A conversation with Amina Khoulani and Salma Kahale
The rise of victims’ associations in 2016 was connected with civil society organizations (CSOs) in one way or another. Such organizations sometimes provided support to the movements during or after their founding process; or the associations originated in programs that were implemented by CSOs, later becoming independent; or any number of other relationships existed between the two categories of organizations. Victims’ associations have appeared more frequently in the past four years, and their numbers have increased over the past two.
These developments call for an examination of the relationship between victims’ associations and civil society organizations, the types of approaches they take in working with one another, and the cause on which they are working. The following is a dialogue between Amina Khoulani, one of the founders and general director of the Families for Freedom movement; and Salma Kahale, Executive Director of Dawlaty, which is one of three organizations that make up the movement’s “support team.” Through this dialogue, we will take a close look at an important and effective model in Syrian public affairs for the relationship between CSOs and victims’ associations. We will also look at the challenges and obstacles involved in this work, and how to manage tensions that may occur. One of the most significant of these tensions can be the contradiction between the need to create symbolic leaders—individual charismatic actors—and the need to create more horizontal, collective, and participatory movements.
Oula: Amina Khoulani, you have been described as one of the fiercest fighters in defending detainees and forcibly disappeared persons, and you are a founder of the Families for Freedom movement. What motivated you to do this? What drives you to continue?
Amina: I’ve had personal experiences in the past with civil struggle that resulted in being summoned by security services and being arrested. In 2001, a group of us, young men and women from Daraya, established a small cultural center that we called Subul al-Salam (Paths to Peace). Within days, the center was shut down by authorities, and we were summoned for investigation. Abdul Akram al-Saqqa, a Syrian Islamic enlightenment thinker, was arrested. In 2003, the group became the Daraya Youth Group, and we repeated the experience of civil struggle, carrying out a campaign that we called “Until they Change Themselves.” This campaign included many activities, such as holding a silent march, handing out leaflets against bribery, and street cleaning in Daraya. As a result, we were all summoned by security forces. My husband participated in the campaign, and so did my brother Muhammad, who was later killed in detention. The men were transferred to a military court and sent to the Sednaya prison. Imagine: The people who swept the streets were sent to a military court... unbelievable.
Since then, the arrest has caused me to suffer both psychologically and in terms of daily life, as my children were young at the time. My son Hadi was one month old when my friends and I were summoned to every possible security branch. We were not allowed to visit my husband, brother, teacher, and friends in Sednaya, and we would get information about them from here and there. We set off on one of two possible paths at that stage. As you know, families in Syria resort to using wasta (connections) and bribes in order to obtain information about their detained children, knowing that there is no legal path they can take. They do this while experiencing tremendous fear, because the events of the eighties are always at the top of people’s minds.
While some families resorted to wasta, we, the group of women who remained on their own after all of the men were arrested, chose to resort to the path of human rights. It was at that time that we first heard about human rights in Syria, and we made contact for the first time with Razan Zaitouneh (may God grant her peace, wherever she is). Some of the men, including my husband, were sentenced to four years, of which they served only one. Others were sentenced to seven years, of which they served two and a half, among them was Yahya Sharbaji.
We thought that our mobilization efforts were fruitful. I didn’t know what “advocacy” meant at the time, but, along with my friends, I insisted that we not remain silent. So, we started communicating with international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and others, and we would picket outside of security branches to inquire about them, often sitting on the ground and waiting. We became exhausted during this phase. We learned at the time that there is a “presidential letterbox” at the post office in Hijaz Square in Damascus, and that the letters dropped there reach the President’s office. We started putting a letter in this mailbox every week, asking to visit our loved ones and for their release.
Some of my friends gave up on the matter due to pressure coming from society or from parents who were afraid of their daughters getting arrested. I did not stop, and for that I paid a high price. I was summoned again and arrested. However, many acquaintances intervened, and I was interrogated for only one month at the Palestine branch. I know that I’m digressing with all these details, but they’re all present in my memory, and they’re part of my motivation to continue.
