'Adopt a Revolution': Syrian in Berlin Channels Aid to Embattled Countrymen

By Wiebke Hollersen

A Syrian expat in Berlin has teamed up with Germans to launch a donation drive similar to long-distance "adoption" programs for children in poor countries. Though they fear the wrath of Syrian intelligence agents and for the safety of aid recipients in the country, they are determined to foster peaceful revolution on the home front.

Syrian expat Aktham Abazid runs his "Adopt a Revolution" program from Berlin. Zoom
Carsten Koall/ DER SPIEGEL

Syrian expat Aktham Abazid runs his "Adopt a Revolution" program from Berlin.

Aktham Abazid and two German friends lead the way into an office that looks more like a storage room off a courtyard in Berlin. The men would like to keep this location secret because they are fighting against Syrian leader Bashir Assad from here. Even in Berlin, they believe that one can't feel completely safe.

Darkness falls as the men flip open their laptops. The seats are plastic, but they have Internet access -- and that's all they need. Abazid, 38, writes three names on a scrap of paper: Hama, Aleppo and Derik. In these three Syrian cities, people are sitting in clandestine offices waiting for their help. The men in Berlin plan to add these locations to the aid program they have devised for Syrian opposition activists.

The Arab League has pulled its observers out of Syria. China and Russia are using their vetoes to block the UN Security Council from passing anti-Assad resolutions. Now only the "Friends of Syria Group," a loose alliance of politicians from 60 countries, is trying to put pressure on the recalcitrant dictator -- and, of course, Aktham Abazid and his friends in Berlin.

The group calls its aid program "Adopt a Revolution," and it aims to recruit Germans willing to "adopt" the Syrian uprising. Similar schemes exist for adopting trees, children in poor countries and even cabinets full of dead insects at Berlin's Natural History Museum. The principle is always the same: People make a monetary donation in either installments or a lump-sum payment as a way to get involved with a given cause. The Syrian uprising may be a little harder to sell than support for children or dying rainforests, but the approach seems to be paying off.

'Foster Children'

Abazid says the popular uprising in Syria is being organized by small pockets of resistance across the country, which Abazid calls "revolutionary committees." These committees plan the routes of protest marches using Google Earth as well as make video recordings of events on their mobile phones and then upload the footage to Facebook and YouTube. If everything goes well, they dance at the demonstrations, Abazid says. The revolutionary committees are the equivalent of foster children that he and his friends are trying to get adopted.

The first demonstrations began in the southern city of Daraa, Abazid's home town. Twelve years ago, he came to Germany from Syria as a student, and he stayed here in order to avoid military service. Although he managed to flee the dictator's clutches, Abazid insists he wasn't really an opposition activist before last year.

Elias Perabo is sitting next to Abazid. The 31-year-old was vacationing in Syria with his girlfriend last year when its citizens first took to the streets. He says he didn't know anything about the country before his trip. Perabo opens up a map of Syria on his laptop with 26 blue dots, each representing a committee they already support. He says they have already received almost €100,000 ($130,000) in donations since January.

Fostering Peaceful Revolution

Today the group is adding three more committees, three new foster children: Hama, Aleppo and Derik. Hama lies 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Homs, the city in which the uprising spilled over into outright war. Activists in Aleppo, an ancient trading town, are asking for €350 a month for rent and another €100 for food. Derik is located in the poor, predominantly Kurdish northeastern corner of the country. Its Arab name is al-Malikijah.

Since they can't make direct electronic money transfers to the committees, supporters smuggle the money into the country in small amounts of cash. Committees sometimes get €700 a month, sometimes €900. Apart from one courier, who was killed en route, everything appears to be going fairly smoothly.

The committees send back reports. After all, their German "foster parents" want to know what's happening with their money. Perabo opens a file sent by a group in Al-Midan, a district of Damascus, which has received €2,250 so far. "We've bought flash drives, cell phones and SIM cards, and will pay for two Internet connections and four telephone bills," he reads. The remaining money is enough to pay for printers, paper and the rent for two apartments.

"The committees don't get more money because they're not supposed to buy weapons," Abazid explains. The idea is to foster peaceful revolution, an idea Abazid says he still clings to. Still, they can't be certain what their money is actually spent on.

Dire Reports from Home

Abazid and his friends suspect that they are under surveillance. "There are 16 different security services in my country," Abazid says. Since he became involved in the uprising, albeit from afar, his mother and sister in Syria have been threatened, and his uncle has been interrogated. What's more, given the recent arrest of two suspected Assad spies in Berlin, he's certain that Syrian intelligence agents are active in Germany. But is this a reason to abandon the people in Syria to their own fate, as the rest of the world appears to be doing?

A new email flashes up on the screen. It is Friday, the day on which many Syrians go to mosque to pray, then take to the streets and then go online.

The emails are filled with lists of fatalities: 25 dead in Hama, 16 in Homs, 10 in Hasaka, three in Daraa, four in Aleppo, six in Idlib. There is email upon email, list upon list.

It is Friday, and people are dying in Syria. Abazid says the only question now is "whether anyone cares."

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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