Nidal Joujak, I dared to have a dream, even before the revolution and I am still trying to achieve this dream

Nidal Joujak graduated with a BA in English Literature from Aleppo University, after which she worked as an English language teacher for many years in Aleppo. Nidal currently lives in Finland where she works part-time in a primary school. She is also the manager of a women’s organization focusing on the Kurdish language and on helping women integrate within their new environment.

In 2010, Nidal left the city of Aleppo for the town of Afrin where she worked as a teacher, after the government forced the closure of unlicensed educational centers in Aleppo. She remained there until the extreme shelling and army invasion of the city forced here to leave for Turkey where she spent two years before travelling to Finland.

Speaking about her relationship with the city of Afrin, Nidal says, “I did not live in Afrin initially, and I only visited during the harvest seasons of such crops as olives, grapes and apples. That time of year required help from all family members. I also visited Afrin in holidays and on special occasions. For me, if Syria was a mother, Afrin would be the favorite daughter, at least for Kurdish people in Syria.”

“Afrin is such a unique part of Syria,” Nidal continues. “I may be biased because I come from this town, but what really stands out in Afrin is its ability to maintain its Kurdish identity and culture despite the aggressive policy of Arabization adopted by the Syrian regime. The policy even included changing the names of towns and villages into Arabic names. But the people of Afrin continued to call places using their original Kurdish names. The people of Afrin, despite being keen farmers, especially of olives, never gave up on teaching their children. In the 1990s, a widespread wave of construction took over Afrin, including the building of many schools, especially after the building of the Midanki Dam, which made the area even more beautiful. Its stunning nature and multiple fruit crops made Afrin a popular tourist destination.”

About her early involvement in the popular uprising of 2011, Nidal says, “I was a supporter of the peaceful uprising and followed closely all the peaceful demonstration since their start in the city of Daraa, and then across the Syrian landscape. I was waiting impatiently for the women and men of Aleppo to join their compatriots in taking to the streets. However, the uprising in Aleppo took an Islamist turn quickly. My first demonstration was in Aleppo University when the students were chanting in support of the Free Syrian Army towards the end of 2012.”

“The demonstrations started in the outskirts of Aleppo. Although university students were demonstrating in the city, especially in the university campus, in the areas around Aleppo, religious rather than national slogans were chanted. I have colleagues who were lawyers and they told me that in the middle of the week, rather than weekends, the complex of courts in Aleppo was filled with demonstrating employees and lawyers. Everyone was chanting ‘One, one, one: the Syrian people are one’.”

A few months later,” Nidal continues, “the slogans turned to takbeer (Allahu Akbar or God is great). The change in the crowd of demonstrators was noticeable as well. With all due respect to all the ethnic, religious and racial components in Syria, but the change in the focus of the demonstrations to religious chants as opposed to the national discourse produced a group of people who saw in the revolution nothing but a sectarian struggle. Women, young and old, disappeared from the peaceful demonstrations. It was clear that the regime played the card of religious and ethnic division. Some of those who took up arms in the name of defending themselves and protecting their homes and properties, used their weapons to terrorize people out of their homes so that they could loot them. This practice was followed at times by Syrian regime army, and by some of armed groups at other times.”

“I stopped going to the demonstrations, and stopped following the Revolution’s pages on the internet. I stopped my political involvement at that time as I could no longer tell the good guys from the bad guys. For example, in the poor neighborhood of Ashrafieh, peaceful demonstrators used to fill up the whole high street. But a group of young men used to hide in the mosques until these demonstrations disappeared completely. The demonstrators were replaced with new people who held picture of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, and chanted PKK slogans. These people had a limited area in which they were active, which did not go beyond the neighborhood of Ashrafieh. It was clear then that the regime was planning to hand over control of the Kurdish populated areas to the PKK under their new name: the Democratic Union Party.”

Despite her reservations about the uprising, Nidal is still a firm believer in the concept of revolution. “I come from a family whose members are all interested in politics, even our parents” she says. “At some point in my childhood, I became aware of the crimes of Hafez al-Assad’s regime against the communists, and its racist treatment of the Kurds. The regime tried to exclude the Kurds from civil and political life, except for those who were loyal. I witnessed racial, sectarian, and class-based discrimination at an early stage in life. Because of my affiliation and activity with the Syrian Democratic Youth Union, I was denied studying at the Teacher Training Institute, where admission was based merely on personal connections. During the rule of Bashar al-Assad, when I started teaching in the countryside, I was surprised that the educational staff was mostly made up of Alawites in Afrin and the surrounding villages, at a time when the educated young men and women of the region were working in workshops, restaurants and cafés because of unemployment. Priority has always been given to members of the Alawite sect in teaching, let alone government departments, police and other areas.

