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Activism Abroad Can Mean Terror For Family Members Back Home In Syria

Exiled for the past 11 years in Germany, Syrian-born Sondos Sulaiman is an open critic of the repressive Bashir al-Assad regime. But her activism comes at a price. Sulaiman receives regular threats, and fears constantly – with good reason – for the safet

Critics of Syrian President Bashir al-Assadm protesting in Berlin
Critics of Syrian President Bashir al-Assadm protesting in Berlin
Lydia Bentsche

BERLIN -- Every day, she gets anonymous hate mail. Even in exile in Germany, Sondos Sulaiman faces intense pressure from supporters of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Despite the threats, Sulaiman, 33, continues to fight for democracy in her country from Berlin, where she's now based. She does, however, suffer permanent anxiety about her parents and seven siblings, 3,000 kilometers away.

The regime in Damascus is making this activist's life hell. Sometimes she gets up to 10 emails and Facebook notifications a day – and they're not from her family or friends. But the anonymous communications, which also include calls, aren't deterring her. Even though she fears for safety of her loved ones, she continues to work for the Al Hadatha party, which is fighting for freedom and democracy in Syria.

Sulaiman has been waiting for some sign of life from her family for months. So far, she's heard nothing. Instead, she receives messages from people she doesn't know and who she believes to be supporters of the autocratically repressive regime of President Assad, which forbids criticism. Others living in exile like Sulaiman have also received messages telling them to stop opposing the regime – or else their or their family's "health" is going to suffer.

A recent Amnesty International report records the experiences of 30 exiled Syrians living in eight different countries. They say that they are watched and pressured by Syrian "diplomats," apparently because they demonstrate for freedom and denounce the fact that for months, Assad's security forces have been firing on peaceful demonstrators in Syria who are perceived as a threat to the regime.

Some exiled Syrians collapse under the pressure. Sulaiman says she wants to stay strong. "Afraid? I'm not afraid," she told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "The pressure is tough, but I know that it's much safer in Germany than it is in Syria."

More than a decade in exile

Sulaiman left home 11 years ago. She was already anti-regime back then, in a low-key way – but it was enough to alarm Syrian authorities who bullied her until she applied for exile in Germany, where she ended up in Berlin.

A graduate in Arab studies, she at first earned a living teaching Arabic. In her spare time, she worked for the Al Hadatha party, which stands for a modern and democratic Syria. The party's roots go back to the Syrian underground in 2001, and it now operates out of Germany.

The longer Bashir al-Assad ruled, the greater the role politics played in Sulaiman's life. She ended up quitting her teaching job to work full-time for the party. She runs its website, demonstrates, meets with representatives of Germany's foreign office, writes letters to the European Parliament – she has even participated in hunger strikes.

In June, she posted a video on YouTube in which she urged the minority Alawites in Syria particularly to fight for their freedom. Al-Assad is an Alawite. Not only does the president justify his repressive tactics as necessary to protect his Alawite brothers, but he also insists if he, as an Alawite, were to lose power, ethnically and religiously diverse Syria might tear itself apart.

"That's why it's important for Alawites to state publically: I am an Alawite and I oppose the regime," says Sulaiman. The exiled activist says that after she posted the video, many Alawites contacted her to express support. That gave her courage. However, the regime reacted too – with intimidation.

Sulaiman's brother had to go on state television where "he was forced to say bad things about me," says his sister. "He was forced to lie. He said he had no knowledge of my activities until now, and that I was being paid by the German government and other European countries."

Sulaiman says that she and her brother used to talk often on the phone about her dreams for Syria's future. Then contact was interrupted. "Syrian intelligence knows everything, they were tapping his phone," she says. Her whole family was monitored and warned against having any contact with her. "The pressure just kept getting more intense," she says, and her family finally asked her to stop getting in touch – not by phone but also not by e-mail, because Assad's henchmen have their eye on all avenues of communication.

Troubling reports from home

The Amnesty International report backs up such claims. It cites the cases of exiled Syrians whose relatives back home have been intimidated, jailed, or even tortured – even when they themselves were not involved in any form of protest. Some were forced to make statements on state television discrediting family members or friends.

After months of having no contact at all with her relatives, Sulaiman asked an acquaintance in Syria to visit the family. In vain, because, she says: "Every few kilometers between the villages there are groups of police, so nobody can drive anywhere without being questioned."

However, after a while the acquaintance did manage to talk to Sulaiman's brother-in-law. To her relief, she heard that her relatives were okay. "But they are very afraid. It's gotten to the point that my sister is so scared she won't leave the house. The intelligence services have been spreading horrible lies about me. It's tough on my whole family."

Despite all this, Sulaiman isn't giving up hope. If she did, she wouldn't be able to carry on her fight for a free Syria. "A good life in a democratic country with the rule of law, where women and human rights are accepted and respected -- that's my dream," she says.

She knows there are going to be more than a few problems down the road. But at least the protests have started the ball rolling. Sulaiman says she was surprised at how many people in Syria are now anti-Assad. "I thought most people needed more time. The country's on the right track. We're nearer our goals than we were."

While waiting to reach those goals, Sulaiman just has to live with the threatening messages she receives, and keep hoping she'll get some good news from her family again soon.

Read the original story in German

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Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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