Q&A: Godfathers and Thieves author Elizabeth Dickinson

In Interviews

In Godfathers and Thieves, book No. 7 from Deca, Elizabeth Dickinson, author of the acclaimed Who Shot Ahmed, describes how an underground network of exiles moved millions of dollars of medicine, clothes, and weapons from the high-rises of Dubai to the frontlines of Damascus. When the Arab Spring began, Syrian businessman Mezyan Al Barazi had been abroad for more than a decade, trying to forget his distant home. Corruption under the vicious Assad dictatorship had sabotaged his studies as a young man and bankrupted his business as an adult, sending him into self-imposed exile in Dubai. But then, after watching videos of protesters on the streets of Damascus, Mezyan saw his chance to win Syria back from a ruthless regime. Risking the comfortable life he had built abroad, he devoted himself to the revolution. This is the story of how members of the Syrian diaspora such as Mezyan crowdfunded a revolution — and were themselves imperiled and ultimately transformed. Deca’s Sonia Faleiro asked Dickinson about the experience of writing Godfathers and Thieves.

How did you first learn of the diaspora’s vital role in influencing the Syrian revolution?

It happened by accident. I was in Kuwait looking into private donors to the Syrian rebels when I learned that the Syrian diaspora was playing the role of intermediary between the donors and the groups within Syria. I quickly learned that the diaspora, which obviously had a big stake in the war, was very well connected and so I tried to meet diaspora members in all the Gulf countries I covered — the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia. It was like unlocking a new room. I realized the community was huge, and doing tremendously interesting work.

How open were people to talking to you?

They were thrilled. Since the Arab Spring the diaspora has felt that if the world knew what was happening in Syria, they would try to help. That information would bring about change. So they believed that the more attention was brought to their work, the better it was for Syria.

Some of the expats were worried about their safety in the Gulf. From the very beginning the Gulf countries had terrorist financing fears, particularly when it came to Syria. In the UAE, for example, the community was allowed to gather goods, but not cash. So the diaspora has worked within the laws of the countries they’re living in.

How is the Syrian diaspora different from other diasporas that have contributed to the war effort in their home countries?

The main difference is the use of social media and the tools they used to organize. Previous diasporas had to organize themselves overseas before they sent money home. In the Syrian case, because of social media’s instantaneous network, they could have a more fragmented system in which groups of people or even individuals could become their own aid agencies without the hierarchal structure of the past. It made things happen more quickly and on a grander scale. It was also more transparent. For example, a shipment sent from Abu Dhabi to Syria could be tracked every step of the way on Instagram, Viber or WhatsApp. One middle man would send a picture of supplies crossing the border into Turkey, then the next middle man would send a picture of the goods being offloaded in Syria. In this way the diaspora was also confident that their aid was reaching the right people.

How would they have gone about their work without social media?

I’m not sure the diaspora would have got involved in the uprising in the first place. In the beginning of the conflict the Syrians overseas were absolutely terrified of one another. In Syria they’d lived under a regime that was so intrusive it had created a Stasi-like atmosphere in which everyone felt their friends were watching and monitoring them for dissent. They felt this way even once they were overseas. Social media made it far less risky for the diaspora to approach fellow Syrians. They could do so through an anonymous account, which was safer than it was to approach their neighbors even if it was someone they’d known for ten years. Social media broke down barriers, and it was only after weeks or even months of interacting on social media that Syrians abroad felt confident approaching each other in person.

You interviewed 50 people in half a dozen countries. What was it about Mezyan that made him the hero of this story for you?

The fact that he stood out to other Syrians I knew. On several occasions when I was with other members of the diaspora, someone would point him out to me, giving the impression that he was a grandfatherly figure within the movement and had a wise persona. His dignity and conviction seemed even more extraordinary given how many setbacks he’d suffered. He carried the ambition embodied by the diaspora.

So much has changed in Syria since you started interviewing members of the diaspora in January 2014. In the 18 months of reporting that followed what changes did you notice in Mezyan?

There was a darkness that began to descend over Syria, and thus over the diaspora in 2014, particularly as extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) began to gain a foothold. The diaspora felt that not only had they lost to the regime but also that what had come in the aftermath was possibly even worse. The first thing people would say to me when I walked into their offices was, ‘look how many people died today’, or ‘another village was bombed’. The conversation always began with the latest tragedy. On the other hand, even as things got darker, people like Mezyan and his colleagues managed to maintain a public profile of optimism. Despite their personal heartbreak and disappointment, when they were together they forced themselves to be optimistic, and that’s why their aid efforts continued to be successful.

The level of heartbreak was astounding. It wasn’t just heartbreak for individual losses, but the feeling that the idea of Syria, that of a multicultural land with so much history and vibrancy, is slowly being eroded. One of the most powerful attributes of the diaspora is that it maintains this idea of Syria, and what it is to be Syrian, and in many ways that could be the legacy of the diaspora. As conflict chips away at the country, there’s a repository of memory overseas that can be reanimated, if you will, after the conflict ends. I think that’s very much what people hope — that if they can keep this spirit alive, some day they can resurrect Syria.

