Raymond Georis Lecture 2015


Raymond Georis, a founder of the European Foundation Centre, opened this year’s Lecture with a bold statement that highlighted the severity of circumstances on which the lecture was to focus: “Syria no longer exists”.  As he introduced Bassma Kodmani, Executive Director of the Arab Reform Initiative, Mr Georis spoke of a country destroyed by its own leader, with 5-7 million Syrians now refugees. What began as peaceful protests signalling hope have turned into a regime of further repression, civil war and two opposing coalitions, one led by the US and its allies and another by Moscow, Damascus and Tehran. The people of Syria are the first to suffer, then the wider Middle East and Europe. Bassma Kodmani’s insight and experience at the crossroads of Europe and the Arab World enabled her to describe candidly to the audience the complexity of this situation.

As Ms Kodmani came to the stage she said she was honoured at being asked to deliver the lecture, but that she also felt the weight of responsibility to find a vision that would enable Syria to be resuscitated. She was clear: Syria has never been as alive in Syrian’s minds as it is today when their country is slipping away from them. The flight of the population is a result of terrorising dictatorships, with Assad’s domination and continual use of barrel bombs alongside Isis. Those living through the conflict have lost hope, and fear that it will only get worse.

On the ground, people have adapted, finding ways to cope in impossible circumstances. Specifically, Ms Kodmani pointed to barrel bombs, stating that when they first came into use they were killing 20 to 30 people each time, but now they kill on average 3 to 5 as Syrians realise the best ways to hide and get away. Another adaptation has been seen in the interior migration of the population: When the initial bombings of Aleppo began, the population moved to rural areas, now people are moving back to the places where the original battles were taking place.

Though the immediacy of action seems more necessary today than ever before, Ms Kodmani expressed that for her Syria has been a desolate place for the last 50 years, with suppression of the people existing since the late sixties. Her own family fled to Europe crossing through Lebanon when she was a teenager following her father’s imprisonment. Thousands of Syrians, many highly qualified professionals have left the country in that time, including some 6,000 Syrian doctors in France; 2,000 in Britain; and 15,000 in the US. Their predecessors integrated easily, but now that the numbers of refugees have grown into the millions, there needs to be a serious strategy. Ms Kodmani asserted that the vast refugee camps in Jordan are more like concentration camps, with young people longing to flee.

Syrians on the ground have been able to organise their lives, and their level of community organisation is promising. With very few resources they are still functioning, but the question is how can we help them? Politicians have not taken responsibility and wait for the involvement of the US. For Europe, there is no choice. Politicians are defensive and fearful and yet at the same time we have seen among citizens huge movements of solidarity across Europe. It must be remembered that Syrians perceive Europe as a land of freedom, democracy and human rights, and so believe that in Europe they will be safe. This, Ms Kodmani stated, has been communicated by society but not by the governments.

We need a strategy for the long term: We need to make sure Europe does not make it impossible for Syrians to study, to work, to live. Europe needs manpower and there is no contradiction between welcoming refugees and sustaining our own economy. At the same time, we must fight for the population within Syria, as one strategy for the current regime is to empty the country, they are happy for people to go. We must help Syrians stay and support education and economic and governmental organisation, because these people are intellectually and physically alive.

Before the conflict there were 24 million Syrians in Syria and 18 million in the diaspora. Since the conflict began there are a further 7 million Syrians outside of the country and another 10 million displaced. The existing diaspora should react, and develop its network and connections – this should be a strategy supported by governments.

Ms Kodmani pointed out that for 30 years Europe and the Middle East have not worked together, where previously they had been aligned. Today we must make positive contact. Syrians know their identity but they have lost their country − they all deserve to be supported.

Following a powerfully frank address the floor was opened for questions, the first asked for more precision on the positive interactions that should be supported between Europe and Syria. In the short term, Ms Kodmani noted reception centres were important and practical needs must first be met. This should be coupled with opportunities for refugees to learn European languages. Other successful programmes include helping people identify potential areas of work, developing their CVs and guiding them through study − particularly towards the sciences. Housing is of course an issue everywhere.

With regards to the long term, Ms Kodmani spoke of ensuring that refugees are given help when it comes to fully understanding the subtleties of their new environment. Every European country has its own nuanced codes, and helping to explain them may be a role for the diaspora. Beyond societal understanding, Ms Kodmani was emphatic about the need for mental health care provision early on, and the necessity for psychologists to be able to provide care in Arabic.

The blame game is the most sterile of all and Western Europe must react, for it has a great capacity to support refugees. The discourse cannot be solely negative, but so far no politician has dared to say that Europe may need more people. Europe must come to this discourse on its own. Germany, perhaps the sole country that has been forward looking and generous, is acutely aware of its own need for young working power. France, on the other hand is less aware of its needs, they are not acute – and so the country is not ready to take on the challenge.

In Syria, the crisis is inevitable and unstoppable unless the conflict settles. Ms Kodmani was clear – this conversation needs more time. However, the final question posed asked what can philanthropy do to act collectively? Philanthropy is not motivated by the political, and so Ms Kodmani suggested that foundations may work to bring out the real facts and figures so people realise there are potential opportunities in this situation. The public discourse needs to focus on the reality. Of course, refugees are associated with risk and political violence. Foundations must work to create a responsible and realistic public discourse to help build bridges between the Syrian diaspora and those vulnerable arrivals who seek a better future in a Europe standing for freedom, democracy and human rights.