Jeremy Barker, Director of RFI Middle East Action Team, interviews Ayman Abdel Nour, President Syrian Christians for Peace, about impacts of COVID-19 on work in Syria.
This interview is part of a series of short interviews seeking to understand the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East, giving particular attention to vulnerable communities such as refugees, internally displaced persons, and religious minorities.
Ayman Abdel Nour is President and Co-Founder of Syrian Christians for Peace. He is a frequent commentator and speaker on Syria and the impact of the on-going conflict on the broader Middle East.
He joined Jeremy Barker, Director, Middle East Action Team to discuss the impact of COVID-19 in Syria on April 23, 2020.
Syrian Christians for Peace: https://www.facebook.com/syrianchristiansforpeace/
How Trump Can End the War in Syria (Ayman Abdel Nour, Foreign Affairs, April 26, 2020): https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2020-04-26/how-trump-can-end-war-syria
Notes from Damascus’ Coronavirus lockdown (Karam Mansour, Al Jumhuriya, April 24, 2020): https://aljumhuriya.net/en/content/notes-damascus%E2%80%99-coronavirus-lockdown
Guidance Note: Protecting Vulnerable Religious Minorities in Conflict and Crisis Settings: (RFI, 2020): https://religiousfreedominstitute.org/publication/guidance-note-protecting-vulnerable-religious-minorities
*Transcript has been auto-generated and lightly edited for clarity though errors may still be present.
Jeremy Barker: I’m Jeremy Barker, director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s Middle East Action Team. The mission of RFI is to achieve a broad acceptance of religious liberty as a fundamental human right, the cornerstone of a successful society, and a source of national and international security. We put this mission into practice in the United States and around the world through five Action Teams and our Center for Religious Freedom Education. Today I’ll be talking with Mr. Ayman Abdel Nour, the President of Syrian Christians for Peace – a tax-exempt organization in the US and EU – who works both with Syrians inside and outside the country and is a frequent commentator and lecturer on the situation in Syria.
But we’re talking about the situation and the impact of COVID-19 in Syria. So Ayman, thank you so much for joining me today.
Ayman Nour: Hello Jeremy, and hello for all the viewers.
Jeremy Barker: It’s great to have you on though not the best of circumstances but thank you for joining. How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted Syria over these past few weeks?
Ayman Nour: I think the case is unique in Syria, because the fighting of COVID-19, it doesn’t start from a normal situation of life, like other countries. It starts accompanied directly with the people inside a civil war and inside a big aggression from the regime against its own people. So it starts from under the zero, the situation. Economically, I will give you just one example- the electricity came to all the houses. The best places are in Damascus. It came for two hours and then cut off for four hours, then it will go for two hours, then cut for four hours. So that’s the best situation. In the other cities it may not come at all.
So just imagine: the prices are high, the poverty percentages are 40% less than zero. So it’s a very, very bad situation to be in while you need to fight the coronavirus. So the government issued many restrictions for flights, for the border crossing, for the movement between the urban and rural areas, between different governor aids. There’s curfew after 6:00 p.m. – until 6 a.m. in the morning. The foods, there’s a shortage because of the problems in Syria. So that’s all gathered together and that hit very bad the poor and the vulnerable ones and the minorities. So that’s different than other countries.
Jeremy Barker: Yeah, I think that that context is so important to understand. When you do think about the minorities, whether that’s the Christian community in particular or places like Idlib where the humanitarian needs are just so huge, what are the particular challenges that those communities are facing?
Ayman Nour: As I told you it’s, it’s a complex of many things happening at the same time. Number one, the currency dropped by half in the last two months only. So they cannot afford to buy the food. I will just give you an example. One kilo of meat is 16,000 Syrian pounds and the average salary is 50,000. So with your salary that you work for one full month, full time, you can buy only three kilos of meat. So how are you going to feed your kids, your family and especially we just finished the Easter for the Christians? And the problem also because of the sanctions against the regime ,the Syrians abroad and the Christian churches cannot send and wire or send through bank or through Western Union any money for the families there or for the churches, to be distributed inside to give… let’s say, food baskets. So that’s also another thing.
