Women’s health in the Syrian diaspora: lack of awareness of family planning


(C) Firas Al-Mashhedi – Syrian families fleeing Tel-Marak


By Nisreen Anabli

Soumaya pointed at her baby boy in a picture. He passed away few months ago in a hospital in Gaziantep in Turkey. He had a malignant disease. Says the 31-year-old Syrian refugee: “I have four girls. He was my only boy. I lost him a little while ago.”

Eyed was the youngest of Soumaya’s five kids. Soumaya moved to Turkey in 2013 as a Syrian refugee.

Despite poverty, Soumaya seems ready and keen to have another child, a baby boy. She thinks this will compensate for the loss of the only boy she had. Soumaya’s family already consists of six members. They all live in one bedroom attached to a tiny kitchen and one washroom in .Yet, they still believe, as do many other Syrians, that “bringing kids to life will bring fortune and sustenance to the family.”

Um Zeyad (mother of Zeyad), 29 years, one of Soumaya’s neighbors, is mother to five kids. Three of them were born in Syria before the conflict; the rest were born in Turkey. When we asked Um Zeyad how she could manage to support such a big family, she said she would recycle her kids’ clothes, and pass them all the way to the youngest, or adjust and fix them to suit their sizes.  Um Zeyad’s family also receive help from welfare associations. Um Zeyad blames her husband on having the two last kids in Turkey. “Since we got married, his dream was to have a big family,” she added.

Most Syrian refugees face extreme conditions in the countries of asylum, from extreme poverty to unemployment and displacement.  Despite this, the Syrian diaspora has experienced a very high percentage of newborns since the beginning of the crisis. According to the Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Affairs’ statistics, the number of Syrian children born in Turkey since 2014 is around 250,000. This represents a significant jump from 2013, when the figure was only 7600.

The UN refugee agency (UNCHR) office in Lebanon added that Syrian refugees in Lebanon represent a “youth group” with 18% – out of 1.5 million Syrian refugees- born in Lebanon.

Magda Hamdan, a doctor in the maternity hospital in the town of Khirbet al-Jawz in the northern Syrian town of Khirbet, claimed, “she could receive between 8 to 10 women a day, under the age of 18.”

One of the reasons behind the remarkable number of births among Syrian refugees is the impact of religious beliefs that prohibit abortion and encourage women to continue having children, as long as they have the physical capacity to do so. Many women do not use contraception because they believe it is contrary to religion. In addition, most of them are not educated on the difference between family planning and birth control. This plays a prominent role in the increase of births. The average Syrian family in asylum countries now consists of not less than six individuals.

The socio-cultural aspect also affects the average Syrian’s family planning, as society imposes certain standards on women in terms of number of children in each family. Maysa, a young Syrian refugee in her early thirties, shared her hopes to have a baby boy – after having six girls – believing that a boy could be a source of protection for the girls in the future. She added: “I love my girls very much, but it aches my heart to hear people wishing me to have a baby boy. And this what makes me want to have a baby boy.”

Men often make the decision on what form of birth control to use. In the moment, this often comes down to no birth control at all. Many women said that their spouses refuse to use protection (condoms) during intercourse, thinking it negatively affects the quality of the intercourse.

There are also many misconceptions about birth control methods, including the use of condoms, which are believed to cause discomfort to men during intercourse. As a result, many women do not insist on the use of condoms. On the other hand, some believe that the use of the oral intrauterine contraceptive device causes cancer or infertility in the long term.

Childbearing affects the health of the mother, the child and their living conditions. Dr. Magda Hamdan says that “financial and health conditions are interconnected for women. When a woman is unable to get the necessary nutrition due to poverty, it reflects directly on her health during pregnancy. I have encountered many women suffering from weak ovaries due to undernourishment resulting in producing weak eggs. Women who are not receiving the appropriate health care and nutrition are more likely to suffer after giving birth by heavily bleeding.” Dr. Hamdan indicated that there should be a period of 2 to 3 years between each birth for women’s bodies to regain their health.

