From the February 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Melhem Mansour lives in London now. But for nearly a year, he didn’t have anywhere to call home. “After my fellowship ended, I was just traveling around. I was in 12 countries,” he says. “I didn’t know where to go.” It was the spring of 2012, and he had just finished the three-month program at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. In his native Syria, violence was escalating. Before he left for Thailand, he had been detained and questioned for criticizing the government. If he returned, he risked being jailed.
Though he’s unable to go home, he’s careful to note that his passage to England was much easier than for many people now fleeing the region. Mansour has a day job working for Apple, but his heart is in peace and conflict resolution work. He consults with several nongovernmental organizations on the Syrian conflict and helps organize “hackathons,” competitions that bring together programmers and nonprofit experts to find technical solutions to humanitarian problems. Though he was critical of the Syrian government before the war, today he keeps his comments focused on the humanitarian crisis created by the conflict out of concern for the safety of his parents, who still live in Damascus. He spoke with Contributing Editor Vanessa Glavinskas.
How is your family? Are they safe?
I can’t say they are safe because they’re in a conflict area, but people adapt to their situation. We always pray for them, for their safety. We can communicate sometimes if they have power and their phones are charged. The situation is difficult not only for my family, but for all families and everyone living in Damascus.
What is happening there?
Daily life is going on. Sometimes there are rockets and missiles. But they have adapted to this life. They are not afraid anymore. They say: If we are to die, we’ll die.
In late 2011, you were detained and questioned by the Syrian government. Why?
The regime was detaining all activists in the country, and I was active on Facebook and different TV channels supporting human rights and the revolution against the regime [of Bashar al-Assad]. At that time, I had been studying in Canada and was on my way to Thailand for the fellowship. I wanted to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Syria with my family, but I spent them in a detention center instead. I was asked a lot of questions and investigated for my activism. I was late arriving in Thailand for the fellowship because of that situation.
Since you couldn’t go home, where did you go after your fellowship?
After the program in Thailand ended, I attended conferences and seminars around Europe and North America. I was traveling to different countries, but I didn’t know what to do because I could not go back to Syria. Fortunately, I had a work visa for the UK, because I had studied there and had worked with the British Embassy in Damascus. Otherwise, like other Syrian refugees, I would have had to go somewhere and apply for asylum.
Initially, you were in Wales, in Cardiff. What took you there?
I had an opportunity to work with an organization called Oasis that helps asylum-seekers. They provide a space for them to learn English and other skills while they wait for their cases to be resolved. I also attended meetings of the Rotary Club of Cardiff Bay and delivered a presentation about the conflict in Syria and my fellowship. I invited the local Rotarians and Rotaractors to come to the center where I worked, and they joined us for a party for the families there.
You’re the first Syrian to get a Rotary Peace Fellowship. What appealed to you about the program?
I thought the Rotary fellowship would give me an opportunity to see what other countries did about conflict resolution. I selected Thailand because I knew I would be exposed to case studies from Nepal and Myanmar, where the situations were similar to the situation in Syria – a dictatorship, a revolution, and then interference from different actors both outside the conflict and within the conflict. When I finished my fellowship, I did two training courses on peace education and post-conflict recovery in Lebanon, where I was able to meet with Syrian activists who are also in exile.
What type of work are you doing now?
Last year, I worked on a British government project on Syria. I analyzed local peace agreements between the regime and opposition parties, between the rebels and the regime, or between rebel groups, because sometimes they fight among themselves. I collected data about these peace agreements and gave seminars and set up training courses on local peace resources. After that, I worked on a project called Promise Apps, which is developing an app to help survivors of sexual violence. Promise Apps came out of a 2014 global summit in London on ending sexual violence in conflict, which Angelina Jolie co-chaired.
I understand the app is still in the testing phase. How will it work?
Most women have a smartphone, so the app will provide information on the nearest services or shelter for survivors of sexual violence. We selected Lebanon as our first case study because we had partner organizations already there working on violence issues. A woman would use the app to reach any kind of service: a lawyer, medical services, or a police officer sympathetic to victims of violence. It also has a help line.
You have helped organize “hackathons” to find technical solutions to humanitarian problems. How do those work?
A hackathon is a competition between local developers or IT experts who work with people from NGOs to develop solutions for different problems. One was held last September in Beirut on the UN’s International Day of Peace. It was a part of five hackathons in five cities. Some people proposed ideas about apps to help refugees crossing to Europe. Others wanted to develop a mapping website of humanitarian aid for refugees in countries around Syria. We get a lot of ideas from the hackathons.
How can technology help solve humanitarian crises?
At a UN peace and technology conference in Cyprus in 2015, I saw a 3-D camera that lets people live, virtually, the life of a Syrian refugee in Jordan. That was the first time I’d seen such technology. There’s a project to send drones full of humanitarian aid to besieged areas. But tech developers may not fully understand the problems we need to solve, so that’s why we need experts from NGOs to team up with them to come up with ideas.
What do you think is the future for Syria?
I think most people want the conflict to be over, but they don’t know how to end it. It’s very important to give the communities a voice. Without hearing from the communities, we can’t know what Syrians want. We can’t leave it to the regime or the opposition. They don’t represent all the people.
What do you hope to do next?
I had a lot of dreams about what I could do. But the NGO sector is very competitive in London. I’m still active. I’m still organizing hackathons, but it’s different from what I expected to do. Hopefully I’ll find another job in the development sector. I just need to have patience.
Do you think you’ll be able to go back to Syria one day?
I always have hope.