Nidal remembers some incidents when she was subjected to discrimination as a Kurdish woman in her academic and professional life. “Of course, like all Syrians, I suffered from marginalization, because I did not belong to Assad’s family or his supporters, and also because I was Kurdish. I first felt this discrimination in primary school, where some teachers were ignoring my participation in lessons. They were trying to spurn the Kurds as ‘peasants’, believing that Kurds would be ashamed of their work in agriculture. I remember in the seventh grade in middle school when the military training teacher asked for my family documents because I told her that I was born in Aleppo. I was actually born in Aleppo like the rest of my siblings because of my father’s work in the National Water Company. When I showed her the family document, she said mockingly: ‘Your father should register you in your original village, you are Kurds, not from Aleppo.’ I felt insulted.  We did not even have the right to register our births correctly. My father actually amended my ID documents so that the place of birth was our village. I remember that he said proudly, ‘This is better. Let the name of our village be read loudly by all’.”

Upon leaving Afrin, Nidal went to Istanbul, where she had some relatives. Istanbul was not an easy city to live and find a job in, especially since Syrians at that time had not yet begun to come to the city and start businesses there. “I worked in a sewing workshop,” Nidal comments. “I had learned from my mother to use the sewing machine. The workshop was huge and I worked eight hours a day. The treatment of the workers by the so-called ‘Ustas’ was like hard labor in prison. But the situation improved after I went to the city of Gaziantep.”

As for the crossing to Greece, Nidal describes it as “the most difficult stage of the asylum journey.” “The moment I arrived in Greece,” she says, “I felt like an uprooted tree. In Greece, what pained me the most was not sleeping in the wilderness nor the lack of services in the camps, especially on the borders, but rather the in-fighting among the Syrians over some bread, a pack of biscuits, or even an old item of clothing donated by the Greek people. In a television interview for one of the local Greek stations, the presenter asked me, ‘Can the local area take these huge numbers of displaced people, and what are the most widespread health risks?’ I told her that the most dangerous thing was the moral risk to children. Health issues can be solved; hunger and cold can be controlled. But children here are learning a dangerous set of actions and we do not know what the consequences will be if we stay longer.  I meant theft and perhaps violence on the local people in order to get food or clothing.”

In her new home, Finland, Nidal found a breathing space after the difficult journey. About her current experience, she says, “I am completely reconciled with the new environment. Perhaps my competence in English is the reason for my quick integration into society. I am a very social person by nature, which helped my integration and adaptation to life in Finland. The biggest obstacle I faced has been the Finnish language, which I still find difficult to speak. However, the difficult thing is being away from my relatives who are in Syria.”

“I expect the movement to bring about a radical change in Syrian political life. The SWPM has a revolutionary vanguard of women that has laid the basic foundations for women’s participation in political work and achieved, in record time, and despite all the conditions of war and oppression, a huge leap against the stereotypes about women and their participation in politics.”

Regarding the challenges that stood in the way of political activism in Syria before 2011 and whether they have changed now, Nidal talks in these terms. “The challenges have not changed a lot. The most important challenge has been the number of women partaking in political work and in positions of power. Perhaps after 2011, women’s participation became slightly larger but female representation in decision making circles remains very limited. I mean that despite their presence in major Syrian bodies, this presence remains symbolic. The whole approach to politics remains male-centered. One of the positive aspects of the Syrian Communist Party was giving women the opportunity to form women-only groups, which were not restricted to discussing women’s issues only. These groups allowed women to be in political formations which had been for decades controlled by men.”

“The conservative Syrian society accused women active in the Communist Party of being ‘loose’,” Nidal continues. “Any man allowing his wife or daughter to join the party’s events was treated like a pariah. But political activism remains an uphill struggle. Anyone expressing opposition to the Syrian regime still faces detention or death. The only difference now is that digital technology allows people to be politically active and reach an international audience.”

The challenges facing politically-active women in particular, Nidal says, are too many to count. “The most important challenge is women’s fear of societal pressure. The society is no less terrifying in its punishment than the Ba‘ath party which practices oppression against all activists.”

As for her reasons behind joining the SWPM, Nidal says: “When I was active in the Syrian Democratic Youth Union, a large number of young women struggled for social equality. They contributed positively to breaking the stereotypes surrounding women at that time. We held seminars, meetings, and lectures on class struggles and the role of social justice in the well-being of women and men alike. But there was a lack of knowledge regarding feminist issues and an absence of understanding of gender equality. Men who allowed their women to attend parties, seminars and lectures were considered ‘heroes’ compared to others who did not. I mean that party activists did not give a lot of consideration to the important role of women in challenging society and breaking away from negative traditions. In joining the SWPM, I found a place to be politically active away from male mentality, a place where bringing about change, being involved in politics and advocating for feminist issues, is not the attributed to men. Rather, this is a movement for women who believe in change from a feminist point of view and who work hard to bring about necessary change to build a society of complete equality. 