An excess of children per family can also determine children’s access to school, right to education, right to health care. According to the Turkish Ministry of Education, there are 359,000 out of 972,000 Syrian children living in Turkey as refugees, without access to schools. Most of them are working to support their families. Moreover, in most Turkish cities crowded with Syrians it is very common to see Syrian children around traffic lines selling tissues or biscuits, sometimes as beggars. Most of these children are under the age of 10.

Most of the women’s rights associations and organizations in Turkey usually focus on women’s mental care, taking into account the post conflict damage and its effects on the mental health of women as mothers and wives. In addition, they also encourage women to join the work force to support their families, by teaching them some basic professions such as handicrafts.

Norma is a Lebanese community worker. She has worked with many organizations dealing with refugee affairs in Lebanon. She claimed that talking to refugees in this matter is contrary to the terms and conditions of her work. “We work with people in their reality, their environments and religious beliefs,” she said. “We cannot interfere with childbearing because it affects their culture and customs. It also create barriers between our patients and us. All what we can offer is contacts for specialized centers that deal with family planning and women’s health. It is up to them to decide.”

There is, however, a notable lack of discussion or awareness among Syrian refugees, women and couples in general, on family planning, birth control, and women health.

Syria Project: Gaziantep – Final Day

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

Training group

As I end this adventure, I find it very hard to avoid the use of a cliché in the final blog post.

I guess clichés became clichés because the words and phrases so effectively and accurately conveyed a point, that they became overused.

So I’m going to use one. It’s “life-changing.” I mean it in its original, intended meaning.

As we wrapped up our final day of training Syrian journalists in Gaziantep, Turkey, most of the groups we worked with came back to a meeting room at our hotel. We presented them with certificates for completing our workshops, and chatted one last time.

Then, we visited Nasaem Radio Syria. The staff there were not able to make it to the hotel.

Nasaem Radio

Seeing these groups of journalists come together was a very palpable reminder of what we came to Gaziantep for. Many of them told us that our workshops – a partnership between Toronto-based organization, Journalists for Human Rights and CTV, made a difference for them. They thanked us. They told us about their ideas for human rights stories. We promised them to help them through the process. We ensured them that our commitment to them and to their work doesn’t end when we depart from Gaziantep Airport. I intend to keep that promise.

I want to stress one more time in writing, that these people are doing something important, despite facing great personal risk for doing it. Many sides of this conflict don’t want balanced, accurate journalism and are reportedly willing to torture and kill to stop it. The threats come from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and from extremist groups like ISIS.

Seeing these groups of journalists come together was a very palpable reminder of what we came to Gaziantep for. Many of them told us that our workshops – a partnership between Toronto-based organization, Journalists for Human Rights and CTV, made a difference for them. They thanked us. They told us about their ideas for human rights stories. We promised them to help them through the process. We ensured them that our commitment to them and to their work doesn’t end when we depart from Gaziantep Airport. I intend to keep that promise.

I want to stress one more time in writing, that these people are doing something important, despite facing great personal risk for doing it. Many sides of this conflict don’t want balanced, accurate journalism and are reportedly willing to torture and kill to stop it. The threats come from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and from extremist groups like ISIS.

We got a reminder of that danger, when two Syrian journalists were murdered in Istanbul while we were still in Turkey. 60-year-old Orouba Barakat and her daughter, 22-year-old Halla Barakat were both outspoken critics of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The two women were stabbed and strangled. A young man, believed to be a family member, has now been arrested by Turkish police. Local media reports that investigators are looking into alleged connections between the suspect and the Assad regime.

The danger is very real. The same thing could happen to many Syrian journalists. They have seen so much and experienced so much, they almost seem to have no fear of death. But they also seem to have held on to a remarkable love of life. Despite the fact that powerful groups want them arrested and possibly even killed, they smile, they laugh, and they work hard to become better journalists.

To anyone reading this blog, I beg you – don’t forget about Syria. The war, the slaughtering of civilians, and the humanitarian crisis continue. I realize you don’t see it as much in the news; the headlines, now dominated by a verbal street fight between two men with nuclear weapons at their fingertips and another battle between one of those men and pro athletes, but please, seek out news on Syria. The millions of people still there need our attention and our help.