A few months after the beginning of the revolution, my teacher, Abdul Akram al-Saqqa, was arrested once again. I was summoned a few months later, and then my brothers Abed and Majd were arrested, along with Yahya Sharbaji, whom I consider a brother and a friend. We received a certificate of their deaths two years ago. The three of them were executed at Sednaya prison. We continued our revolutionary activities and I was haunted by the fear of arrest. I would read about female detainees and prepare myself for a fate like theirs. Before participating in a demonstration, I would take off my ring and my bracelet, and say to myself, “better for my children to use them than for security forces to take them.”
I would also wear multiple layers of clothing because detention centers are cold. And I would fill my pockets with tissues and napkins and I wouldn’t put a pin in my scarf, so that it wouldn’t injure my neck if I was hit. These are small details, but they never leave my mind. I used to say to my children when I left for any revolutionary activity; “I’m not going out and leaving you because I don’t love you. On the contrary, it’s because I love you so much that I have to go; because I cannot bear the thought of your future being in this jungle controlled by Assad.”
My two other brothers, Bilal and Muhammad, were also arrested. They were not participating in the uprising. Not out of unwillingness, but at my father’s request. He used to tell them, “Amina, Abed, and Majd are taking part in the revolution. Stay away from it a bit, so I can have someone beside me.” Bilal brought back tragic news when he left prison: Muhammad was killed under torture in front of him. Muhammad was my friend and my comrade, not just my brother. He was a comrade in the struggle of 2003, when we were both summoned by security forces. He was also one of the students of Jawdat Saeed and Abdul Akram al-Saqqa, a beacon of peaceful thought at the time.
“Everything in my life was obliterated. The martyring of Muhammad obliterated everything.” Bilal told us how Muhammad was martyred. The details are a pain I keep to myself. Bilal came back from prison a “walking corpse.” Have you seen the Caesar photographs? Bilal looked like the victims in those photos. He's all right now. “A new life was written for him,” as the saying goes. I am the eldest of my siblings, and when they talk about the importance of supporting women, I feel proud that the men in my family have been my biggest source of support since I was a child. My father, my brothers, and later my husband.
During one demonstration, my brother Majd told me: “If you want, I can carry you on my shoulders.” They have been truly supportive of me throughout our struggle.
My husband and I were arrested together. I didn’t expect that we would be arrested at the same moment from the same car, but they put me through absolute terror when they beat him in front of me. I was willing to do anything, “I’ll say whatever you want me to.” But the detective resorted to another method. He asked me, “Do you love your husband?” I did not understand why he was asking, but I said “yes.” After that, they brought him in and began torturing him front of me. I later found out that they used the same method with him. I was in detention for six months, and my husband stayed there for two and a half years.
On the day that I was released from prison, they announced our names at the cell door. My name and the name of Ruwaida Canaan were listed among those to be released. We cried because we would be getting out and leaving all of the other women behind, all of whom were charged with political charges or “terrorism.” Some of the women were not even involved in any activities, but were mistakenly detained in place of other people. I felt a great sense of betrayal leaving them, and I promised them that I would be their voice; that I would not remain silent. “Do not forgive me if I forget you.” After that I went on driven by my belief in freedom and justice. We took to the streets calling for freedom, and Syria is not free as long as detention centers exist.
I am a believer; and I believe that God almighty created me to do something of value on this earth. This value will not come about by staying at home. My faith motivates me to stand up against oppression, and to demand justice for all Syrians.
Oula: Salma Kahale, you are the founder and director of Dawlaty. You have worked with victims’ organizations since 2016, and are one of their radical supporters. What motivated you to engage in this work? Why work with organizations concerned with victims’ affairs?
Salma: It’s not easy to speak after Amina. I have believed in justice since I was young, and I have always had what can be described as righteous anger; feelings of outrage against abuse, oppression, and injustice, driven by a desire for change. We cannot witness injustice without taking action to change things. I don’t have the doctrinal or religious beliefs that Amina has, but of course I have my own beliefs of a different nature. I believe that if we don’t work for change, we are part of the problem. I believe in humanity, and in the human capacity for doing good and for change. Since I left Syria for Canada, I have been involved in political work and in the pursuit of justice, both as a student and as a woman. When I finished my university education, I felt like, sure, I am working on human rights and the rights of women, students, and others, but I still want to do this work in my own country.
