An interview with Syrian Computer Scientist Mohammed Al-Ogaily.
Insights on war, religion, and humanitarianism in the Levant.
26 MARCH, 2016 — Beirut, Lebanon
Beirut is a city full of contradictions. Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, and now Syrian, it is one of the most liberal and diverse cities in the Middle East — and previously one of the most war-torn. When I visited Lebanon in March 2016, I knew little of the Syrian Civil War, but was lucky enough to sit down with Syrian teacher and computer scientist, Mohammed Al-Ogaily, whose perspective on the conflict is well-informed and well-articulated, and represents a unique window into the opinions and sentiments of those who are much closer to the war than Western media outlets could ever hope to be. Beirut is only about 85 kilometers from Damascus, and though it is experiencing a time of peace, its own 15-year civil war could serve to inform — and possibly predict — the outcome of Syria’s conflict. Lebanon is a strange and imperfect beacon of hope in a region that seems increasingly divided.
Mohammed and I met at a school building in West Beirut, occupied by Jusoor, a Syrian-led non-profit aimed at empowering Syrian children in Lebanon by providing them with an education that would otherwise be unavailable because of their refugee status. Lebanon itself hasn’t conducted a census since 1932, before the founding of the modern Lebanese state. But unofficial estimates surmise that there are approximately 1.5 million displaced Syrians currently residing in Lebanon. The UN suspended registration of refugees in May 2015.
Syrian computer scientist and teacher, Mohammed Al-Ogaily.
BRIAN: Tell me a little about yourself and what you do here in Beirut.
MOHAMMED: I was born in Damascus, Syria. The first 5 years of my life I was in Syria, then I left for Abu Dhabi, spent around 8 years there, then high school was in Syria. I came here [to Lebanon] in September 2011. I was planning to come here, originally, to study at the American University of Beirut [AUB]. So I came, finished education here — did Computer Science — and then once I graduated I found myself in this particular room, teaching. And then I got stuck here from 2014 until now. I started off working here for a summer before [planning to go] traveling. Traveling did not work out, so I stayed. And I started helping with administrative stuff at Jusoor. Now I work at a tech company and work with Jusoor in the evenings and the weekends.
B: What do you do for Jusoor?
M: I’m basically a project manager here. I am responsible for making sure the projects that are run by volunteers are working out. One of them is the art class, [and] the homework class on Sundays. We have a program at AUB to teach adults English. I coordinate that stuff and get the volunteers and get the students in the venue, call people, everything. Also, since I’m from a programming background, I manage all the IT for the school and for the organization. And work on the strategy here in Lebanon of what to focus on — the big problems, how to solve them, etc.
Jusoor has three schools in Lebanon — two in the Bekaa Valley and one in Beirut, pictured above.
B: What are the big problems? Is education one of the most important things to empower young people who are suffering because of the war in Syria?
M: This is the 5th year [of the civil war]… if this is not going to end next year, or the one after, we need to think of what will happen if it doesn’t end in 15 years. We need to build something. So, the best thing to build is people. You need to build people who are well-educated, who went to good universities, who have good jobs, who can live anywhere in the world and work and help any community they’re in.
Syrians in Lebanon have a problem with education. In 2013, there were no schools to teach Syrians. They were left [on] the streets… now there are schools but there’s not a lot of quality everywhere. Not a lot of space everywhere. So, we’re trying to work on that. We’re trying to make sure Syrians who are left in Syria or are left in third-world countries have the chance to go study, giving them another option than just swimming in the sea and getting stuck in Greece. So, yeah, education is the most important thing you can work on.
B: Explain more about the school we’re in.
M: Jusoor, the organization that runs this school, is a Syrian-led organization. It’s originally based in the US. It’s a 501(c)3 organization started in 2011. We started off focusing on university students and scholarship students with a mentorship program to help Syrian students in Syria find universities abroad. In 2013, we opened here. It was basically just an activity center in Beirut to keep the kids off the streets. But then we started teaching, and then we got full-time teachers, and then we opened two other centers. So, now we take in all the Syrian students who don’t have a place in regular public or private schools. It’s an informal school where we teach everything that they get taught in regular schools, but we don’t give any certification.
Jusoor means “bridges” in Arabic… it’s [symbolic of] connecting everyone from Syria with everyone from abroad. We have scholarship programs in Jordan, UK, US, Canada… for students of all ages. We [recently] launched a program called ‘100 Syrian Women, 10,000 Syrian Lives.’ We’re planning to send 100 Syrian women to study in the US and Canada next year, and the one after, and the one after.
A Lebanese volunteer works with a Syrian student at Jusoor’s Beirut school.
B: Regarding the kids in this program — have they just left Syria?
