The diaspora is an underrated word. It defines a whole group of people whose identity has been put into question due to today’s rigid understanding of the modern nation-state. It is at once the idea of belonging and not belonging. You [may or may not] belong to the country you live in, yet you do not live in the country your roots are from. That is where the word diaspora comes in. It transgresses all physical, geo-political borders to create a new, metaphysical transnational state.
This is the case with the Syrian diaspora. For the past 11 years since the conflict began in Syria, Syrians have been fleeing and spreading in many different countries across the globe. However, within this diaspora, there are migrants that have left Syria and settled down abroad for years or decades before 2011. As a result, they developed an abundance of subcultures, ideologies, and ethics that might be completely different from those in their original country – Syria.
In this article, I want to shed light specifically on the problems that younger second–generation members of the Syrian diaspora in Western Europe, face today in engaging with the country of their roots. This article is dedicated to this group of people, as well as all Syrian activists everywhere hoping for a united Syria, and a solution to this ongoing humanitarian crisis.
I have chosen this subject as I personally fall into this category and have not always found it easy to find a voice for myself within what the future of our country could look like. What I mention here is based on my opinions and observations, failures and successes, and research.
Why the Syrian Diaspora is Indispensable
It is known that diasporic communities attempt to retain emotional, physical, and cultural bonds with their home countries through diverse means. Historically, and even before the 2011 revolution, the Syrian diaspora all around the world managed to maintain contact with Syria in their settlement countries by opening restaurants, hosting musical events, or through political advocacy, amongst other initiatives.
Through such activities, we have shown great resilience and support for the homeland.
In addition, diaspora mobilisation for humanitarian relief towards the country has proven to be crucial for creating a shared perception of hope for the future of Syria . It has always been a way to demonstrate solidarity with the revolution from afar and establish themselves as having a stake in the country’s present.
The constant flow of human rights violation reports and investigations in Syria, produced in cooperation with local communities and the diaspora, have further helped create a sense of community that ignores all borders. The protests, sit-ins, and humanitarian events organised by diaspora activists continue to ensure that the flame of passion for our country never stops burning, reinstating hope in activists’ hearts that the battle for a free, fair, and democratic Syria is not over.
That being said, with the passing of time, fewer and fewer of us young second-generation Syrians are showing an interest in joining movements for humanitarian action, human rights, or longer-term development in the country. It is of crucial importance for us not to overlook this pattern.
As members of the diaspora in Western Europe, we have more freedom to politically organise than we would have in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey, to cite a few examples. This is a privilege we have to seize and make the most of, starting by encouraging all young people to participate in the collective battle for a free Syria, and, when the time comes, be part of the process of rebuilding it.
Challenges Facing Youth Mobilisation
It is not always the case that members of the younger generations of the Syrian diaspora, be it second or subsequent generations, are excited to join in the humanitarian responses for Syria.
There is a plethora of reasons I have observed for this, and some that the scope of this article does not cover. That said, here are a few that I suggest are most relevant from the experiences of this age group:
- Identity Engagement –
Firstly, for any activist or activist-to-be, addressing questions of identity are indispensable. It is exhausting to incessantly work on a dire humanitarian situation in general. Add to that the difficulty in forging and maintaining an identity and a relationship with the country in question, and it becomes almost impossible to generate a continued enthusiasm for activist work.
This is what is happening to some of the members of the Syrian second-generation diaspora in Western Europe. We must not forget that the question of identity in the diaspora is a very sensitive one. Even after 21 years, I certainly would not be able to clearly answer the question: “Where are you from?”.
There are several causes for a lack of identity engagement with Syria. One of the more obvious ones is distance. Western Europe is far from Syria, in culture, in proximity, in way of life… If a member of the diaspora has never been exposed to Syria in the past, or only when they were very young, it will make it harder to identify with this country as their own.
- Language as Identity –
What’s more, there exists many factors in which a young person could feel rejected by the culture. For one, the language.
It has been over half a century that the situation in Syria is not stable. As a result, the second-generation diaspora has expanded in an unprecedented fashion in countries that do not have Arabic as their main language. It is not uncommon for parents in the diaspora to struggle to pass on the Arabic language to their children fluently. As such, there exists a sort of language disparity between members of the new and old diaspora.
