'It's Not Normal': Syrian War Transforms Lives The war in Syria has torn families apart and driven millions out of the country, but it has also transformed some Syrians as they take on roles they never imagined. A 26-year-old woman from Homs has put her dream of teaching English literature on hold as she works with the opposition.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/176615619/176718922" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. We've been reporting on how the war in Syria has changed people's lives. The violence has destroyed towns and villages, torn families apart, driven millions out of the country and displaced millions more. The revolt has also transformed some Syrians, who are taking on roles they never imagined.

NPR's Deborah Amos has this story about a 26-year-old woman whose dream of teaching English literature is on hold as she plays the role of an international activist.

DEBORAH AMOS: A cold, winter rain turned this frontier forest between southern Turkey and Syria into a muddy march up a mountain ridge along a smuggler's trail. Last November, we were crossing into Syria. Razan Shalab Al-Sham led the way, heading to the farming village of Khirbet al-Joz to deliver an unusual kind of aid: police uniforms.

Where are we, Razan?

RAZAN SHALAB AL-SHAM: We are on the road to Khirbet al-Joz now. It's raining, but we don't care. We need to arrive this uniform.

AMOS: How many police uniforms?

AL-SHAM: We are going to give 17 uniforms in Khirbet al-Joz.

AMOS: For her, it was a critical mission; the uniforms a symbol of what she wants Syria to become - a democratic country with a civilian police force. She climbed over a mountain to make the delivery herself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: At the police station, she handed out blue jackets and trousers to local rebels.

AL-SHAM: And the trouser, 44, 46, 48.


AMOS: The revolution has changed Razan in many ways, but not her dress sense. Even on the muddy mountain trail, she's in jangly jewelry, knee-high leather boots. Her hair was covered with a stylish, colorful scarf. Her laugh is still girlish, but Razan delivers.

AL-SHAM: Let's seem them. Now, all of them wear this uniform together.

AMOS: And that's what counts with these war-hardened rebels.

AL-SHAM: The most important thing is, he will change from soldier to civil police uniform. This is the most important thing.

AMOS: And just as important, she's back a few months later, after convincing the Italian government to donate more police uniforms and fund a field hospital near this struggling village.

UNIDENTIFIED REBELS: (In unison) (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: On this trip, the rebels are transformed. Dressed in police blue, they invite Razan to stand with them for pictures.

AL-SHAM: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: It's unusual for a young, unmarried woman to hang out with rebels in a conservative farming village. It's even more unusual for Razan. She is from one of the wealthiest families in Syria.

AL-SHAM: In all my life, I didn't feel that I should care about poor people or help them, or stay in their villages. This is the first time for me. When the revolution started, I enter village.

AMOS: You've never seen a poor Syrian before?

AL-SHAM: I didn't know the meaning of poor people until the revolution started.

AMOS: In her city of Homs, the revolution started in the poorest neighborhoods, where protesters called for social justice and an end to one-family rule - President Bashar al-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 Razan calls the punishment for the rich and the poor alike.

AL-SHAM: OK. When the protest started in my area, which is very expensive, the regime didn't believe that this area will have demonstration because all of them are educated businessmen and - the many different kind of rich people. When it started and the regime attack it and arrested many of my friends, then I said I should participate this civil revolution.

AMOS: 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 - a role so risky, her father eventually sent her to southern Turkey to avoid arrest by the regime. But that didn't stop her. It was the start of a more high-profile role advising governments, including the U.S.

AL-SHAM: It's not normal for me just to make all these meetings and work with governments and other issues, no. Now, of course, that's normal for me.

AMOS: But normal was over when the revolution began. In Turkey, Razan 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, Razan was already living the life she had always wanted to lead.

AL-SHAM: They couldn't control me. (Laughing)

AMOS: You've already set up shop?

AL-SHAM: For this reason, he couldn't stop me. All the time, I told him, this is my future. This is my dream. And he support me a lot.


AMOS: The next time we meet Razan inside Syria, it is early spring. Here, the border crossing is a rowboat across the Orontes River. Her mission is to get to towns recently liberated by the rebels in Idlib province. She's here to support democracy - the new local civilian councils - and she also promises to deliver humanitarian aid. It's the only way, she says, to compete with Islamist extremists who are also trying to shape Syria's future.

AL-SHAM: The problem is, people are very hungry inside Syria, and it's a very dangerous situation now.


AMOS: But on the Turkish side of the border, in the town of Haci Pasa, we stumble on another humanitarian crisis that also can't wait. Hundreds of Syrian refugees are packed inside the town's mosques. They fled across the border to Turkey, when Syrian jets bombed their town.

AL-SHAM: All of them are children and women.

AMOS: There is no water for them, no food or blankets, says the mayor, who heard that Razan was in town and pleaded for her help.

AL-SHAM: All their houses were destroyed, and they came here to protect their children.

AMOS: The mayor showed her where the refugees were 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 says.

Standing on the street, Razan 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's made her critical of the failures of the international aid agencies.

You are clearly able to do things that nobody else seems to be able to do. Why do you think you can, and they can't?

AL-SHAM: No. If they want, they can do that. They put obstacles because they don't want to work. They don't want to help Syria.

AMOS: Razan Shalab Al-Sham helps in her way, convinced that the future of the country can be shaped in these poor towns and villages. She is promoting democracy and delivering aid any way she can.

So it's a good thing to be a rich person?

AL-SHAM: Yeah, yeah. (Laughing) But my father, all the time now, become angry with me because I always tell him, you should support this group; you should support that group. My father always told me, we need to have some money for ourselves.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.