The story of Syria’s civil war appears to have become the story of ISIS in Syria. Did the diaspora anticipate the rise of ISIS?

I think this is one of the greatest disappointments of the diaspora — that people seem to have forgotten that it was the Syrian regime that has consistently created the greatest human suffering. But given what had happened, many people I interviewed were not surprised that ISIS had emerged. One person told me that ‘ISIS is coming from the people,’ because they are so lost, helpless, and desperate. Anyone who is not from the regime is welcomed.

There’s a sense that ISIS is the result of a slow-motion avalanche, and that it was inevitable that the more destruction the regime caused, the more likely it was that an extremist and opportunistic group would take advantage of it. And, as many in the diaspora saw it, how could you blame people? So many Syrians have lost their entire families, or have nothing to eat, and have no other option but to join such groups. It’s not so much that they support the ideology, but rather that they’re stuck in a situation of last resort and this is their least bad option.

Having said that, the vast majority of the diaspora is adamantly opposed to ISIS and sees it as an abomination of everything it means to be Syrian. At the same time there’s a lot of resentment toward the outside world for letting Syria get to this point. They feel that while they were doing everything to improve the situation, the world just stood back and watched.

Can you explain US policy at the start of the civil war and whether it could have done anything to stop what is now happening?

In the early days of the Arab Spring there was momentum and we saw a series of fast regime changes; Syrians expected the same in their case. Six months into the uprising the US called for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. So there was a feeling that the US was on the side of the protestors, that they were ready for the regime change to happen. But as things grew more complicated on the ground in Syria, the US policy really shifted toward one that hasn’t changed to this day: They would like to see Assad removed, but they would also like to see the structures of the state remain in place. In other words, they wanted symbolic change at the top but they didn’t want to see the chaos that had been created in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. This attitude bred a conservative approach to the crisis.

In my opinion, one of the biggest blunders of the US and the international community was a failure of strategic calculation, a failure to see that if you left Syria, which is in the middle of the Middle East and on the footsteps of Europe, to devolve into a cauldron of human suffering, it would suck many forces and elements into it, and that narratives of extremism and sectarianism would inevitably emerge. It was a failure to see the stakes of the crisis. While Washington was thinking ‘it’s just Syria, it’s not such a big country,’ the crisis has contributed to enormous turmoil through the Middle East and beyond.

So now the Syrian civil war is at the root of Europe’s refugee crisis. Can you explain to readers what people are escaping from in Syria and why Europe should help them?

What stands out to me about this particular crisis is that the Syrians who are fleeing are exactly like me. They could be me. They are educated and middle class; they loved their country and had no desire to leave, and all of a sudden they were embroiled in civil conflict.

The situation on the ground in Syria today is indescribably bad. Syria is divided between dozens and dozens of armed groups, the borders separating these groups change almost on a daily basis. In most of the country there’s very little access to outside aid, there are fuel shortages, there’s no electricity, schools in most of the country have been closed for four years. If you’re lucky there’s one bakery that’s still open in your city, but you have to stand in line for bread everyday and it turns out that when people are standing in line at the bakery is when they’re most vulnerable to air strikes, because the regime has been so calculating about striking highly populated civilian areas. Bread lines in cities like Aleppo have been targeted.

So this daily horror is something you and I would surely flee from, and the people who are coming to Europe are exactly like you and me. Their country has been stolen from them, and they’re not seeking a better existence, they’re just seeking an existence. And they feel that anywhere around Syria is unsafe, because this conflict has repeatedly shown its ability to metastasize and move to new areas in Syria and frankly, the region. So to come to Europe is their final escape.

How should Europe respond?

I personally think that any country would be lucky to have Syrians coming in, working, and being entrepreneurial. Syria is a country of incredible history, culture, and enthusiasm. I’ve benefitted enormously from the Syrians I’ve known and they would bring energy to any country they would settle in. A refugee arriving in a place like Germany represents an opportunity for that country. I guarantee that in three or four years the same refugee would have set up his or her own business and would be contributing to society in a way that we cannot even imagine. So Europe must look at this as an investment in the future, rather than something that is going to tax the system. Because in the end the Syrians will contribute far more than any benefits they draw.

Tell me how reporting this story has impacted you.

It’s been a story of heartbreak for me. To watch so many wonderful people hurt by what is going on in Syria, to watch the callousness of much of the response… It’s easy to think that reporters are objective, that we separate ourselves from the story, but I certainly haven’t been able to separate myself from the heartbreak that my sources are going through. I think Syria will be a part of my life going forward, because I understand the tragedy that has befallen the lives of Syrians. I hope that I can continue covering the crisis, but I also hope that something changes for the better in Syria.

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Sonia Faleiro
Sonia Faleiro is the award-winning author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, named a Book of the Year by The Economist, The Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus, The Observer, CNN, Time Out, and The Sunday Times. It has been published worldwide and translated into languages including Hindi, French, Polish, Swedish, and Dutch. Sonia’s writing and photos have appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, The California Sunday Magazine, Smithsonian, and Granta. She divides her time between London and India.