M: Most of the kids [in our art class] have been here for 2 or 3 years average. Since January 2015, the number of Syrians coming from Syria to Lebanon really went down because the Lebanese government issued new regulations for how Syrians can get into Lebanon. Now Syrians can’t stay in Lebanon. Previously they could stay for [however long] they want and just [apply for more time]. Now a Syrian coming into Lebanon will get one month on average if [they] don’t have any papers. After that they have to go back to Syria or to any country that will allow them. Currently, Turkey does not allow them any more — they need a visa.
Many of the Syrians in Lebanon are illegal. They have papers from the UN saying that they are refugees but many of them don’t have proper papers from the government saying they are allowed to be in Lebanon. A lot of them try to run away from checkpoints. A lot of them fear doing anything related to the government or government offices. Our kids here who come to our school in Beirut live in an area called Sabra and Shatila, which was previously [refugee] camps — Palestinian camps in the 80’s. They’re still called camps but they’re buildings now. Basically, Palestinians live there, and the Syrians who came to Beirut found this place the cheapest place to live, because it’s one of the poorest neighborhoods in Beirut. Many of them live in that area and around it, which is around 15 minutes on foot from here.
B: Can you summarize a little bit of the Syrian conflict without getting too political?
M: Jusoor likes to stay non-political and non-religious. We stay out of all of these things. We know that everyone has a political opinion, everyone has their own story. So, we try to focus on the humanitarian things. Jusoor thinks maybe we’ll have peace in some way in the next few years, we’ll go back into Syria and try to do the same thing we’re doing here, because they’re going to need all of this stuff there. But if we don’t, let’s just adapt to what’s happening.
“…we need to think of what will happen if it doesn’t end in 15 years. We need to build something. So, the best thing to build is people.”
From my own point of view, we’ve seen and we’ve known — most of the people I know also know — that the government is bombing people. It all started with a government that ruled Syria for 40 years [giving] no rights to anyone. Peaceful demonstrations in March 2011… I [saw] with my own eyes how they attacked some protests, some people — my friends got arrested, etc. And then, many things happened after that. You’ve got weapons everywhere, you’ve got Islamic extremists, you’ve got Russia and Iran and Hezbollah and refugees, etc. But you still have the government bombing everyone. Last month when the [ceasefire] started, in many cities — especially because a few weeks back was the anniversary of the Syrian revolution, the 18th of March — in many cities, people went out to the streets. And you would expect, looking at Western media, that the people would go out and [say] ‘please come bomb ISIS’ because ISIS is the most terrifying thing in this country… but that’s not their primary fear. That’s not the primary thing they’re focusing on. They went out into the streets and reminded everyone that they went out in the beginning to fight [the Assad Regime] — they want this Regime out. And they said it again.
After 5 years, after getting killed, after having ISIS ruling us, after fighting with ISIS, after fighting with everyone, our primary problem is this: help us get rid of [the Assad Regime] and we’ll figure everything out after that.
There are other people in parts of Damascus and Aleppo and Latakia and other cities on the coast that want the Regime to stay for many different reasons. But people who’ve witnessed the death, people who’ve lost their homes and became refugees, most of them — especially the people I’ve met in Lebanon — [know] our problem is with the Regime.
If you have Evil A and Evil B and Evil C in a city, but Evil A bombed you and destroyed your house… You know [the others] are evil but you have a problem with the person who bombed your house — no one else.
B: And that’s the Regime, not the rebels?
M: In some cases it is the rebels. Not all the rebels are good. In some cases you have them bombing randomly. For example, Homs and Aleppo, I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of how destroyed they are, [but] the rebels don’t have big rockets… they don’t have the capacity to do that… Nobody has airplanes other than the Regime and the coalition.
“We’re not only advocating for peace, we’re advocating for justice. We need justice before peace.”
Mohammed converses with one of his students during recess at Jusoor’s Beirut school.
B: What would you tell a Westerner in a country that is receiving Syrian refugees?
M: If you look at any city, any nation, any country — there’s no neighborhood in the world, no city in the world, that does not have a very ethical person. A person who’s very understanding of people and does good things. At the same time you will find a thief in that city. You will find someone who is not ethical, who lies to people, who steals from people…. in any city, whether in Syria or in the United States or in Germany — anywhere. There’s no nation in the world that’s all evil or all good. So, the refugees who are arriving in Europe or in the States or anywhere else; I will not say they’re all nice; I will not say they’re all good. Because it is a whole country fleeing everywhere.
There is a poem [by Warsan Shire] that says ‘no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.’ Nobody is happy leaving. These people lost their homes, lost their future, lost every single plan they planned for. Imagine. They’re regular people. People who were at universities and schools and were doctors. Imagine yourself as a doctor in the US… that in a few years you’ll have to swim to Canada and become a refugee and you’ll see the media saying these people are evil and these people are terrorists… and a few years ago you were a doctor who lived a perfect life!