And to Syrian journalists I offer the following encouragement: don’t stop writing. Be fair and balanced and people will find truth in your reporting. I realize it feels like a losing battle. In the short term, words can seem ineffective weapons against war planes and guns. But you are arming the people of Syria and the world with knowledge and information. Over time, that does have the power to invoke change.

Regimes do end. So do wars. When this one is over, you are going to be an important part of building a beautiful new country, from a beautiful old one.

Thank you for your courage, your dedication and your passion. And thank you for reminding me that news is and always will be about people. Thank you for changing lives.

Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 9

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton

Ghazouah Almilagi lost her 12-year-old son in the Syrian civil war. He was killed by a dirty, indiscriminate bomb.

Her son was near his school, receiving a reward for scholastic achievement. She says a Syrian military jet dropped a barrel bomb over the school. It landed nearby. Her son was killed. Another young boy lost his leg.

I asked her how she knew it was the Syrian military, which is controlled by the Assad regime. Her answer was pretty convincing. Opposition fighters don’t have an air force. Either does ISIS. The only player in this conflict other than the Assad-controlled military that has planes involved is Russia. Almilagi tells me the people of Aleppo have seen so many bombings, they can actually tell the Syrian planes from the Russian ones. Also, she tells me Syrian warplanes are far less accurate. Russian planes tend to hit their targets. We also need to keep in mind that barrel bombs are not used by most countries. They’re essentially “barrels” filled with shrapnel and explosive material, dropped from planes or helicopters with no accurate aiming mechanism. They may even be in violation of international law. It’s been well-documented that the Assad regime uses them by the thousands.

Yesterday, I thought about how mad I will be when I get back to work in Edmonton, if someone has taken my iPhone cord. Today, I heard a woman speak of forgiveness for the people who dropped a dirty bomb on her son. To say the least, it puts things in perspective.

Don’t get me wrong, Almilagi wants justice. She wants the person who dropped that bomb arrested and charged. She wants anyone and everyone who is accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity to see a day in a law court, whether they are on the side of the Assad Regime, ISIS or the opposition.

But then, she wants everyone to forgive each other. That’s her answer when I ask her what her dream is for Syria. It’s one of the most beautiful answers I have ever heard, even though I couldn’t understand it until it was translated. She wants Syria to heal. She wants Muslims, Christians and Alawites, Arabs and Kurds, Pro-Assad citizens and opposition citizens to forgive each other and work together to rebuild Syria. Listening to her speak, it’s hard to believe anyone could not share that dream.

Her story is powerful. But it’s not unique. Nearly every journalist you speak with here has a tragic and heart-wrenching story. It can be almost overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean that we can become desensitized to these stories. As journalists, we have to keep telling them. As human beings, we have to keep listening.

Almilagi also has another son. He was fighting for the “Free Syrian Army,” which, despite the name, has no formal structure. It’s essentially a group of many small armed groups opposing Assad. 15 days ago, she convinced him to stop fighting and come to Gaziantep.

This is the smile on her face when she tells me that.

I think it’s a smile that anyone can see, but I imagine one that only a mother can understand.

When this war is over, there is going to be a lot of cleanup, and a lot of rebuilding. Most of all, there will be a need to forgive. Maybe that effort will be led by journalists like Ghazouah Almilagi.​

Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 6

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

There are certain sentences you don’t expect to hear in Gaziantep, Turkey.

One of them is “Canada is my favourite country.”

Saturday night, our server told us that. He assured me, he wasn’t just saying that because I happened to be Canadian. You might think it’s naïve of me to believe him, as servers work for tips, but hear me out. He spent about an hour talking to us about the country I call home.

Before I go any further, I will warn you that this blog post takes on a lighter tone than the rest.

His name is Abuzer. He has worked a full career in the hospitality industry, including jobs that took him to the U.S. and Canada, and many, many other countries. He is fluent in multiple languages, and his English is much better than most Turks in Gaziantep.

