Monday, August 30, 2010

Disability activists thrive in a more open Syria

From The NY Times:

ALEPPO, Syria — For five years, Chavia Ali’s attempts to start a disability rights group were thwarted — by prejudice, a lack of money and the Syrian government’s stranglehold on civic life. The government gave her a license, but prevented the group from meeting because of what Ms. Ali believes was a whisper campaign against her, a Kurd with a growing profile.

Then everything changed.

Last year, Ms. Ali (pictured) was told that a third of her budget would be paid by a group led by Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Now Ms. Ali, 29, is everywhere, giving television interviews, speaking at ministry conferences and having her picture taken with the first lady.

The reversal of her group’s fortunes is part of an overture that government officials have described as a new embrace of civil society.

But the embrace is complicated. Even as doors have opened for a few people, like Ms. Ali, they have shut with increasing frequency on activists demanding greater political rights, according to human rights lawyers here. While some rights advocates welcome any opening, no matter how small, others say it extends only to groups that pose no challenge to the established order.

“Civil society means free people create free initiatives,” said one Syrian activist, one of many who, fearing government reprisal, requested anonymity. “How can un-free people do that?”

Ms. Ali embodies the conundrum. Her cousin was arrested this summer by the security services during one of their regular sweeps through Kurdish villages, but she refuses to talk about what happened.

“Some ideas you can’t touch,” she said. “I don’t want to go outside of my case. I am working on disabilities.”

It is a quandary faced by activists across the Middle East. In the narrow alleyways of civic life permitted by authoritarian governments in the region, opportunities exist as long as certain limits are observed. While foreign aid groups often cheer the explosive growth of organizations that help women, children or the environment, there are questions about whether the groups can change the political order.

As the world watches Syria emerge from years of international isolation, Syrians are watching the government play its strengthened hand at home.

“We are seeing changes,” said Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East studies program at George Mason University. “The number of associations that are emerging is increasing. The number of concerns that are allowed to become public is also increasing. The whole process is blessed by the government. It has good intentions but built-in structural limitations.”

Professor Haddad said that in the 1990s, during a similar embrace of civil society groups, activists knew the changes were cosmetic but assumed that the very existence of new groups might hasten change. Few people have those illusions today, he said.

“I think the first thing that Syrians need to see is an end to arbitrary rulings that put away people based on their viewpoints,” he said. “That is something that stifles any kind of public debate about the important issues.”

Many rights advocates go further, dismissing the talk of civil society by the government as window-dressing while it continues to arrest Islamists, Kurds and other political opponents, along with the lawyers who represent them.

Civil society figures who cross the line, like Muhannad al-Hassani, can end up in jail. Mr. Hassani, a lawyer who used to monitor the trials of dissidents in the Supreme State Security Court, was disbarred for life last year, and in June was sentenced to three years in prison on charges that included “weakening national sentiment.”

Mrs. Assad’s efforts put a softer face on her husband’s policies and, within limits, appear to be doing some good. An organization she directs, the Syria Trust for Development, finances groups that work with women, rural residents, children and entrepreneurs. Its Web site says the trust is “at the forefront of the emerging N.G.O. sector in Syria, at a time when the country is actively pursuing a substantial agenda for change.”

The new groups might represent progress, but they also fill a need, as Syria copes with growing numbers of impoverished citizens. “The cultural reliance on the government for everything is not attuned to modern society,” said Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington.

For her part, Ms. Ali has seized on the opening to find ways to integrate people with disabilities into society, and to help them become independent in a country that makes that nearly impossible. To spend time with her this month as she traveled around the country was to understand the depth of that challenge. Nearly everyone she met had to ask for help, to reach a second floor, to get more time to take an exam or just to be taken seriously.

Dependent on a wheelchair since contracting polio as a child, Ms. Ali began her journey as a rights activist when a college administrator laughed her out of his office when she asked him to repair an elevator.

He did not fix the elevator. She moved on to other battles.

One day this month in the Kurdish village where Ms. Ali was born, she visited a 27-year-old blind woman, Zahra Sheikhi, whose parents kept her and her sister, who is also blind, at home for all of their childhood, out of shame, Ms. Ali said.

With Ms. Ali’s help, Ms. Sheikhi has learned to play a lutelike instrument called the tanbour, occasionally performs in public and is hoping to move away from home. “My family is always around,” she said. “They don’t allow me to live.”

In Aleppo, where Ms. Ali lives with her parents, she visited Saghatel Basil, 33, a university student who lost his sight because of diabetes a few years ago. Mr. Basil said that Syria had recently installed traffic signals for blind people but that many of them did not work.

His disability had prompted Mr. Basil to try his hand at local government. “I am trying to improve the idea of citizenship,” he said. “It is still weak. Maybe because I’m blind, I have a big hope that things will change.”

A conference in Damascus this month, attended by Ms. Ali and the first lady, reflected another type of opening blessed by the government, the spate of recent visits by international groups.

An American nonprofit group, the Open Hands Initiative, brought young Syrians and Americans with disabilities together for what the group’s founder, Jay Snyder, said was an attempt at person-to-person diplomacy. Mr. Snyder said that his group’s trip to Syria was approved quickly and that no one from the government restricted what they could discuss.

“Part of the challenge we face in Syria,” Mrs. Assad said at the gathering, “is how do you take incredible people and incredible ideas and make them an incredible reality?”

A young man in a wheelchair, Abdulrahman Hussein, 20, offered an answer. “We should be doing something in our own countries,” he said. “We should not be sitting in a corner.”