We have successful people in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. And we have not successful people. So, my message to people abroad is that we are not aliens. We are not people who come from a totally different world. We have iPhones here. We have internet. We know ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and ‘Friends’ and ‘Batman vs. Superman.’ Every single movie you’ve watched we’ve watched. Many of us come from backgrounds very similar to yours.
I’ve seen some of the people who went to Canada, for example… in many cases because the community took them in, because the community welcomed them, they became just like anyone else. But if they come in and you point at them and say, ‘These are refugees! Put them in a different house and a different neighborhood and keep them away’ — these [people] will become terrorists. We are telling you, if you treat people like this — whether they come from Syria, or from Europe, or from China — if you put them away and you treat them as aliens they will become terrorists. They will hate you as much as you hate them. And when they get the chance to do bad things to you, they might do it. And you see that with the Algerians and Tunisians in Europe and France. The things that happened in Belgium and France. Look at who did that. The people who did that are people coming from communities that were not welcomed into society.
If you want to take refugees in do not put them in closed communities. That’s bad for everyone. If you wanna put them in closed communities don’t take them in. We do not want to become terrorists. We do not want our brothers who are going to Europe to become terrorists. Don’t make them terrorists — this system makes them terrorists — makes them extremists. People in Syria were not very religious. They were moderate [Muslims], just like you have moderate Christians and moderate Jews. Just like you have extremists Muslims, you have extremists Jews and extremist Christians. Even though I do not consider myself a Muslim, I do not accept a person who considers themselves a Christian saying that Islam is a terrorist or an extremist religion. Because all three big religions have had a time in their history where they were killing everyone. All three of them. So, none of these religions has the right to tell people the others are killing us… because you killed people the same way in the name of religion!
Some say the influx of refugees in Lebanon has lead to a growing anti-Syrian sentiment among the Lebanese. However, this sentiment is nothing new — the current refugee crisis has only exacerbated an underlying anti-Syrian conviction held by many Lebanese as a result of Syria’s 29-year occupation of their country.
Currently you have a lot of forces who are using these people’s fears… and their mess, and their psychological trauma, and everything — they’re using that and they’re feeding them this religious ideology, this extremism. And they’re giving them a way out. And that’s what happened. If you’re getting killed, and you’re getting bombed, and you don’t have a house, you don’t have your money, you don’t have anything, and nobody’s willing to help you — the only one who’s willing to help you is a Saudi cleric, will you take his money? You will take his money! But after you take his money he’s gonna use you. You did not want that, but khalas [enough], I need $10 to eat, to feed my kids today. And I have the devil giving me $10 — I will sell my soul to the devil! That’s where selling your soul to the devil came from. Some Syrians did sell their soul to the devil, not because they like the devil, but because they did not have anyone else!
A friend of mine was telling me the other day… one of his friends was a university student, who was studying medicine, I think. He used to drink, he used to do all the regular things. He wasn’t religious — he does not pray, he does not fast, he does not do any of that. Now, he is in [Al-Nusra Front]. Which is one of the most extremist factions in Syria. Let’s ask people abroad: Why would such a thing happen? What’s the logical explanation for that? If this guy can turn into Nusra, then a regular European can become a Nazi. This is how things happen.
B: You said Jusoor is non-religious. Do you consider yourself non-religious as well?
M: I was raised in a very secular environment. For outsiders it’s very simple to divide things as Sunni/Shia. You have two different sects, two different people with different visions for the world and they’re fighting. That makes it simple for the media and for people who are watching TV. They’re just fighting because they’re from different backgrounds. They’re from different tribes so they have to fight. But that’s not the situation.
Nobody is fighting in Syria or Iraq because somebody 1,400 years ago did something. The fighting in Syria did not start as Sunni-Shia-Alawite thing. It started as a regular revolution against a totalitarian regime. In Syria, you can find people who tell you it was some kind of Alawite supremacy. [People decided] these people [who] are ruling the country do not deserve to rule the country because they are only 10% of it, but these people who rule the country — yes, many of them are Alawites — but some of them are Sunnis. At the same time you have a lot of Alawites who are not [in the government]. And a lot of Alawites who are very poor. There are a lot of poor Sunnis. They have lived happily in some areas together. They have fought in some areas, previously. So, it’s a complicated issue when it comes to sects in Syria. This is not the thing we’re fighting for.
Some clerics and some people in the Gulf would tell you, we are fighting in Syria because the [Prophet Mohammed’s] cousin was killed by whoever else, who killed whoever, because they like the person who killed the person we like, which all happened 1,400 years ago. We do not care about that. [The clerics] do care about it, only to make people feel like it’s important. So, you get Hezbollah telling people we are going to Syria to fight the people who killed Hussain. Hussain is the grandson of the Prophet. When people feel that they’re defending the Prophet’s grandson [they feel] that it’s a very good cause. It was a very negative thing for the people in Syria — for the demands that the people had — that they brought up all of these stories that messed everything up, that made Westerners and everyone abroad think it’s just stupid people fighting for a stupid cause.