Abuzer tells a story that is so Canadian, you know immediately it’s true, but it will still make any Canadian beam with pride. He was lost in downtown Vancouver (a city he has spent a significant amount of time in) so he approached a young couple to ask for directions. Instead of giving him directions, they offered to take him to his destination. They said it wasn’t far from where they were going, so they walked with him, until he could clearly see the building he was trying to find.

Awesome, right? You’re thinking about whether you would do the same thing if a person of middle-eastern descent, with a distinct accent, approached you. Well… you’re reading a blog about improving human right in Syria through journalism, so I’m willing to bet you would.

We are here working with Syrian journalists, who have escaped (I use that word literally) the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the civil war that rages on in their home country. They’re in Turkey because it’s the best and closest place to go. Here, they have some level of journalistic freedom. The Assad government has never allowed independent journalism, only state-run media; essentially, regime propaganda. Our goal is to teach internationally accepted journalism principles, so these reporters can produce comprehensive, balanced stories that will put information in the hands of the Syrian people and the international community.  The project is a joint initiative between CTV and Canadian NGO, Journalists for Human Rights.

The Syrian people we have been working with are some of the most generous, intelligent, passionate, personable people I have ever met. Many of them have gone through unimaginable ordeals, including death threats, arrest, imprisonment and even torture; actual torture, in an age where the idea is almost unfathomable for the average Canadian.

Regardless, these people will take a Canadian guy they have never met out for dinner at a place in Gaziantep that specializes in Aleppo cuisine. They’ll smile, eat, and do their best to converse with that Canadian. I watch them laugh with a level of happiness I have never seen among Canadians who have no idea the level of freedom we enjoy on a daily basis. Somehow, I feel like they understand the necessity of laughter more than the people who get to experience it daily (us). We talk about Syria openly. We talk about Canada openly. A few of them talk about how nice it would be to be in the place I call home. I don’t know if there is an English word to describe how strongly I hope they can achieve that goal one day. Today, actually.

I guess I wasn’t totally accurate when I said this post would take on a lighter tone. It was a lighter tone in my head when I started. Of course, this is a computer, so I could go back and change it… but maybe the process of writing these post helps you understand my mindset. My point is, this was a fun day. In spite of all they have faced, these people are fun.

The day was already another rewarding one, on the heels of several consecutive rewarding days, when we met Abuzer back at our hotel restaurant.

Sorry to move so far from the first paragraph, but I’m talking about that same guy now.  He’s Turkish, not Syrian. In a way, that was more convincing for me. I have spent the last several days agreeing with Syrians that I come from a pretty good place. It was nice to hear it, in no uncertain terms, from someone from a bordering country; someone who has travelled the world.

He’s right. When you’re born in Canada, you have already won a lottery.

We should never take it for granted. Thanks to a few dozen Syrian journalists and Abuzer, more than ever, I know I won’t.

Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 5

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

“OK, There has been an incident.”

Those were the words out of Zein Almoghraby’s mouth after “good morning” and a brief and somewhat tense conversation in Arabic, with Tammam Hazem, as we sat down for breakfast Friday.  Zein is a senior programs manager for Journalists for Human Rights, the group CTV has partnered with on this project. Tammam is the organization’s representative in Turkey.

Thursday night, a young female Syrian journalist and her mother were killed in Istanbul. A Turkish newspaper reports the two women were strangled, then stabbed.

22-year-old Halla Barakat worked as a reporter for several different agencies in her short career. Her social media accounts suggest she was a passionate opponent of Syria’s Assad regime. Her mother, 60-year-old Orouba Barakat was also a journalist, documentary-maker and well-known anti-Assad activist.

In multiple facebook posts and media reports, friends suggest the pair had recently been threatened by the Assad regime. Turkish police have not said in any media reports that I have found, whether their investigation is moving in any particular direction.

The crimes certainly bear the mark of a targeted attack. This is the danger Syrian journalists face.

I had to wonder, as we made our way to our second day of workshops for the staff at Liwan TV and Radio in Gaziantep, whether the incident would have an impact on the number of journalists who showed up. It did not. All nine of them were there, ready and eager to learn.

