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A Welcoming Way Station For Syrians Fleeing Home

Jan 8, 2013
Originally published on January 8, 2013 6:37 pm

It's called Beit Qamishlo, or the House of Qamishlo. It's named after a city in northeastern Syria, though the house isn't even in Syria — it's just across the border in southern Turkey.

The house is humble, made of concrete blocks, with tile floors. Arabic slogans are taped on the walls: "Beit Qamishlo is a house for everyone," "It's a window to Syria's future," "Under one roof we plant life together and freedom."

More than just ideas, Beit Qamishlo is also a hostel, a place for Syrians who've escaped their country to crash until they find more permanent digs. It's an education center where young Syrian refugees take English and art classes on the weekends. And it's a performance space, where readings, speeches and debates fill the night.

On one recent night, the topic was "Tales of a Prisoner," a recurring series featuring men and women from an older generation who had opposed the Syrian government.

Young Syrians huddled to listen on couches and plastic chairs in a spare and smoky room warmed by an electric heater. A videographer records the event for Beit Qamishlo's archive.

Former Prisoners Share Their Stories

Malik Dagestani, a self-described communist who opposed the regime of Hafez Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar Assad, tells how he was detained for nine years, beginning in 1987, for his political activity.

Dagestani says he was beaten and tortured so badly in the first days of his detention that he couldn't even stand for weeks. He was eventually transferred to a prison that included thousands of others like him.

A year later, he was able to pay someone to smuggle in letters. That's when he first saw a picture of his second daughter, who was born while he was away.

To pass the time in prison, Dagestani and his colleagues studied English, fashioned musical instruments out of wood scraps, made candles from marmalade jars and put on plays.

When he was released in the mid-1990s, he didn't know what a fax machine was. He was flabbergasted by the Windows operating system. The day of his release Dagestani called his house, but only his youngest daughter was at home — the one born while he was in prison.

"This is your father," he said.

"Who?" she replied.

"Your father," he repeated.

"Who?" she said again.

He then called his older daughter. He told her he had been released from prison, but she didn't know what to do and just handed the phone to someone else.

Lessons Learned In Prison

Like so many Syrians, the founder of Beit Qamishlo did time in prison, too. He's a jolly man with an infectious grin who goes by the name Abu Raman.

Abu Raman's latest detention came just as Syria's uprising began back in March 2011. There he met activists and political organizers from around the country.

Abu Raman says he founded Beit Qamishlo to repeat what he learned in prison — that nationalism isn't something that comes from the state but rather something you learn from each other.

He started the series of talks by former prisoners so the older generation could finally speak out about what had happened to them. He hopes young activists who crash here can learn from people like Malik Dagestani.

An activist asks Dagestani if he thinks it was worth it to suffer for what he believed in, especially now that the new generation has risen up with no intention of turning back.

If we knew how many people would die, he says, we might have told them not to start this uprising. Now the men with guns are the heroes. How will we go back from that?

It's people like Dagestani and places like Beit Qamishlo that Western countries say they hope to support. But so far, Abu Raman says he relies on donations from friends.

He says the house costs about $400 a month in rent, and about $400 more in heat and electricity. But he says the money is about to run out. He doesn't even know if he has enough to make next month's payments.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, from Syria's border with Jordan, now to its border with Turkey and a very different kind of safe haven. It's for Syrian activists once bent on building a democratic society. While they haven't yet given up that dream, many have been forced to flee Syria and are now doing their part from afar.

NPR's Kelly McEvers visited a house that's a way station for such exiles.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It's called Beit Qamishlo or the House of Qamishli. It's named after a city in northeastern Syria. But the house isn't in Syria. It's in Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. The house is pretty humble; concrete blocks, tile floors, Arabic slogans taped on the walls, read here by an interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: (Reading) Beit Qamishlo is a house for everyone. It's a window to Syria's future. Under one roof we plant life together and freedom. We write on its wall together.

MCEVERS: More than just ideas, Beit Qamishlo is a hostel; a place for Syrians who've escaped their country to crash until they find more permanent digs. It's an education center where young Syrian refugees take English and art classes on the weekends. And it's a performance space, where readings, speeches, and debates fill the night.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: On this night, it's "Tales of a Prisoner," a recurring series featuring men and women from the previous generation of Syrians who opposed their government.

Young Syrians from around the country huddle to listen on couches and plastic chairs, in a spare and smoky room warmed by an electric heater.

MALIK DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The speaker is Malik Dagestani, a self-described communist who opposed the regime of Hafez al Assad, the father of Syria's current president, Bashar al-Assad. Dagestani was detained for his political activity in 1987 and held for nine years.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Dagestani says he was beaten and tortured so badly in the first days of his detention that he couldn't walk or even stand for weeks. He eventually was transferred to a prison he calls a storage place for thousands of others like him. A year later, he was able to pay someone to smuggle in letters. That's when he first saw a picture of his second daughter, who was born while he was away.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: To pass the time in prison, Dagestani and his colleagues studied English, fashioned musical instruments out of wood scraps, made candles from marmalade jars and put on plays. By the time he got out, he didn't know what a fax machine was, was flabbergasted by the Windows Operating System. The day of his release, Dagestani called his house, but only his youngest daughter was at home.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This is your father. Who? Your father. Who?

He called his older daughter. I am your father, he said, I was released. But she just handed the phone to someone else. She didn't know what to do.

Like so many Syrians, the founder of Beit Qamishlo did time in prison, too. He's a jolly man with an infectious grin who goes by the name Abu Raman. Abu Raman's latest detention was just as Syria's uprising began back in March 2011. There, he met activists and political organizers from around the country.

ABU RAMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Raman says he founded Beit Qamishlo to repeat what he learned in prison; that nationalism isn't something that comes from the state but rather something you learn from each other. He started the prison series so the older generation could finally speak out about what happened to them. He hopes young activists who crash at Beit Qamishlo can learn from people like Malik Dagestani.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: After Dagestani's speech, an activist asks him if he thinks it was worth it to suffer for what he believed in, especially now the new generation has risen up with no intention of turning back.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: If we knew how many people would die, he says, we might have told them not to start this uprising. Now the men with guns are the heroes. How will we go back from that?

It's people like Dagestani and places like Beit Qamishlo that Western countries say they hope to support. So far, Abu Raman says he relies on donations from friends.

RAMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He says the house costs about $400 a month in rent and about the same again for heat and electricity. But he says the money is about to run out.

The U.S. state department says it aims to provide, quote, "nonlethal assistance to unarmed civilians and grassroots organizations aimed at building a nationwide network of diverse activists."

So, Abu Raman says, what about us?

Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.