By Danny Stoker
A few weeks back Nicholas Kristoff penned a column in the NY Times discussing Syria’s White Helmets. The White Helmets are the unpaid and unarmed volunteers who risk their own lives as Syria’s first responders to military offenses. They rush to the most recent bombing and sift through the rubble attempting to free anyone trapped underneath. The White Helmets mission is strictly humanitarian which allows them to work across rebel militia lines. Kristoff’s piece is a rarity in this day and age, one which portrays the human side of conflict and the tremendous capacity for bravery, humanitarianism, and non-violence that exists in the Middle East. Instead we are bombarded with news stories of suicide bombings and beheadings that warp our understanding of the region and its peoples.
Having lived, studied, and worked in the Middle East, my personal view of the region is one that shares much more in common with the White Helmets than it does with terrorism and inhumanity. I believe that it is important for us to take a step back from the terrible news that dominates the region and focus on the inspiring and powerful stories that are happening in the midst of tragedy. I believe that by doing this we can see that there is much more that unites us with them, than there is that divides us. Today, I would like to focus on those stories.
The White Helmets are not the only heroes in Syria today. Since the beginning of the conflict nearly four years ago, Syrian doctors have risked their lives to provide medical care to soldiers and civilians wounded in the conflict. As conditions in Syria have deteriorated over the years, tens of thousands of have fled including medical personnel, dozens of doctors have remained behind to provide medical care to those caught in the chaos. They continue to abide by the Hippocratic oath in the face of the Asad regime’s campaign of terror. These doctors are brave, they are heroes in a world that needs more of them.
Residents of the small West Bank village of Bil’in have seen Israeli settlers and the separation barrier slowly encroach on the agricultural land that has provided a living for decades. For the last decade, these villagers have held weekly marches peacefully calling on the Israeli government to protect their property rights. These residents have fought for their rights in a dignified manner while rejecting armed resistance and the radical ideologies of groups like Hamas and the PFLP.
Throughout the developed world leprosy is in the past. Even in the developing world it is still rare but not yet eradicated. In a quiet village on the outskirts of Cairo, sits the leper colony of Abu Zaabal. For more than 80 years this small community has served as haven to those afflicted with the terrible disease. The doctors and nurses who service the colony receive little in financial compensation for their services. The colony also helps provide for those who have been cured but struggle to re-enter Egyptian society due to deformities as a result of the disease. For many, Abu Zaabal becomes the center of their lives.
In Syria, Amal Malek is using art in an effort to help rebuild Syria in the midst of its brutal civil war. In the city of An-Nabek, which was badly damaged during fighting in 2013, Malek is leading a campaign beautify the city and send a message of peace. Sulafa Abu Senn, one of the participants in Malek’s campaign, described the project as helping cultivate optimism and encourage peace in the city.
The common thread in all of these stories run counter to many people’s perceptions of the region; this humanity demonstrates that beyond the turmoil the peoples of the Middle East are in many ways like us. They believe in the sanctity of human life and strive to make the best of their situation. Stories such as the ones shared above are not an aberration. It is rarely mentioned that Arabs and Muslims protected Jews from the Nazis during World War II (see here and here). There is a tremendous amount of good in the Middle East today and too often we let horrendous over shadow that good. I believe that people in the Middle East and the West have more in common than have in difference. Yet too often we let the differences consume our perceptions of the other. My plea is that we always strive to remember their humanity in hopes that one day this will one day help us build bridges over that which divides us.