“I expect the movement to bring about a radical change in Syrian political life,” Nidal continues. “The SWPM has a revolutionary vanguard of women that has laid the basic foundations for women’s participation in political work and achieved, in record time, and despite all the conditions of war and oppression, a huge leap against the stereotypes about women and their participation in politics, despite male domination of all Syrian political bodies. The movement presents a role-model for women’s political work that women will follow in the future. Even if our activity has little impact on the current Syrian situation, it will empower future generations because we have broken the chains of fear among women and enabled them to engage in political activism, paying no attention to social consequences.”

Regarding the obstacles facing the SWPM and its visions, Nidal says, “There are many difficulties in the face of any political movement, especially one with a feminist outlook, due to the relatively conservative nature of our society. The most important challenge is the different levels of political awareness among the movement’s members, because of the diversity of their cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds. In addition, a large number of the movement’s members live inside Syria, which poses a security threat to them and limits the movement’s abilities. Moreover, political bodies, in Syria in particular, and the in the whole world in general, are not yet fully accustomed to the existence of a women’s political movement. This, again, limits the movement’s ability to realize of its vision. But the SWPM is working tirelessly to overcome all of that.”

“I believe that the SWPM has gone even beyond the original objectives of the Syrian Revolution,” Nidal observes. “Despite women’s participation in the revolution, their role was limited to civil and field work, and sitting in political councils. But political work from a feminist perspective is a valuable addition to the principles of the revolution. The spread of women’s awareness of their problems, and linking these problems to political work, will have a positive impact on the whole scene of Syrian revolutionary work. Women are extremely capable of organization and management, starting from their own homes, all the way to institutions and state departments. This is not an exaggeration but an actual experience from countries and societies led by women.”

I believe that we should continue in feminist political activism because it will be of paramount importance in leading the way and building a new country that welcomes all its inhabitants on the basis of equal citizenship for all women and men. This is the most important goal for the SWPM.”

About the most positive experiences that affected her personally in the past ten years, Nidal says, “Because of my open-mindedness and my desire to achieve equality between all groups of society, and because I suffered from exclusion due to my cultural, political and ethnic background, I had a beautiful experience with Syrian children in Turkey, where I ran an educational center that hosted a group of children from different Syrian backgrounds. I was very happy with this diversity, especially since everyone received the same attention and care. I tried my very best to give them that. At the same time, there was a special part at the center to teach mothers some crafts to help them become financially independent.”

“I also worked in relief work,” Nidal continues. “I felt particularly happy to join the relief teams in their visits to displaced Syrian families in Turkey, especially families whose only earners were the children. The foreign aid agencies used my experience in determining the needy families. I never showed any partiality towards people of my ethnicity, nor against people who do not share my opinions.”

On the other hand, Nidal went through many setbacks and disappointments. “Like all Syrians, I have suffered the horrors of war for over ten years,” she says. “The most horrible experience was seeing those whom we thought to be rebels against the actions of the Assad regime, practice the same atrocities, when they were given the chance, against the people of Afrin. This letdown had negative effects on me personally, and more widely on a large portion of Syrian people who revolted against the oppressive Assad regime. The so-called ‘nationalist movements’ deepened the divide which the regime created between Syrians. I can only hope that this divide does not grow deeper.”

On the personal level, Nidal summarizes her motive to continue the struggle in the Syrian public sphere by saying “I dared to have a dream, even before the revolution. I am still trying to achieve this dream.”

About the Syria of her dreams, Nidal says, “I want a Syria that looks like the society I am living in at the moment: a country of equality, and most importantly, an Assad-free country.”

Addressing the people of Syria, Nidal says, “Let our issues as women be our common purpose towards which we should all strive. We need to defeat whoever denies us our human rights. This is the only way to settle our difference and disagreements.” 

In conclusion, Nidal says, “The Syrian Revolution has produced new forms of agreements and disagreements, which had little to no impact on the ground within the Syrian society. The interests of international and regional powers might have played a key role in supporting certain components of the Syrian society to the detriment of others. As a result, the revolution lost direction at some point. This is not to say that these negative aspects are going to be the basis for the new Syria. From a feminist point of view, I believe that we should continue in feminist political activism because it will be of paramount importance in leading the way and building a new country that welcomes all its inhabitants on the basis of equal citizenship for all women and men. This is the most important goal for the SWPM, and women, before men, are required to work day and night to achieve it.