In 2004 I returned to Syria and tried, but I couldn’t find a way to take part in a project for change. I didn’t find an opportunity, and perhaps it didn’t exist at the time. But, after the start of the revolution, I got involved and started working with a group of activists who I felt shared my principles and ideas, both within Dawlaty and with you, Oula, and with others. Here I want to say two things. The first is that I do feel my privilege. In other words, I had a choice, or other options, but my belief in the cause pushes me to continue. Amina has a choice too, of course, and there are options before her, but she always chooses to continue walking the path of struggle.
Oula: I think it is important to talk about the privileges that we have as people working in public affairs. Perhaps recognizing these privileges in the contexts in which we operate is important. We usually carry these privileges as a burden, but in return, we have a chance to use them to serve the cause and seek justice.
Salma: I am aware of these privileges, and of how I can use them to support people involved in the cause such as Amina. But the people themselves remain at the forefront of the struggle and they are the ones who are directly affected. This is a major reason why I question my role in this struggle, and my relationship with the victims and with the people of the cause. To a large extent all these things are informed by my experience, privileges, and awareness of my position.
Oula: Salma and Amina, how did you start working together, and how did this relationship develop?
Salma: I met with Maria Al-Abda, the manager of Women Now, and her colleague Anna. They spoke about the unheard voices of women, and the huge discrepancy between the women’s lived-realities and what people say about their role in achieving peace and justice. They also mentioned the importance and urgency of the issues of detention and forced disappearance for the women they work with. So, they suggested working with us at Dawlaty because we had experience in the field of transitional justice, and, at the time, were just starting to work with youth on oral histories.
We agreed to start collecting the stories and testimonies of women from families of detainees and forcibly disappeared persons, and to develop programmatic and advocacy tools in order to preserve their stories and experiences and to build public awareness on the issue. Our first activity was a workshop in Lebanon, where the participants were women who shared their stories with us, women who conducted interviews, and other civil society actors. We started our workshop with audio recordings of some of the stories. The Syria Campaign, and Bissan Fakih in particular, were the ones who realized how strong these women are as advocates. They are the legal defenders of the cause, and the most able to reach public consciousness.
Amina: Even at that time we had the idea that we wanted to fight forgetfulness and preserve memories, especially with regard to the issue of detainees. Usually, the families of detainees or survivors are called upon as witnesses, and they are treated as just that, deprived of any decision-making capacity. What’s more, there’s no discussion of the suffering of families, and therefore, they are the ones who have to convey and talk about this suffering.
Salma: Our second activity was an advocacy trip to Geneva, which coincided with the negotiations at the time. It was important that a group of women including Amina were seated there together as relatives of detainees. The entire support team left the room, and I remember that the session lasted no more than an hour, and the participants came out with a clear memorandum explaining who they were and outlining goals and demands.
Amina: We were five women. Some of us were meeting each other for the first time, and we hailed from a range of different political and social backgrounds. Nevertheless, we were able to come to an agreement and outline our priorities and demands.
Salma: While you were inside, we, as the support team, were having our discussions outside, inspired by your voices. We decided then to be a radical support group. This is your cause. You are the ones leading it, and we offer our full support to make your voices heard. You are the compass for our work. On the second day, we met with de Mistura before negotiations started. I remember what he said; “this is the first time that someone has spoken of these demands with this level clarity and practicality.” Later, one of the employees in the office of the Special Envoy told me, “I know that you all in the support team are the ones who drafted and finished the writing on their behalf.” This showed a lack of faith and trust in the women, as if our role was to polish their image. As if they are puppets, and we move them and tell them what to say.
I bring up this example in order to show that this is a common way in which people of the cause are seen; we bring them along, but tell them what they should say. Thus, our radicalism. They are the compass that guides us, and our role is to support them with our expertise and networks, and to provide them with logistical support. This is how we created the work dynamics between Families for Freedom and a support team made up of representatives from Dawlaty, Women Now, and The Syria Campaign. This relationship began based on trust and faith, and it still is.
Oula: Reflecting on the session that Salma mentioned, could you attempt to deconstruct the factors that helped or pushed you to reach a clear memorandum of demands despite the political differences you described, and the fact that you didn’t previously know one another? How did you overcome your differences, and what helped?
