By Will Todman, Rotary Global Grant Scholar from the United Kingdom
Having studied Arabic and modern Hebrew for my undergraduate degree, I had gained a background in the history, languages, and literatures of the Middle East. I was most interested in the region’s contemporary politics and decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA, for the unique chance to study in Arabic while enjoying the flexibility to develop expertise in my real area of interest. Based in Washington, DC, the program also offered amazing opportunities to gain insights into the world of foreign policy.
As my interests related to conflict resolution and local development, areas Rotary focuses on, a friend suggested I apply for a Rotary scholarship through my local district to study at Georgetown. Without the grant, I would never have been able to afford the expenses of studying abroad, and am immensely grateful for the opportunities it has provided.
My graduate studies focused on contemporary politics of the Middle East with emphasis on displacement and the Syrian conflict. I complemented my academic work with internships and research for the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, for the Office of the United Nations’ Special Envoy to Syria, and an academic field trip to Jordan.
My experience with Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Last June, I traveled to the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria as a translator for an adviser to the Envoy to Syria. Upon arriving in the vast Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, we were greeted by wineries, fruit trees, farms and small villages framed with snow-capped mountains. At first glance, it seemed impossible that something so beautiful could have been considered one of the most dangerous valleys on earth.
As we descended further into the valley, another sight became clear. Huddles of tarpaulin structures revealed many of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Since the Lebanese government refused to set up official refugee camps, considering such a move to mean taking a political stance on the Syrian conflict, haphazard tents had been erected on private land across the country, often without access to electricity, water or sewage.
We arrived to our destination, the border crossing itself, where we sought to talk with recent refugees from Syria. While some cars were entering Lebanon, significantly more headed in the other direction towards Syria. We introduced ourselves to a group of men sitting along the side of the road; most were happy to talk once we explained our assignment to gather the views of ‘normal’ Syrians rather than political or military leaders for the UN.
We spoke to a driver who frequently made the journey between Damascus and the border. “There are no problems in Damascus” he assured us, “We have water, electricity, food, security. Maybe the prices are a little high, but there are no problems at all. It is normal, like it has always been.” When we asked if there was fear about the recent gains by ISIS, he said he had never met anyone from ISIS and couldn’t be afraid of something he didn’t know.
Others revealed a very different image of the country. “Don’t people realize what is happening in Syria? We are starving, we are dying, we are being massacred. And then we come to Lebanon and, really, we live worse than dogs. No animal should ever be treated how we are treated.” relayed a 40-year-old man from rural Damascus as he waited for his son to cross the border. “I can’t leave to get [my son] because I wouldn’t be allowed back in, and he can’t leave Syria because he is underage and can’t cross the border without an adult,” he explained.
For my master’s thesis, I spent a considerable amount of time researching sieges both in Lebanon and back at Georgetown. I have presented my research to local Rotary clubs, the British Embassy in Beirut and on a panel in Washington. Safe to say, the stories are incredibly depressing and the testimonies tragic. However, there are some grounds for optimism. The local Syrian groups working to prevent Syrians’ suffering are truly inspirational and make unthinkable sacrifices to help others. I have published a number of pieces based on my research including a policy piece for the Middle East Institute, an article on the Lawfare blog, and an interview with Syria Deeply. I was also interviewed on live Egyptian TV!
Now that I have graduated, I am working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. I am a research associate in the Middle East program, which focuses on the catalysts for change in the region, aiming to be opportunity-driven rather than threat-driven like much of the analysis
I am working with others to found a group called KAMA DC to work with migrants in Washington. Using an Austrian model, we seek to provide a platform for migrants to teach classes according to their skillset – it may be a Spanish class, a Syrian cooking class, or a West African dance workshop. The aim is to empower immigrants, and to facilitate their integration into U.S. society by facilitating contact with different groups of people. We’re very much hoping to collaborate with local Rotary clubs on this endeavor.