Despite the rather somber start to the day, we had what I felt was one of our most productive and rewarding days of training yet. The journalists were asked to take a print story that had some glaring journalistic errors, improve it and turn it into a broadcast news script. It was amazing to see that they remembered the things I taught them the day before, and put it to use immediately. The scripts were good. Some of them were really good.

At the end of the day, one of the reporters thanked me in Arabic. Zein translated it as “thank you for caring about the Syrian people.” For me, that was a memorable moment.

As part of the final phase in our two-day training workshops, we asked the group to prepare pitches for human rights stories they would like to work on. We talked to each of them individually about their idea, and helped them with guidance on how their ideas could become reality. Zein and I will continue to work with them on their ideas after this training is done and we are back in Canada.

One journalist proposed an investigation into Syrian refugee children in other countries who had to work, because their families couldn’t afford to send them to school. The journalist questioned why countries would take families in and not ensure they had access to the essentials, like education.

Another idea was to do a story on a notorious Syrian prison, where allegations of human rights violations are rampant.

One specific proposal really struck me, I suppose because I hadn’t previously considered this issue. The journalist had only escaped from the war-ravaged country a month and a half ago. He told me that many people inside were experiencing normal life events, such as getting married and having babies, but with the Assad government in disarray, and no formal structure in opposition-held areas, these events are undocumented. That means children are born without birth certificates. Consider the impact of having no identification. Those children can’t be enrolled in school, get jobs, own property or eventually get married themselves.  I guess the idea surprised me because most of the stories we hear from inside Syria are about the horror and agony of war. It never occurred to me that in the midst of that chaos, life goes on.

The reporter asks why the United Nations and major world countries aren’t helping to provide ID of some sort to these people. Similar efforts have been taken by the UN and several European refugee agencies, when it comes to the plight of Palestinian refugees, particularly in Lebanon.

Good question. I agree, it’s worth asking. He is in contact with several people in Syria, facing this problem, and they’re willing to speak to him about it. I think he has a good story to report, and I hope the world hears it.

Another reporter, a young woman, wants to investigate the deaths of several Syrian journalists in Turkey, since the beginning of Syria’s civil war. She’s found family members of one journalist allegedly killed by ISIS right here in Gaziantep.

Her idea is timely, with the deaths of Halla and Orouba Barakat on the mind of everyone in that room.

If whoever killed those two women thought their crimes could stop Syrian journalists from writing and speaking, they couldn’t be more wrong.

These courageous men and women are just getting started.

Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 2

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

Nasaem Radio Syria

You learn four hundred new things every day. If that’s not quite how the saying goes, please forgive me. That’s my reality this week.

This is the experience of a western journalist in Gaziantep, Turkey.

My role here is a leadership one. I am teaching skills to help train Syrian journalists who have fled their country’s brutal civil war. The goal is to empower them to cover the human rights abuses in Syria effectively and responsibly.

Today especially, I felt that what I had to offer was making an impact. But I can’t imagine I could be teaching as much as I am learning.

I am here with Zein Almoghraby, Senior Programs Manager for Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian NGO. We are joined by Tammam Hazem, the representative for JHR in Turkey. Both of them are from Syria. Zein is from Damascus and Tammam is from Aleppo. Zein lives in Toronto now, and goes by his real name. Tammam, like many Syrian journalists still in the region, does not.

Today, we continued our training with the journalists at Nasaem Radio Syria. A big topic was the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It was adopted by the UN in 1948, following the Second World War. In simple terms it was the result of the world coming together, agreeing that the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime should never happen again. Ever.

If you aren’t familiar, give it a read before you go any further.

Pretty cool, right? Great idea. Try showing it to a group of people who have been robbed of most, if not all of those “rights.” Understandably, they have trouble seeing the purpose of the document. I believe the English translation from one comment in Arabic was “what value does this have if it’s not enforced?”

