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'It's Not Normal': Syrian War Transforms Lives

Razan Shalab Al-Sham, 26, is from a wealthy Syrian family and has been working to bring supplies into the country for the Syrian Emergency Task Force. Here she meets with local councils in Syria who came to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.
Jodi Hilton
Razan Shalab Al-Sham, 26, is from a wealthy Syrian family and has been working to bring supplies into the country for the Syrian Emergency Task Force. Here she meets with local councils in Syria who came to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.

In November, Razan Shalab Al-Sham, the daughter of a wealthy Syrian family, led the way to the Syrian farming village of Khirbet al-Joz to deliver an unusual kind of aid: police uniforms. A cold winter rain turned the frontier forest between southern Turkey and Syria into a muddy march up a mountain ridge along a smugglers' trail. She climbed the mountain to make the delivery herself.

Delivering police uniforms was a critical mission for Al-Sham— a symbol of what she wants Syria to become: a democratic country, with a civilian police force. At the police station, she handed out blue jackets and trousers to local rebels.

"The most important thing is, he will change from a soldier to civil police uniform," she said as the rebels shed their camouflage and donned the new uniforms.

The war in Syria has destroyed towns and villages, torn families apart, driven millions out of the country and displaced millions more. But the revolt has also transformed some Syrians, propelling them into roles they never imagined. For Al-Sham, 26, the revolt has become a personal revolution.

Her journey began in the city of Homs, where she planned on teaching English literature, to southern Turkey, where she now distributes aid, promotes democracy and advises governments, including the U.S.

The one thing the war has not changed is her dress sense. Even on a muddy mountain trail, she's got bling: jingly jewelry, knee-high leather boots; her hair is covered with a stylish scarf. Her laugh is still girlish, but she delivers — and that counts with the war-hardened rebels in this devastated village.

A Return Visit

Al-Sham recently returned to the same area after convincing the Italian government to donate more police uniforms and fund a field hospital.

On her aid mission to Khirbet al-Joz, the rebels have been transformed. Dressed in police blue, they invite Al-Sham to stand with them for pictures.

It's unusual for a young, unmarried woman to hang out with rebels in a conservative farming village. It's even more unusual for Al-Sham, who is from one of the wealthiest families in Syria.

"In all my life, I didn't feel that I should care about poor people, or help them, or stay in their villages," she says. "This is the first time for me. When the revolution started, I entered [a] village."

The revolution has changed her 100 percent, she says.

"It was very wrong not to be close to those people, because they treated us better than we treated them," she says.

In her city of Homs, the revolution started in the poorest neighborhood, Bab Amr, where protesters called for social justice and an end to one-family rule: President Bashar Assad's family.

But soon, residents of the wealthiest neighborhoods joined the revolt, even those who had prospered under the Assads. Then, the regime unleashed what Al-Sham calls the punishment, for the rich and the poor alike.

Joining The Revolt

"When the protest started in my area, which is very [wealthy], the regime didn't believe that this area would have demonstrations," she says, "because all of them are educated businessmen and many different kinds of rich people. When it started, and the regime attacked it and arrested many of my friends, then I said, I should participate in this revolution."

A daughter of privilege, her participation meant a lot. Her family owned the largest medical factories in Homs. As the armed resistance kicked off, she delivered medical supplies to the rebels. It was a role so risky, her father eventually sent her to southern Turkey to make sure she was not arrested. But that didn't stop her. It was the start of a more high-profile role.

"It's not normal for me to make all these meetings and work with government and work on these issues; of course it's not normal for me," she says.

But normal was over when the uprising began.

In Turkey, Al-Sham opened an office for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a private aid agency based in Washington. By the time her father brought the rest of the family to Turkey, she was already living the life she had always wanted to lead.

"They couldn't control me," she says, laughing. She adds: "All the time I told them this is my future, this is my dream, and [my father] supports me a lot."

Crossing The Border

The next time we meet Al-Sham inside Syria, it is early spring of this year. Here, the border crossing is a rowboat across the Orontes River. Her mission is to get to towns recently liberated by the rebels in northern Idlib province.

She's here to support democracy, the new local civilian councils, and she also promises to deliver humanitarian aid. It is the only way, she says, to compete with Islamist extremists who are also trying to shape Syria's future.

"People can't wait. The problem is, people are very hungry inside Syria, and it is a very dangerous situation." Al-Sham knows that radical Islamists are also promising humanitarian aid.

But as soon as she delivers aid on the Syrian side of the border, there is another crisis on the Turkish frontier that also can't wait.

In the Turkish town of Haci Pasa, we stumble on a scene of desperation. Hundreds of Syrian refugees are packed inside the town's mosques. They fled across the border to Turkey when Syrian jets bombed Jisr al Sharour, in a military campaign against the rebels.

"All of them are children and woman," Al-Sham says, as she walks through the mosque.

There is no water for them; no food or blankets, says the mayor, who heard that Al-Sham was in his town and pleaded for her help.

"All their houses were destroyed, and they came here to protect their children," she says quietly as she talks to the refugees.

Critical Of Aid Agencies

The mayor showed her where refugees are living — in a warehouse, a garage, an unfinished building, 50 to a room. There are no resources in this Turkish town to feed hundreds of frightened new arrivals from Syria, he tells her.

Standing on the street, Al-Sham began to work the phone, calling on a network of donors, including her father. She arranged for a truck loaded with mattresses, blankets, food and water for a delivery that night. Her work is exhausting, and it has made her critical of the failures of international aid agencies.

"If they want, they can do that," she says.

Her family has paid a price for supporting the revolt. Her childhood home has been raided by the pro-regime militia.

"The regime wants to take revenge," she explains, "and take the most expensive things to punish us. They stole all my mother's gold."

The militiamen even stole all of the clothes she had left behind when she left for Turkey. "Our life is more important," she says.

She has put her family's wealth on the line for Syria's revolt. She smiles as she explains that she pushes her father to give even more.

"My father all the time now becomes angry with me. Because I always tell him, 'You should support this group; you should support that group.' And my father always tells me, 'We need to have some money for ourselves.' "

Her laugh leaves no doubt that she has clout with her donors, including her father.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.