Amina: The main factor was that we all agreed on the overarching long-term goal, which is sacred to each of us. Of course, we disagreed on some issues, but what unites us is greater than our differences, at least at this stage. This was always the case for me (and I think for the rest of the group, as well). We asked ourselves, are these details about which we disagree important when it comes to freeing the detainees or not? This was our standard. For me, everyone who demands freedom, justice, and democracy throughout our physical and intellectual space, and everyone who believes in the civil state, are with me in the same boat. An ethical dimension unites us all against injustice and tyranny. (Despite intellectual and political disagreements, which ought to be put off until the Syrian massacre stops. After that, discussions can be had.) And this is not to mention the intense emotional connection that binds us as families of detainees and the forcibly disappeared. This was evident in that meeting, and is still present today.
Oula: More than four years have passed since the Families for Freedom movement was established. Looking back at these years, what challenges have you faced, and how have you dealt with them? Can the movement be described as “non-homogenous,” given the diverse backgrounds of its participants?
Amina: I don’t like the term “non-homogeneous.” Yes, we vary in our political and intellectual backgrounds. This is healthy and necessary. A human rights cause brings us together, so differences that are unrelated to values or ethics can be overcome. Actually, it’s the opposite. We have treated our differences as an element of strength since our first meeting. We have sought to make them very present in the movement, even commonplace. We invited women and girls from various backgrounds, including regime loyalists who had relatives detained by opposition factions. None of them joined of course, but the door was open. Salma might recall that in the beginning we would have disagreements over our political visions, but we knew where to draw the line so that our disagreements wouldn’t turn into arguments. There are dynamics within the group that were created over time to deal with the movement’s diversity, and the support team played a positive role here. We also came to the conclusion that the support team is in fact working for the cause, and isn’t just a project created to obtain funding.
Oula: You focused, Amina, on what brings you together as a movement, and on ethical and moral principles as key factors in avoiding disagreements. What about you, Salma, how do you see it? Do values play a role in your work with civil society organizations that support organizations which defend victims?
Salma: We always believed, both as a support group and as individual organizations, that our support for Families for Freedom is part of our basic responsibility to support the cause of detainees and their families, especially women. If we have tensions within the group, between our organizations, or with donors or families, we always remind one another that our responsibility lies with supporting this cause and these women, and we must approach the issue from this perspective. We have been able to overcome many difficult scenarios by focusing on our main mission and moving away a bit from everyday problems, organizational politics, and donor bureaucracy. Indeed, it is not easy to work as a coalition. As a support group formed by an alliance of three organizations, we have different degrees of experience with and openness to partnerships.
Values are a very important factor in our alliance. Not only were we able to build upon our values, we also worked on our approach and on how we view our role. The fact that there is trust between us as organizations allowed for this. This trust was formed through partnerships we had prior to our work as a support group, such as during the Planet Syria campaign and others. We were able to build a common culture through these previous alliances, one built on transparency and dialogue. We engaged in a lot of discussion and found a path together. Of course, among the challenges that alliances face is managing the “ego” of each organization and its desire to stand out. Part of my role within my team is to constantly remind everyone that we are working for a cause, not for the prominence of our organization. Certainly, we have reached a point where we need financial resources in order to be sustainable and have a bigger impact in our work. There is awareness within the organization, however, that this work is not just a project that needs funding.
Oula: Salma, since you and Amina have both mentioned the subject of funding, it seems like an important thing to discuss further. Civil society relies heavily on funding in order to carry-out its interventions. How do you strike a balance between creating a funded project versus more organic and more sustainable work? Ultimately, financing is linked to the policies and strategies of donors, so, does designing specific interventions that rely on funding ever result in harm to the cause? Or cause the work to fail?
Salma: Since starting our work as a group, we did not want to seek funding in the name of Families for Freedom, because the movement is our responsibility as civil society organizations, and not a project that we are implementing. So, we used to cover the costs of advocacy campaigns by pulling from here and there. We have been conscious since the beginning that we did not have any funding source. When we needed to sustain the work, however, we established financing policies that suited our values and committed ourselves to them. Politically, it is necessary that there be no conflict between the values and positions of the funder or donor state and our own.
We tried to be careful not to conduct activities or disburse funds according to the agenda or criteria of the donor or any other actor. We did not want to create a dynamic where the activities and pace of the movement were defined by whether or not we were receiving funding, and when. In our opinion, this would have made the movement less sustainable.
