway from that first meeting?
The moment when everything changed for me was when we started talking and I saw their compassion. I learned that Israelis and Jews are a society like any other society. You have compassionate people who care about human life regardless of who that human life belongs to. We became friends and partners. It was something amazing for us. It changed our perspective, when we saw that the people who were supposed to be out to destroy us and throw us out of our homes were the ones helping us to survive, while the very people who told us these horrendous stories about them were the ones who were killing us. It was very easy to see it was all a lie and there are people living in neighboring countries that have aspirations and dreams and are wonderful human beings who care about the suffering of other human beings when they see it.
You came to Israel this spring for some personal appearances. What was your overall impression?
The reason I went to Israel was to talk in different venues, and tell Israelis how I was raised so they could understand where I came from and that if you’re doing good things, you shouldn’t lose hope. I went as part of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. Their main aim is to bring people from all walks of life to come together and aid Syria. As part of that effort, they wanted people in Israel to know how their work is changing the perspective of a lot of the people in Syria. We wanted to talk about where the hate came from, and how we can change the narrative and change their minds and hearts.
Do you feel you succeeded?
The Middle East is a tough place. You do things and don’t always see the benefits right away. There are fanatics who want to stifle any engagement between Israelis and Syrians, or who will always be enemies of any peace talks. At the end of the day, Syrians and Jews want to live their lives, raise families, and have peaceful homes. You will always be fearful of what you don’t know and there are elements who will try to squash every opportunity to talk, but there are also people for whom that’s not the case, and who want to communicate and build a better future. We’re neighbors. Let’s see each other and get to know each other. Fortunately, I think there are more Syrians and Israelis coming on board.