‘There must be a future to look toward’: Syria Direct graduates 11th cohort of trainee journalists

Syria Direct graduated its 11th class of young, aspiring Syrian journalists on Sunday after they completed a three-month course in researching and producing in-depth, objective reporting.

The past few months have seen major changes in Syria, and the latest class of 12 trainees—six women and six men—have been following developments closely alongside Syria Direct’s full-time newsroom staff in Amman, Jordan.

Intense Russian and Syrian bombardment and deadly infighting between rebel groups rocked the country over the past three months, as major swathes of territory were recaptured from the opposition by pro-government forces in central and southern Syria.

Our trainees—hailing from Homs, Daraa, Damascus, East Ghouta and other areas that Syria Direct regularly reports on—come from diverse religious, cultural and economic backgrounds.

Some reported on their hometowns, while others worked to shed light on complex issues in regions of Syria they had never travelled to. All brought unique perspectives and skills into the mix that were reflected in their reporting.

Sunday’s graduating class joins the more than 160 Syrian journalists who have completed our training program in Amman and remotely from Syria since it began in 2014. Many have decided to continue with journalism, working in Jordan and elsewhere.

Our current training program is made possible by a grant from the United States Department of State.

Here’s a glance inside the Syria Direct newsroom: a chance to meet the women and men who’ve brought you the work we’ve published over the past three months.

Maria Ayman, 24, from the East Ghouta suburbs outside of Damascus.

Maria Ayman is hard to miss in the Syria Direct newsroom. Since the training began, the 24-year-old from East Ghouta has kept her colleagues laughing, bringing an infectious humor and enthusiasm with her even as we reported on the bleakest of crises in her home country.

“I strive to be that person that people turn to for support, for a laugh,” Ayman says. “That’s my philosophy.”

Ayman studied English literature at Damascus University before she fled Syria in 2013, when her father—a Syrian army officer—defected to the opposition. Since then, she’s been pursuing scholarship opportunities and working to improve her already American-accented English.

Ayman’s work with Syria Direct included a report on recently displaced, out-of-work journalists from East Ghouta in Idlib province—where her family now resides—and an interview with the first-ever woman to become the head of an opposition-run local council.

“Women have so many things standing against them,” Ayman says.

“We have to let women know that if you have what it takes to do something that you want to do, there’s nothing, and nobody who can stand in your way.”

Q: This week, you interviewed the first female president of an opposition-run local council. What made you want to do this interview? What role do you think women can play in Syria’s future?

When I came to Syria Direct, the first thing I said I wanted to work on was women’s issues. Syrian women have been marginalized, despite the fact that they are the most impacted mentally and physically [by the conflict].

So, seeing a woman like Iman Hashem becoming the president of a local council for the first time is something that makes you think that maybe there can be a new way of thinking in Syria: that it can be more open-minded and more developed.

A woman can do certain things that a man can’t. I hope one day that women will assume a role much like men’s in Syria, as well as the Arab world in general.

Women have so many things standing in their way—a woman is afraid of being rejected by society, or by her family. We have to let women know that if you have what it takes to do something that you want to do, there’s nothing, and no one, who can stand in your way.

Q: In the newsroom you have a reputation for having a sharp wit. You’re social and keep everyone laughing—how does this affect your work and your approach to reporting?

For me, as a woman who wears a niqab, it’s something that can make someone fearful of speaking with me. So, I try to give off an air of positivity—to joke and to laugh—to get them to think, “Sure, she wears a niqab, but she’s talkative. She’s funny. She has a sense of humor.” Especially for the international staff, [the niqab] is a strange piece of clothing for them—they might be a bit cautious when speaking to me.

[Ed.: The niqab is a garment worn by some Muslim women that obscures much of the face.]

I don’t want there to be any barriers that could stop someone from talking to me, to stop me from benefiting from others’ interactions with me.

It’s true that things in Syria are very bad right now. Psychologically and morale-wise, people are devastated. For me, my family were displaced from East Ghouta to Idlib—and I haven’t seen my father in five years.

But regardless, there must be a future to look toward. Despite all the catastrophes and everything else, I try to laugh. Maybe some might say that this is bad, but at the same time, others will say that despite everything awful happening in Syria, this one girl is still able to be optimistic.

If everyone is full of sorrow and despair, who’s going to come around and motivate us to keep reporting about Syria? With all the death that a journalist sees every day, there’s a risk that maybe one day they’ll just become too exhausted to keep going.  

I strive to be that person that people turn to for support, for a laugh. That’s my philosophy not just with Syria Direct, but with life in general.

There will be a tomorrow. One day, things in Syria will get better. And we’ll still need someone to make us laugh.

**

Leen Sayyid, 30, from a village in Daraa province.

Spending her childhood between her family home in Daraa province and the Syrian capital, there were two words that Leen Sayyid feared more than any others: “They’ve come.”

Before the war, “when the regime came we’d say [they’ve come] to express all our fears in two words,” 30-year-old Sayyid tells Syria Direct.

Just as the final month of Sayyid’s training began, the Syrian government launched a massive military assault on rebel-held territory in Sayyid’s native Daraa province. Hundreds of civilians were killed and more than 300,000 displaced by the fighting and bombardment across the province.

As more and more territory fell under government control in Daraa, Sayyid began hearing “they’ve come” more often from her friends still in Syria.

Hearing those words again, “I’d be overcome with horror,” she says.