But let me tell you. US, even though fighting the virus here at home, they are the one that leading all the humanitarian efforts in the world, they dedicate 18 million dollars for the Syrian and they just dropped the 16.1 million dollars as a help for in the communication, basket food, the humanitarians for all the areas. So they are the one that is leading the effort with the WHO – World Health Organization – and with the UN organization too. So there is an effort to at least easen the situation of the vulnerable people and the minorities. And one of the important issues I want to mention, that the Department of the Treasury in the US issued a very detailed statement saying how the sanctions -the US sanctions and all the EU sanctions against the Syrian regime- it doesn’t affect the supplies of the medical supplies, the medical equipment, the masks, the ventilators and the food. So this is not… the regime cannot justify this
total collapse of the economy, is because of the sanctions.
No it’s because of the corruption, of the bad administration, and because they are stealing the money of the people of the regime. So that’s that’s the situation.
Jeremy Barker: Yeah that’s very important context and clarification for combating the medical the public health dimension of this to understand that distinction. You mentioned the Easter holiday for Christians. The Ramadan month is about to begin for the Muslim community. For the Yazidi, they just celebrated their new year as well. How has this crisis impacted the behavior, the practices of other religious communities in particular?
Ayman Nour: Yes that’s a big problem because it’s for the first time, the public gathering inside the churches and the mosques are banned from the government. So it was okay with the regular days but now with Ramadan it’s on a daily basis, should be after they finish the fast every day they should go let’s say for prayers. So this is all banned, including in Saudi, in the holiest place which is Mecca. So that’s… till now it’s the regulation. It wasn’t easened by the government.
As for Easter, the churches all did the prayers online, and they streamed it through Facebook and many different other softwares. And one of the nice issues they did – and I attended here – the Schwar was done, each one from his house. So we didn’t miss that too, it was available online. And that was good. The preaches also was done online and also through the satellite channels. Some of the satellite channels provided that services, that they dedicated certain hours for the Christians so that they can broadcast through satellites or through TV. So you can see it on a better HD on your TV or on TV at the house, instead of going to the internet- and there’s had so bad connections in Syria, so that also was very bad. And thank you for all the TV channels that participated in that project.
So the situation: there’s curfew; there is the border crossing still it’s not opened; the flights all are grounded. But the government allowed the small shops and the small businesses to reopen.
Jeremy Barker: Okay.
Ayman Nour: Let me give you just the amount: the number of the cases the government announced are 42. The fatality are only three. But certain NGOs and non-governmental organizations – they work and they went to some hospitals in many different cities and collect the information – they announced the number is 424 and the fatalities are 37 and 6 are recovered. So that’s the latest number till yesterday.
Jeremy Barker: Ok and you mentioned the kind of the differences in response and information coming from the government, from the NGOs, international organizations. From your perspective what things can NGOs, international organizations, as well as the governments be doing to more effectively help these communities and particularly those most vulnerable?
Ayman Nour: That’s very important questions because till now the UN organization and the WHO failed to meet the demand for all the cities and the minorities. Why? Because they are dealing only with the government which is in Damascus and the places that they are telling them to work in. So they ship many shipments to Damascus but they failed to send any to Idlib which is the North West, and they failed to send anything for the Kurds in the North East. So just yesterday I was talking with the leaders of the Kurds. They told me they didn’t receive any single shipment from the test kits. They don’t have ventilators and no PPE and no equipment to fight COVID-19. And they have 10,000 from ISIS in the jail, so if any broke out of the pandemic, then the 10,000, they cannot do anything for them. And they are crowded in a small area. The regime didn’t allow the UN to send them and they are still into discussion.
They need to send it in through the border crossing. Either Semalka from Iraq or through Turkey because they need to deliver it as soon as possible otherwise there’s a big risk. Also the same for Idlib in the northwest. Also they received – but very, very small – 112 test kits only, which is not enough for the labs to do a big testing campaign. And there they don’t have any equipment or ventilators. So the situation is not prepared for any breakout there in that region.
Jeremy Barker: Yeah and the number of people in those areas, is way beyond the amount of resources that are there. Right so well thank you so much for joining. Any last points to highlight for for the viewers on this issue?
Ayman Nour: Thank you a lot thank you, thank you Jeremy.
Jeremy Barker: Alright well thank you Ayman and for those who are looking to learn more about the Religious Freedom Institute, you can visit us online at www.rfi.org. Thank you again for joining us.
Ayman Nour: Thank you, thank you for all. Thank you. Bye-bye.