As I have mentioned, these journalists are smart. Their immediate concerns with the declaration are the same ones that have dogged the international community since its adoption. What good is a great idea that nearly everyone agrees to, with no mechanism to enforce the ideals it contains?

It’s not an easy question to answer. There have been multiple attempts to add teeth to the idea of international human rights, including the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993, and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principles adopted by the UN in 2005 (a Canadian initiative, in case you were wondering).

Ultimately, these noble efforts don’t amount to much, when you’re from Syria. Human rights violations are rampant, according to multiple credible sources including the UN and Amnesty International. There has been humanitarian aid, and in some instances, international military intervention, but the regime of Bashar al-Assad remains firmly planted in power in Damascus, and the allegations of human rights abuses continue to pour in.

We also met with the Syrian Journalists Press Club today. They had some interesting numbers, compiled through numerous sources. They say there are currently 175 Syrian journalists living in Gaziantep, where we are. That’s a big portion of the estimated 400 across Turkey. So we came to the right spot. They also say that since the conflict began, nearly 400 journalists have been killed, the majority of them, according to the Press Club, at the hands of the Assad Regime. Many more have been arrested. Their exact numbers and current conditions are not known.

One of the biggest concerns of the Press Club, and the younger staff members of Nasaem Radio Syria, is that the world of western journalism is losing interest in Syria, as one of the biggest human rights catastrophes of our generation rages on. On that one, I don’t have an answer that satisfies them or myself.

As a journalist who endeavors not to take sides, it’s hard not to agree with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Its contents are hardly controversial. It’s what most people, Canadians at least, would call a “no brainer.”

What I learned today, is that the nearly 70-year-old document has a value I had never seen to this point. It can launch a conversation about human rights that lasts for hours, and can lead to people from opposite sides of the world agreeing on a basic concept: those rights aren’t really “rights” without some form of assurance and protection.  If seven people in a small room in Gaziantep, Turkey can agree on that simple idea, maybe other can too. Maybe it’s a matter of time (months? years? decades?) before the political will exists in the international community to create change.

Or maybe that will never happen.

Maybe we won’t find the answer in our lifetimes. Or maybe I will learn the answer tomorrow, along with three hundred ninety-nine other things, in Gaziantep. I’ll let you know.

Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 1

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

Reem Haleb

I think it’s safe to assume that Reem Haleb still has a scar from where a bullet broke her skin five years ago.

Today, Haleb runs Nasaem Radio Syria, a station broadcasting out of Gaziantep, Turkey. In 2012, she was shooting footage of a protest in Aleppo, Syria, where she is from. A large group had gathered in opposition to the death of a local man. The belief among civilians was that he died at the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

When gunshots rang out, she moved towards the front of the crowd. Her goal was to obtain video proof that the people firing weapons were Syrian Government troops, and that they were firing on unarmed civilians. As she held her camera up, a bullet pierced part of her back and her arm.

She still has a video, taken by someone else. In it, you hear the shots ring out, then see civilians carrying her away from the scene. There is blood on her arm and she appears unconscious. The people carrying her can be heard shouting “she’s dead” in Arabic, and you can see why they believed that.

When Haleb shows the video and tells the story, she smiles and even laughs at times, but there is a hint of a tear in her eye at the same time. Everyone at the table can feel how powerful that video is, and I think it’s fair to say that we all get a bit emotional, as we sit on a patio at a Turkish dessert restaurant, eating a tasty treat I can’t pronounce.

What I have learned in just one day in Gaziantep, is that stories like hers are remarkably common. Syrian journalists have gone through hell in their home country. Many of them now work out of Gaziantep, the closest major Turkish city to the Syrian border.

On Monday, we spent time with five journalists at Nasaem Syria. Some of them use fake names in their reporting. Most of them face imprisonment or worse if they try to return to Syria. Yet they keep telling stories. They continue their work to give a voice to the Syrian people.

I am there with two people from Journalists for Human Rights, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization. Our role is a mentorship one. We are attempting to help Syrian journalists improve their broadcast news writing, empowering them to tell the human rights stories affecting their war-torn home country.