As Syria Direct increased its Daraa coverage during the campaign, Sayyid drew on a wide network of sources in her home province to contribute to our coverage. Earlier this month, she helped tell the story of tens of thousands of displaced Syrians from Daraa stranded along Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Before working with Syria Direct, Sayyid says, she was a “passive observer.” But that has changed.

“Today I can do something. Even if it’s just an article or a post on Facebook, at least I can do something.”

Q: You’re from Daraa province. Throughout the last training, the pro-government campaign began and eventually a major part of the province came under government control. You’ve been covering the news from Daraa, from speaking to the displaced on the borders to reporting on military operations. What was it like to cover something so close to you?

To be totally honest, when there were campaigns on other areas like Aleppo and East Ghouta I would hear the news and feel distant—that I wasn’t in the heart of what was happening. But following the news is different from covering it as a journalist.

I had two simultaneous feelings [as I covered the Daraa campaign].

First, you don’t know what it’s like for someone to tell you that the regime has come. I know what that means. [Before the war,] we’d say “they’ve come” to express all our fears in two words, to say we needed to be quiet, to be careful, to not say anything.

When I’d speak with someone [during the recent campaign] and they’d tell me, “they’ve come,” I’d be overcome with horror.

The second feeling was about responsibility: I wanted to do something for my friends and loved ones in Daraa. Before I started training to be a journalist, I would just watch what was happening—I couldn’t do anything. Now, journalism is a way for me to actually do something.

[Before Syria Direct,] I was merely a passive observer—I’d sit and cry. But today, I can do something. Even if it’s just an article or a post on Facebook, at least I can do something.

Q: Earlier this month you reported on Syrians watching World Cup matches in Deir Ballut, a displacement camp in northwestern Syria. With everything negative happening in the country, why did you decide to write about sports?

During the time that Daraa was being bombed, I came up with the World Cup idea, along with another idea for a [not-yet-published report about] the flower festival taking place in Damascus.

I’d be talking with people in Damascus telling me that they’re going to this flower festival, that they’re happy, and I was very angry inside. How can you be happy when Daraa is so close and being bombed? There’s maybe only 70 or 80 kilometers between them.

It’s very hard, emotionally, to cover the crisis in our country.

As for the World Cup article, I’ve got brothers at home. Whenever the World Cup or Champions League happens, they’re all very interested—they set up the TV and get the WiFi going and watch it together.

So when I saw a picture of [people watching football in the Deir Ballut camp] on Facebook, and saw how people had set up a TV screen in front of a tent and were watching the matches, I thought about all these displaced people. I thought about their terrible situation and all the dust around them inside this camp. Then I thought: “I want to meet whoever came up with this.”

These guys are searching for the tiniest ounce of hope. When I finally met the organizer [photographer Rami al-Sayed], he told me that he liked working with technology and went out and bought everything with his own money. It was something [people in the camp] could look forward to—sitting together every night to watch the game.

So why did I take interest in this story? Whether we’re talking about being displaced in the north or bombs falling on Daraa, it’s all part of the same struggle. They’re all suffering.

When someone is afraid, or they’re being bombed, or whatever else is happening to them, they need hope.

**

Mohammad al-Ghazawi, 24, from Ailmeh village in Daraa.

Mohammad al-Ghazawi, 24, grew up wanting to become a journalist. But when he finished his secondary school exams, his father convinced him to give up his dream of becoming a journalist and study engineering instead.

Both al-Ghazawi and his father understood the limits of being a journalist in Syria, where news has long been tightly regulated and few non-state outlets exist.

“If I had studied journalism [in Syria], I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be truly independent,” al-Ghazawi tells Syria Direct. “If you want to kill a journalist, you rob him of his independence.”

Mohammad al-Ghazawi receives his certificate of completion from Syria Direct on Sunday.

Over the past three months, al-Ghazawi reported on the pro-government military offensive in Daraa province and Syrian refugee returns from Lebanon. Earlier this month, he joined Syria Direct’s full-time reporters during field work along the Jordanian-Syrian border—as members of his family were just kilometers away on the other side of the border.

“Your background always affects the work that you do,” al-Ghazawi says. “But if you want to be a successful journalist you need to put your feelings aside.”

Q: You have said that you always wanted to study journalism. How come you didn’t?

If I had studied journalism, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be truly independent. I wouldn’t have been able to practice real journalism, or at least somewhat neutral journalism. I wouldn’t have been able to truly realize my ambitions.

If you want to kill a journalist, you rob him of his independence, his ambitions and his neutrality.

There are many different parties in the conflict in Syria—from the Islamic State to the rebels to the government—how could I have stayed in Syria and not criticized the corruption there? Your freedom is limited no matter where you are in Syria. In one way or another, I would have sold my voice without having done anything to benefit society.  

Q: You’re from Daraa. During the training, a major pro-government military campaign saw much of the province return to government control. How has it been for you to cover a subject that is so close to you personally?

I think that “powerlessness” is a word that describes my feelings during the campaign.

When you cover these kinds of things, you are surrounded by fear. I worked on a piece about the displaced in Daraa while my parents were at the border. When you cover this kind of story, you constantly feel like there is something missing. No matter what I write about this, it will never truly express the situation that they are in.

It is really hard, and it’s difficult to describe.

A journalist is trying to pass on a message, but in the end he finds himself powerless. They might be able to pass on a message, but they didn’t actually do anything palpable. For this reason, they feel powerless when it comes to helping their family and friends.

Your background always affects the work that you do. But if you want to be a successful journalist you need to put your feelings aside.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.