World

Godfathers and thieves, Part One: How the Syrian revolution was crowdfunded

By Elizabeth Dickinson 14 September 2015

This is the first of five exclusive extract relating the story of Mezyan Al Barazi, a Syrian expatriate living and working in the United Arab Emirates, and his efforts to support the revolution in his home country. At turns informative, tragic, and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Godfathers and Thieves reminds us that the next revolution, like the last, will likely be crowdfunded. By ELIZABETH DICKINSON.

In February 2014, a 63-year-old agricultural engineer named Mezyan Al Barazi stood in a two-car garage in one of Dubai’s posher developments, rows of villas broken up by artificial lakes and streets lined with palm trees. The garage was modest, and the polished concrete floor was scratched where cardboard boxes had been dragged to and fro, stacked and re-stacked. Now, though, the room was satisfyingly empty. After weeks of collecting winter clothes, flour, diapers, and blankets here, Al Barazi and a group of colleagues had enough to fill a shipping container, which they moved to a warehouse in Sharjah, an industrial centre north of Dubai, a 90-minute drive away. It was the first stop on the way to Syria.

Now 63 years old, Al Barazi wore a well-trimmed, graying beard. A Syrian from Hama, he had lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for more than a decade. The years had taken most of his hair, but left his posture untouched. His body was muscular under his thick leather jacket. He had called together a meeting of half a dozen fellow Syrian expatriates, part of a group that had spent the last three years sending supplies and aid back into their home country. Like the goods they had just sent off, the place they now gathered in had been donated – it was the home a middle-aged schoolteacher named Roula, who had fled Syria in 1995. From the garage, they moved into her house to talk about shipping logistics over sweet tea and cardamom coffee.

The Syrians took their seats in the living room, sharing greetings and pleasantries between sentences about the war now consuming their homeland. In 2011, they would have been strangers with no reason to know one another, nor any desire to sit down for tea. Now though, they talked as if operating a family business, each member carrying his unspoken role. Al Barazi watched with an air of oversight, Roula tallied lists on a spreadsheet, a used-car salesman named Osama noted down shipping details. In just three years, their small group of expatriates had grown from a casual charity network into a full-fledged aid logistics machine.

Al Barazi and his friends form an unlikely fundraising cluster, one of hundreds scattered across the world. This is their story — of how the Syrian diaspora, of the exiled businessmen, housewives, students, and professionals crowdfunded a rebellion-turned-civil war and then became the saviours of last resort for civilians caught in its aftermath.

Not just in Dubai, but also Abu Dhabi, Jeddah, and dozens of other Arab cities, donation plates are being passed in private homes. Dinners are being held to raise funds. The life savings of thousands are being poured into the revolution, many are taking on debt to keep the cash flowing.

In the beginning, the money went to peaceful protesters. Trucks filled with Samsung phones and cameras enabled activists to document their demonstrations and publicise the government’s lethal crackdowns. As armed groups organised themselves against the regime, the diaspora sent money, cigarettes, flour, and sometimes guns. To civilians caught up in the fighting, the exiles delivered medical supplies. As millions of refugees fled the country, they bought diapers, wheat, and blankets and made sure they reached the camps.

Al Barazi and his friends’ supply operation had grown by the month since its inception at the beginning of the Arab Spring. They had begun by gathering goods in their homes. When that became unwieldy, they moved to parking lots, and finally into Roula’s garage, which was now a collection point in an industrial-scale shipping operation. Once her garage was full, goods were moved to a warehouse in Sharjah, provided free by a Syrian trader in Dubai – renting a facility would have cost the group more than 100,000Dh ($27,230) per month, untenable. “The warehouse donor gets angry if we don’t send at least two containers a week,” says the group’s de facto shipping manager, Osama, who had lived in the UAE for 18 years.

From Sharjah, the goods are loaded onto a container that travels by sea, alongside private commercial shipments, to Turkey, where it is offloaded onto trucks headed toward Syria. Moving a container from Dubai to the Syrian border cost Al Barazi and his associates about $5,500 – a sum covered by anonymous donors.

Between October 2013 and February 2014, the group moved 34 shipping containers of donated goods – nearly two a week – into Syria. In addition, during the summer months of Ramadan in 2013, the group sent 425 tons of food to needy Syrians trapped in the war-torn country. “The people inside Syria send us lists of what they need,” says Roula.

The Syrian exiles treated the requests as shopping lists, raising funds and heading to supermarkets to buy the goods. They also collected donations in kind – 400 down comforters from a Dubai hotel manager, 750 pairs of shoes and slippers from a British woman sympathetic to their cause. “If they need rice, I have a friend I will call,” says Osama. “In two days he will give me 30 tons of rice. We have so many people supporting us, and whatever they can give, they will.”

At the beginning of the revolution, volunteers in Syria were able to collect the donations at the border. But as the conflict sharpened, each shipment required a round of intelligence work. Contacts were called in order to find out which roads were safe to travel on and which armed group controlled each stage of the route the goods would have to take. “We buy all the checkpoints,” says Al Barazi. Nonetheless, the group has had several containers stopped by extremist rebel groups.

As their goods traversed the country, Al Barazi and his friends tracked their progress. Each time they changed hands, a contact would send a message on WhatsApp or post a photo on Instagram. On his computer and Samsung smartphone, Al Barazi kept video clips of boxes of gloves, blood bags, basic medical supplies, flour, sugar, diapers, and clothing – proof that the goods he had sent had reached their destination.

Since 2011, Al Barazi alone has spent more than $400,000 of his own money supporting the revolution. An official with the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition group, estimates that diaspora businessmen have sent between $1-billion and $2-billion just to the armed groups challenging the Assad regime. Another prominent businessman puts the figure of all aid – lethal and humanitarian – higher still, at $20-billion, the equivalent of 50% of the country’s pre-war gross domestic product.

It is unlikely we will ever know exactly how much money the Syrian diaspora poured into fighting the Assad regime. No accounting exists of its hundreds of decentralised networks spread across dozens of countries. But one thing is clear. Four years into a bloody civil war, the only reason that many in the country are still fighting, and surviving, is because of the money and assistance being provided by those that fled long ago.

I used to feel guilty” being safe in exile, Roula said. “But if we were not here, no one would help. No one else can. No one can reach them except Syrians outside.” DM

Godfathers and Thieves is published by Deca. Download the full story here.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.

ABOUT DECA

Launched in June 2014, Deca is a journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices. The group’s members have authored acclaimed books and published magazine articles in such outlets as Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, GQ, National Geographic, and The New York Times Magazine. Deca’s writers include Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, Livingston Award, Kurt Schork Award, George Polk Award, Michael Kelly Award, and Frontline Club winners and finalists. Learn more at www.decastories.com.

Photo: Smoke billows over shelled and destroyed buildings in Saif al Dawle district, Aleppo, Syria, 02 October 2012. The Syrian Army continued its shelling in the city, and brought in reinforcements to try to put an end to the rebels’ resistance. EPA/MAYSUN

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