“Some Syrians did sell their soul to the devil, not because they like the devil, but because they did not have anyone else!”
A Syrian girl checks her smartphone during recess at Jusoor’s Beirut school.
“They’re regular people. People who were at universities and schools and were doctors.”
Personally I’m completely not religious. One hundred and eighty degrees. In Western definitions, you’d call me an Atheist. But I do understand why people would think this way or would act in these ways. Our communities — especially in Lebanon and Syria — are full of all different people. In Lebanon, you have 15 sects. At one table you would meet 3 or 4 different [sects]. There is peace in Lebanon, but peace after 15 years of war. Which led to a very… sectarian peace.
B: Do you think there’s lasting peace that’s possible? If it’s possible in Lebanon is it possible in Syria?
M: It is possible in Syria. I don’t think that the peace in Lebanon is the end of the story. The story in Lebanon did not end. Neither did it in Iraq or in Syria. But if you look at the history of any country in the world — of Germany, of the whole of Europe, of the United States of America, of any other country… you will see that every single civilization in the world had its time of glory. Success, technology — everyone was going there, everyone was learning their language.
And then every single civilization had its time of misery. The Europeans called it the Dark Ages. It’s always a peak and a [valley]. We’re in that [valley] now, where we have nothing. These are not successful countries. We are not accomplishing anything other than death and war, and misery for people abroad. And sending everyone to Europe and sending out our problems to other places. But these countries — if you go back into history — had their successful periods. During the Dark Ages, the people who lived in [the Middle East] were successful. No country in the world — no region in the world — can ever be called a failure.
‘These people do not deserve democracy.’ We hear that a lot from Middle Easterners and from people abroad. You are assuming this because you’ve seen what — 50 years of their life? 100 years of their life? We’re now in 2016 after Christ. And what — 8,000 or 10,000 after civilization? And you want to tell us that 50 years of people’s lives are worth telling us they won’t succeed? They will succeed! Whether next year or within 100 years!
The argument of people in Syria who started all of this in 2011 is, ‘okay, we were living in peace. Syria was living in peace before 2011 but people were not happy.’ Maybe many of them felt they were happy, but they did not live in a country that respects human beings. They did not get their rights. So, if we have to live in 10 years of struggle and 10 years of death and 10 years of losing everything to get our grand-grand-grandsons to live in a good country, that’s better than living in [false] peace.
A common sight in Beirut: Syrians gathered on the street without opportunity for education or employment. In the background, remnants of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
There are many organizations and many people in the world advocating for peace. Yes, everybody loves peace! But if you tell me, you can live in peace but with no justice, or with no peace but you will get justice and peace after that… I will go with no peace! Because peace is not the only thing. I will not live in peace with my killer — that’s not peace. That’s why you have judges and why you have courts that will take this killer to [justice]. That’s not peace for him! We’re not only advocating for peace, we’re advocating for justice. We need justice before peace.
We were talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier. Before MLK the Americans — white and black — lived in ‘peace.’ There was no death in the streets, but [there was no] justice. What MLK was advocating for was not peace, he was advocating for justice and peace. Nelson Mandella — for justice. Many people want the justice that gives us the power to kill all of those people who killed us — no, we don’t want to own that. We want Nelson Mandella’s justice and peace.
At the same time we don’t want the US Government forcing on us that peace will happen, and this [same] government will stay in a different [form] — we’ll keep it but we’ll change some things in it — and you’ll live in peace and refugees will go back and you’ll live happily ever after. For example, Lebanese people are living in this peace. But the people who caused the [Lebanese Civil War] are these 15 leaders of these 15 sects. The people who are ruling this peace… participated in the war. They were leaders of militias in the war. Now they’re all friends! Because the leaders agreed that we’ll all split the pie and live happily ever after, but people did not get their justice. From all sects. From all backgrounds. This country [hasn’t seen] the end of its story. You see conflicts every day. This peace… it’s not very lasting. People are not happy in this country. And there is another reason for them being [unhappy]: this country has three different nations. You have Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians in this country. This is a mess here. But the solution they had in the 90’s — even if it was good back then — it’s not good now. We want a good solution and at the same time a just solution.
The Western governments are not thinking of this solution. They’re thinking of just getting rid of the mess. Getting rid of ISIS, getting rid of the refugees spreading out everywhere and that makes sense — you want this all to end. But if you end it — in a way that will not give people what they want — it will not end. You will still have a mess here. ☗
Visit Jusoor’s website to learn more about empowering Syrians who are displaced from their homeland.