There’s another component to this conversation about sustainability: we are aware of our role as individuals who receive salaries to support the movement, while the families are not getting paid for their work. For them this is both a personal and political cause. This difference creates a kind of tension, as we do not want our role to be limited only to providing logistical and administrative support. We also want to play a role as partners and allies.
On the other hand, we are aware that part of empowering families means that we should not handle administrative or budgetary matters without including them in that work. Therefore, there is tension between our responsibilities as radical supporters and as people who receive salaries to do this work, and the need to create a kind of reliability in the process. Between “you just ask for it, and we will do it without them knowing anything about the details” and allowing them to lead this work, which certainly requires effort and time from them.
Oula: How do you manage these tensions? Of course, you have awareness about them, but how do you deal with them?
Salma: As you mentioned, part of managing the tensions, is being aware of them and attempting to undo them and find solutions. They are partial solutions, but we continue to be engaged in ongoing discussions.
Amina: And discussions are difficult, especially about these issues. They have no end. As long as we are doing this work there will be these tensions, but they never reach a point where they affect the work, and that’s the important part. We hold these discussions internally and in the context of trust. I emphasize the word “internally” here because displaying these tensions in public spaces like Facebook or on other platforms (as we see many groups doing) hurts the cause. I reject the populist approach in dealing with differences and tensions, because it hurts collective work.
Oula: What are the challenges that victims’ associations face in their relationships with the civil society organizations that support them? And on the other hand, what are the challenges that civil society organizations face in their relationships with the associations? Here, I would like not only to draw upon your experience as a support team and families, but also to talk about your experiences in the larger context, as actors in this field.
Salma: Over the past six years that I have been involved in Syrian civil society and doing work related to justice, there has been a marked improvement in how civil society deals with victims or people of the cause. I remember that when policy and coordination meetings on justice were first being held, there was almost no representation of victims, let alone groups of victims. When victims were involved, it was usually during advocacy rounds, where they were being paraded around as a way to raise awareness about the situation in Syria or to raise money for a specific group.
There has been a noticeable improvement in the amount and quality of involving victims in discussions on justice. Many Syrian civil society organizations have supported Syrian victim groups through their organizing work and by creating space for them at the table. They have also worked to promote their voices, be that by supporting these groups to create their own organizations, by developing victim-led programs within existing organizations, or simply by creating a space for victims to talk about their experiences and the demands they have of certain actors. There has definitely been positive change.
There are also some organizations that began as victim groups but have evolved into other kinds of groups. For example, one group that formed to provide services to female survivors of detention now has programs in several other areas. In addition, there are many groups that used to be civil society organizations operating on a geographical basis, which now play a role in representing victims. Here I mean coordination councils and groups led by women from communities that were forcibly displaced. I think that these examples and developments remind us of the dividing line between civil society organizations and victim groups, and that it is usually unclear. In my opinion this is not a problem in and of itself, as long as there is clarity regarding positioning and representation.
In spite of all of this, I believe that there still exist many harmful practices of exploiting victims, and that these practices are somehow becoming more institutionalized. There are still many examples of victims being asked to speak and share their experiences without being meaningfully involved in the structure of events, and without being given the space to speak about what goes beyond their experiences, or to speak out about their demands. Unfortunately, some entities seem to invite female victims to talk about their experiences in an attempt to show that they are inclusive when it comes to gender and victims. However, without the meaningful participation of victims, this remains a symbolic gesture and a form of exploitation. Furthermore, grouping female victims into one category in order to appear inclusive perpetuates harmful stereotyping. Yes, it is good to have victims at the table, but they need to be involved in a meaningful way, and we need to move away from the formula of “the male expert and the female victim.”
Amina: I would like to note at the outset that we do not like the use of the terms “victims’ groups” or “victims’ associations,” but we are forced to use them because they are used officially and professionally by international organizations. We reject them because the word “victim” carries a negative connotation, suggesting that I have no free will in everything that goes on; as if a natural disaster struck the country. This is not the case in Syria. Although there are indeed many victims, we do not consider anyone who participated in the revolution of their own accord to be a victim. Personally, I do not consider myself a victim, despite all the painful losses that I have suffered with my family, because everything I did was out of my own free will and belief in both what I was doing and in the necessity of continuing.
As Salma said, at one-point victims were tools for designing projects and obtaining funding. We in Families for Freedom were constantly asked questions that indicated that the general perception or understanding among the public was that people of the cause are just tools for a project that someone else is implementing.