As language constitutes a big part of identity, a lack of competence in the language can result in a feeling of inadequacy. This may discourage us second generation youth to join in humanitarian planning and action.
However, language is not what makes someone more or less Syrian. Nor should it make second-generation Syrian diaspora feel more or less capable of contributing.
Spaces that recognise and encourage our capabilities and patterns of thought need to be more clearly established, to help overcome this language/identity barrier.
- Identity and Nostalgia –
Another important point to mention with regards to identity creation is how overwhelming it can be to connect with your roots. If one day you decide to move closer to Syria’s music, food, history, or politics, it might become harder to relate to the Western European world. When you open the treasure chest of Syrian culture, you might realise that you are living safely in the country that colonised your country of origin, or the country that had something to do with its destruction. This can leave us feeling conflicted at times about where we are from, and where we are now.
Personally, I have found coming to terms with these realisations very difficult. Opening the door to discovering your roots simultaneously opens the possibility of falling into the curse of the diaspora: an eternal nostalgia for something that you cannot have.
This nostalgia can be cured in most cases through occasional visits back to the country. However, this is not an option in Syria’s case. You become constantly stuck in a state of nostalgia that will only grow as time passes. Consequently, it becomes stressful to open up this door, causing some people to want to keep it shut.
For this, we need to create a common vocabulary of hope. One that will allude to a better future for Syria where our nostalgia is reduced to a secondary feeling. One that does not equate Syria with destruction.
- Disillusioned Youth-
Secondly, disillusionment plays a big role in hindering the participation of young people in the humanitarian response to Syria. Every year, the situation in the country becomes more complex to understand and more disheartening, which can be very overwhelming for those on the verge of involving themselves in Syrian humanitarian work.
Even with a good grasp of the Syrian situation’s geo-political intricacies, the lack of tangible change in the country could be enough to further encourage disillusionment in activists, or activists-to-be. This is a natural reaction caused by a deficit of hope.
Thus, a lack of faith from young activists-to-be that the humanitarian response will lead to anything concrete, can discourage them from joining the battle for a free Syria as they might believe that their efforts can be better put to use in another cause.
My Proposed Solution
After talking to young Syrians of the diaspora in my circle, I came to the very important conclusion that the best way to mobilise the greatest number of us young people in the diaspora, of 1, 1.5 or 2nd generation on, is to celebrate Syrian culture in every way possible. More importantly, to outline why we celebrate our culture in the first place.
This means to encourage Syrian movies and music festivals, theatre shows, cooking lessons, etc. around Western Europe – and the rest of the world. This has already been done by many including the Syrian Arts and Culture Festival in London and Manchester, Qisetna’s (our story) Syrian Cassette Archive, and the Syrian Sunflower Kitchen .
The goal here is to make Syrian culture as present as possible in the life of the diaspora, to reignite a sense of Syrian identity in young Syrians. It is to give another dimension to Syria than just a ‘war-torn country’, to make young Syrians proud of belonging to such a rich and diverse culture.
On an individual basis, an interesting study by Border Crossing has outlined how established members of the London Syrian diaspora have favoured art and culture as a means of upholding links to their homeland, all by asserting their citizenship within their adoptive countries.
Therefore, I contend that hosting such cultural events allows us young members of the Syrian diaspora – and in general all its generations – to create a personal connection with the country. For example, if we go to a food event and eat something we recognise from home, we can personally connect this larger event to a sweet memory we have from home. Bit by bit, this allows us to reconnect with our culture, this time with a wider scope, sharing it with other members of the youth diaspora. This allows us to contain our nostalgia, through sharing our thoughts with those that can understand us.
This form of cultural networking can eventually lead to a renewed passion for the country, and ultimately for the cause of freeing it. This for the simple reason that, when you have people to share your experience with, form a community with, and interact with on a regular basis, it becomes a lot easier to feel as though you belong somewhere. As a result, it becomes a lot easier to feel as though you have a place in Syria and its culture.
This is what I have felt in my own life. When I found myself in a situation where I worked alone, or with very little support, I was easily discouraged. Meeting other Syrian people with my same interests and seeing many Syrian cultural events organised around the country, has encouraged me immensely to continue work. It is a source of hope.
So, the answer is art, the answer is culture, the answer is remembering Syria as more than just a war.