It’s a challenging role for me. They speak Arabic. I do not. We have a translator, but it’s difficult to directly translate complex questions and concepts that don’t necessarily make sense in a literal translation.

I sense some level of pushback, when I explain the need to balance stories between what the opposition and international organizations are saying and what the Assad government (they only call it “the regime”) is saying. In case you’re not familiar, several major organizations including Amnesty International and the United Nations have concluded that Bashar al-Assad has committed atrocious acts against the Syrian people, from chemical weapons attacks, to the use of other internationally-banned weapons, like barrel bombs.

It’s fairly widely accepted that he did, in fact, commit what may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but UN Security Council efforts to have the matter sent to the International Criminal Court have been blocked by Russia and China. Even if it was eventually supported, Syria is not one of the countries involved in the resolution that established the ICC, so any attempt to prosecute Assad would be messy and difficult.

As journalists, we have to report that Assad denies committing these acts, no matter how ridiculous that may seem to our viewers, listeners and readers. That’s up to them to decide. When all sides are presented in a fair and unbiased way, you hope most people can see their way to the truth.

Besides talking about ethics and balance, we are helping them improve their technical writing. There are techniques broadcast journalists use to make stories easier on the ears and eyes. We are teaching them to tell stories through the lens of humanity, not objects and actions. When news stories are built around everyday people, it’s easier for people to relate to and understand them. It’s the only real way to tell stories about human rights, with an ultimate (and admittedly lofty) goal of improving a situation.

After day one, I am getting a better picture of the challenges we face. There are several. But I didn’t make my way from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to Gaziantep, Gaziantep Province, Turkey in search of something easy. We are up for the challenge. And these people are smart. I’m amazed by how smart they are. They’re passionate and they are already doing remarkable work with a staff of just a few journalists, crammed into small spaces.

As for Reem Haleb, she tells us she and her husband sometimes drive close to the Syrian border, just to smell the air and to know that they are close to their home country. She and her staff will continue to fight for the people of Syria, not with guns and bombs, but with words.

Syria Project: Day 1

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

As we end our first half day in Istanbul, I suppose it’s time to open this blog.

First, a quick explanation of what the heck I am doing in Turkey.

For a few years now, CTV News has been working in partnership with Toronto-based NGO, Journalists for Human Rights. The group works to improve human rights situations in countries around the world, through the development of free, open journalism.  It’s no coincidence that the countries with the most pressing human rights concerns are the same countries where freedom of the press is severely limited.

This graphic by “Reporters without Borders” sums it up pretty well. In the detailed ranking, Canada comes in twenty-second out of 189 countries.

Syria comes in fourth last on the same list. Wait, Syria? You thought we were in Turkey. Right, sorry. Let me explain.
Remember the “Arab Spring” uprising that started in 2010? In some countries (Egypt and Libya, for example) it led to sweeping changes. Governments were toppled by civilians armed with information.

In Syria, it led to full-blown civil war.

A conflict that began in 2011, between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and armed opposition forces, now involves more groups, militias, and unorganized organizations than just about anyone (maybe nobody) even knows. The group known as ISIS has taken advantage of the confusion, claiming significant amounts of territory (though much of that has been reclaimed by government forces). The fighting continues today.

This blog is not about the complexity of the conflict in Syria, so forgive me for this over-simplification: everyone with the most guns and bullets is fighting everyone else with the most guns and bullets, and civilians are dying.

This blog is about journalism. Even before the conflict began, Syria did not have a free press. It had only government-controlled media.

In the midst of one of the most terrible ongoing crises on earth, a positive thing happened. Some Syrians found a voice, through journalism.

At first, it wasn’t typical “journalism.” Most of them started as activists opposed to Syria’s Assad regime. It was explained to me today by someone who runs a major Syrian newspaper out of Istanbul, that many of these journalists lack formal education. But don’t think that means they’re not good. I’m learning that some of them are damn good. And they’re getting better.

Back to this partnership now, between CTV and JHR, because this is where we come in. We are lucky to live in a place where we have access to excellent journalism, and journalists have access to excellent schools, training and mentoring. Now, we have the honour of passing some of that along. I will spend the next two weeks here in Turkey, doing workshops, seminars and one-on-one training with Syrian broadcast journalists.