We would often be invited to activities by some entity or other, only to discover that this entity has a sum of money that it wants to spend during a certain time period. It would then be asked of us to quickly “cook something up” that corresponded with that sum, and then implement it. The basis of our movement is our strategy and our analysis of “where are we right now” and where we would like to be, not the availability of funding. So, we are keen to propagate this culture that we have built by working together as a movement and a support team to other associations and groups.
Another issue that I would like to point out is that, with the shrinking of the areas in which civil society organizations can work (upon the loss of Ghouta and other areas) many have been pushed to work on the issue of detainees and survivors. Space to work on this issue is still available, so it has become something of a trend. There are many financed entities that want to establish groups for victims without any thought about either the sustainability of these groups or the impact that creating unsustainable groups in the public space might have, be it the psychological impact on their members, or the practical impact on the cause. It is good for the voices of the families and people of the cause to be amplified, but the strategy and mechanisms that they select for themselves are very important.
It is essential that they do not become a part of or a tool in anyone else’s project. They must be the cause, and everything else must be a tool to serve this cause. In fact, there is a saying by the late Muhammad al-Maghout that’s always on my mind from his play Ghorbah (Exile), where he says, “the surgery was successful, but the patient died.” I am afraid that political and human rights issues in Syria will be dealt with like this quote; priority placed on the quick and easy success of the “surgery,” i.e. the project, while the media pumps out stories that raise the profile of the implementing organization.
As for the “patient,” the cause and its people, they are secondary. Indifference and marginalization become the normal way to deal with their pain. Unfortunately, in Syrian, we hear about many successful “surgeries,” but we seldom hear about the patient’s condition.
Salma: Speaking of sustainability, I would like to add a point about the importance of building alliances among the people of the cause themselves. Last year, several victims’ groups met in Brussels and formed the Partners for Justice coalition. They continued to meet thereafter in order to establish a common ground for advocacy and a space for coordination. These are very important steps for victims’ groups to take in order to create a space for cooperation instead of competition, and in order to strengthen their own voices. Funders and policymakers usually push for the creation of a single group that represents all victims or civil society, etc... On one occasion, a financier asked me, “There are so many groups of victims now. How can we know which ones are trustworthy?”
Therefore, it is important that victim groups and the people of the cause try to coordinate and collaborate whenever it is strategically advantageous and possible to do so. The problem of detention in Syria is large, both in size and in its impact on Syrians, for there are many unique situations that different groups face, differing depending on gender, or on the detention experience, or on who detained them. Therefore, it is necessary to have different groups and formations in order to frame specific messages or demands and to focus on specific actors, like, for instance, in the case of the families of those kidnapped by ISIS.
To add to Amina’s point, I would just like to say: creating new groups is not a bad thing in and of itself if it is grounded in a need, or in a gap in representation or needs that this new group would fill. It does become a problem, however, when the groups are driven to achieve programmatic goals by the agenda of civil society or of a financier. And here, I just want to say that this is not specific to Syrian organizations. We have this same push in that direction in international organizations.
Oula: Amina, what are the victim’s organizations and family associations that exist on the ground in Syria today? And how do you interact with one another and ultimately form alliances despite your different specializations and demands?
Salma: There are many groups and associations on the ground in Syria today. These include the Caesar Families Association, the Sednaya Detainees Association, the Families of ISIS Kidnappees, and associations of survivors such as Ta’afi (Recovery) and others. We at Families for Freedom were mindful early on of the importance of making alliances, and of the balance that Salma spoke about, between specialization and the common cause that unites us. Despite all the different kinds of associations and the variety in their demands and messages, alliances are important for coordinating and integrating efforts, and for supporting one another. It was in order to create the alliances Salma mentioned that we had a need to communicate and coordinate with other associations; and this is why I actually started communicating with them. Our experiment began at the third Brussels Conference in 2019, where we got together and sent a message to the organizers of the conference and other parties.