Day one in Turkey (after two days of training, discussion and lesson-planning in Toronto) was spent entirely in Istanbul.

As we left the airport of the sprawling metropolis, Zein Almoghraby, a senior programs manager for JHR, and a partner on this trip, explained to me that the aroma that hit us was “the smell of middle east chaos.” It’s not an unpleasant smell, but it’s a busy one; a combination of hot, humid weather, vegetation ranging from pine trees to palm trees, traffic, and a sort of sweet-smelling smoke I can’t quite put my finger (or nostril) on.

By the way, Zein is from Damascus, the Syrian capital, where he was when the conflict broke out. His native tongue is Arabic, but you wouldn’t know upon meeting him that he hasn’t been speaking English his entire life. His background is in law, but his passion is clearly the fight for human rights. He knows the smell of middle east chaos as well as anyone could.

After spending the weekend in Istanbul, we are heading to Gaziantep. It’s the closest major Turkish city to the Syrian border, with a metro population somewhere between Edmonton and Vancouver. In recent years, it has become a hub for Syrian journalists. It’s especially popular with radio and TV stations, because of their ability to broadcast across the border, into Syria.

These journalists have taken great risks, under threats of imprisonment or worse, simply for being journalists. I met one today who spent a year in prison. Many of them, including him, go by fake names. They are an inspiration to journalists everywhere.

But that’s for another blog post, on another day, very soon. I have gone on too long already.

I’m off to smell some Middle East chaos, and find inspiration from these remarkable people.

Announcing the Launch of JHR’s Project to Strengthen an Independent Syrian Media Sector

Syria Program HeaderTORONTO, March 9, 2017 /CNW/ – Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) is delighted to announce the launch of its newest program: a two-year pilot project working with Syrian journalists, supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF).

The project, based in Turkey, will help build the skills and strengths of these journalists and ensure the sustainability of a selected number of independent Syrian media outlets. The training of journalists is designed to foster inclusive and informed public dialogue on human rights, while countering hate speech.

The project will also work with media managers to help build sustainable business plans so they can work independently and create opportunities for public dialogue on human rights and democracy.

The Syrian Arab Republic, in civil conflict since 2011, has not enjoyed a free media in decades.  Media outlets exist in an atmosphere of harassment and fear. A strong and free media is critical to act as an independent referee between the state and the broad society and for the public to be freely informed.

“The long-term goal of JHR’s program with Syrian journalists,” says JHR Executive Director Rachel Pulfer, “is to help Syrian journalists help themselves, and put them in a position to financially sustain quality independent journalism in Syria and for their diaspora – long after the current conflict has ended. These journalists are courageous and undeterred, even after all they have seen and lived with, to continue reporting on human rights stories in Syria.”

“The media sector in Syria is traumatized, weak, fragmented – and severely constrained in its capacity,” says Zein Almoghraby, program designer. “Most outlets exist at the whim of international financing, with few long term strategies in place to sustain their work.”

The project is designed to address this problem directly through helping media outlets expand their audience share and revenue base.

JHR trainers will also work with Syrian journalists to enhance their skills to produce unbiased, and accurate news stories on human rights, democracy and governance issues, including the use of data journalism tools and new technology.

At a time when the need for strengthening journalists’ ability to do their job is greater than ever, Journalists for Human Rights (www.jhr.ca) works both at home in Canada and abroad to train journalists to report on human rights issues ethically and effectively. This work ensures human rights issues stay in the headlines, fosters a culture of accountability and catalyses positive change.

Partner Summary

This project targets the Syrian Network of Print-Media (snpsyria.org), a media alliance that includes seven independent Syrian newspapers and magazines. The network works to coordinate efforts among the media outlets through exchanging journalism and professional experiences in order to empower Syrian independent media.

For further information: For more information on this project with Syrian Journalists, please contact Zein Almoghraby at 416 413 0240 x 207 or Zein@jhr.ca

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