Our message at the time was that we, as associations of victims and survivors, do not approve of the reconstruction of Syria taking place before the fate of our loved ones is revealed. This message brought us together irrespective of the individual nature of each group and whether they were survivors’ groups or family associations. And indeed, this pressure has had an effect. We were physically present at the conference, and I gave a speech in which I emphasized that we will not accept to be mere witnesses in conferences that are addressing a cause which is ours. We felt that it is important to maintain this alliance in order to exert pressure, coordinate, and share our experiences. We support and complement each other’s work. For example, we at Families for Freedom do not work on accountability, but the Caesar Families Association does work in that domain, so, we supported them through advocacy when the trial began. There are many other examples like this one.
Oula: Amina, as one of the founders of the Families for Freedom movement, why do you call yourselves a “movement?” What do you think are the basic ingredients needed for a movement to organically develop and become sustainable? And how can you manage the tension that arises from the need to create heroes or symbols for movements, and the need to create more inclusive movements?
Amina: In truth, the ability to build and sustain a movement is tied to the connection between the principles and their application, and to reality, and to the movement’s work. We started out as a campaign, and we did not call it a movement until later. The impact of the campaign on the public and on the people of the cause is what prompted us to decide to turn it into a movement that would take on a sustainable and strategic character. This meant setting up bylaws and a general strategy for the cause. We are now working on building the movement internally, so we have begun to define our vision. For example, what is our relationship with the families and with the people of the cause? What is our relationship with other associations, and what is our relationship with civil society? Our movement has evolved over time. We were a group of five women when we were founded, but today we have more than a hundred women working together. In the movement, we seek to be inclusive and keep the door open for other families of victims to join.
You could say that every cause or movement needs stars and heroes who will act as the voice of the people, so that the movement can grow and be effective. While this is true, if this mechanism becomes the norm it is harmful. There has to be a balance between capitalizing on a voice or symbol, and having everyone’s voices heard. If it is taking place within the framework of a formal activity (like an event), the nature of the advocacy work that we do requires that the person speaking on behalf of the group possesses advanced tools and skills. Otherwise, they would be “a bad lawyer for a just cause.” But on the other hand, we have to invest in other platforms for mobilization.
For example, a mother talking about her detained son in a short video is one of the strongest advocacy messages, and it does not require any particular skills. I always tell those around me, “even a mute mother would speak if she was told that someone will listen to her speaking about her son.” People feel that their children or family members are stars when we hold their pictures up in a conference or in front of an embassy. They feel that their loved ones have not been forgotten. On the other hand, it should not be taken lightly that a small group of people in the cause have certain skills and experiences, and so we rely exclusively on them. If they are truly part of the cause, they should help others become visible and acquire these skills. I often refrain from doing TV interviews and appearances on this principle. It is necessary for new voices to emerge and that we work to include the families of victims so that these movements do not turn into the Baath party: extolling principles while working against them.
It is also necessary to learn from others’ experiences. Whenever the opportunity arises, we meet with associations from other countries. Victims’ associations in Lebanon, for example, shared with us the challenges they faced and warned us not to rely on one or two people to express our demands, because those people will reach a point where they get burned-out. Also, to shift the conversation about detainees from the language of numbers into that of stories. When we talk about having 350,000 detainees the information has little impact. What does have impact are the stories of these detainees, which is why it is necessary for the families to tell their stories, talk about their daily suffering, and go into details about their lives, so that the detainees become the stars.
Salma: During the Family Strategy Workshop in 2018, the facilitator, an expert in community organizing, reminded us that the strength of the movement comes from the presence of a large group of detainees’ families. This is what will fundamentally help achieve our goals, not having a single well-known member who can secure meetings with politicians. In the end, it is their collective strength that will compel decision-makers to act. This advice really stayed with me. Families for Freedom is fortunate to have so many wonderful women in its leadership and among its members. They are truly stars, and it’s not easy to dim the light with which they shine.
So, the challenge when building a strategy is to take a step back, and find out how we can harness the power of all these women and families in order make their impact greater than just individual ‘star power.’ Also, understanding which campaign tactics can engage them collectively so that decision-makers feel their presence. This is not easy when we work within an organizational culture that loves to create stars and a civil society that has evolved around individual personalities. Nor is it easy to organize collectively and participate in this politically volatile and unsafe environment. Families for Freedom has local branches in Syria (Idlib), Lebanon, and Turkey, and has started establishing several branches in Europe. The fact that we are not present in the state itself and are unable to protest there in the halls of power and present our demands means that we have to be more creative in order to establish an empowering and inclusive movement.