I am Anthony E. Savvides. This is my blog.

Reflections & adventures of a writer at heart, a journalist by trade and a waiter by night.

Posts Tagged ‘Arab Spring

The pinnacle of our reporting from Jordan. An incredible, important story, told by two of my best friends.

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My colleagues, Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek, really outdid the rest of us with their final piece from Jordan; sorry, to the rest of the gang, but it’s true. Their story, below, is so moving, so raw, so powerful, it touched me to my very core. I am close with both of the reporters, and I heard about this story throughout their reporting. Matt, my roommate, would often tell me of the people he and Melissa met in the course of a day. Melissa and I would share a cigarette break, and I could see that something was weighing on her soul; I would try to pull it out of her, but many times she would bottle it up as the tears filled her eyes. I knew that it was difficult for both of them, but I also knew that what they were doing, the story they were telling, was so important.

To Matt and Melissa: I’m so proud of both of you, and glad to be your friend and your colleague. To Carlene: thank you for guiding them and encouraging them throughout this process. I sat next to Melissa in the lobby of the Imperial Palace Hotel all those weeks ago, the morning after we arrived, when she received your email regarding the story pitch. You wanted her and Matt to report about Syria, and I think everyone can be proud of what they produced.

Journey to Jordan: By the thousands, Syrians are risking their lives to find refuge across the border

Story by Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek

Photos by Matt Kauffman // Video production by Melissa Tabeek

Editor’s note: Reporters Kauffman and Tabeek put together a multi-media presentation of video and photography to show another dimension of what displaced families from Syria have been through on their journey to Jordan. 

AMMAN, Jordan – Sameer Ahmed Darraj thanks God that his family of six made it safely to Jordan after suffering a siege in his hometown of Homs. He’s also grateful he found an apartment in Madaba, a small village southwest of Amman, to shelter his wife, two young children, mother and nephew.

But the trip to their second-floor flat is a struggle for this former Syrian chef-turned-rebel fighter. His legs were blown off by a rocket in April as he fought against President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Derraj wages a battle still, but now it’s from the flat’s only bed where he recovers from the loss of his legs, severed above the knees and marred with deep, rough, vertical scars.

“When we were crossing the border, we couldn’t speak, we couldn’t make any sounds. When our daughter cried, we had to cover her mouth,” said Sammer, Derraj’s 39-year-old wife, of their escape. “We gave the other [daughter] medicine to make her sleep.”

“We try to remain strong and try to have a very strong heart,” says Sameer Ahmed Derraj. Despite the horrors they’ve witnessed, the Darraj family finds solace in each other’s company.

As Derraj talks about the four-day journey to Jordan carried by comrades across the border, about how his wife kept falling as she lugged their youngest child, about the death of his friend by that same rocket, he speaks for thousands like him. Together, he and they form a new sort of army: Syrians who have fled to fight for their safety and their lives.

Since March of last year, the number of Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan has increased at an exponential rate. What started as a trickle has turned into a flood; in the past two months the amount of “persons of concern” registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has leapt from 13,933 to about 24,000 – an increase of about 70 percent. But the real number, including Derraj’s six who came illegally, is closer to 120,000, experts say.

While Jordan has long been a safe haven for refugees throughout the Arab world – some estimates say that there are already 2 million Palestinian, Iraqi and Libyan refugees in this country of 6.5 million Jordanians – the situation with Syrians is special. The influx from the north poses a dilemma. The Jordanian government has not officially recognized them as refugees, but rather “guests” of the country.

Unlike neighboring Turkey – which is harboring Syrian refugees in traditional tented camps – Syrians in Jordan are finding safety in cities and villages scattered throughout the kingdom, stretching already limited resources in a country that depends on outside aid. Safety does not always spell decency though; Syrian families sometimes numbering in the double digits are confined to a few small rooms inside overrun apartments.

“There are many cases of two to three families in one apartment and they could have seven or eight kids each. It’s pretty dismal,” says Aoife McDonnell, an assistant external relations officer at UNHCR.

Jawad Anani, a former government official and now private economic consultant, worries about what a continuing onslaught of Syrians will do to the strained resources of this struggling country.

“Jordan’s ability to put up with Syrians is limited. The private sector is paying for it now, but soon the bills will be mounting. We will feel it in the labor market with people looking for jobs. … Time will tell elsewhere where the pressure mounts and where the shoe pinches.”

Darraj, like so many who have come here, feels that pinch. Unable to work, he relies on the generosity of Jordanian strangers to pay his rent. These sympathizers also bring him food and supplies, such as clothes and blankets. He’s clearly grateful, but still, to him, Jordan is just a safe place to heal. He will not stay here.

His mother Salma sits quietly in the corner of the tiny room, emotionless, looking over at her disfigured son. In another corner, on their mother’s lap, are his two young daughters, both in pink tank tops and leggings. They too are staring at him, waiting.

“I am against the evil Bashar,” he says. “If they fix my fingers, then I will go back,” says Darraj.

His wife looks at his mother, a glance Darraj notices. To them, to everyone, he says again: “I want to fight again with the Free Army.”

THE SPARK THAT BECAME A REVOLUTION

The Syrian massacres that started in March were, at the time, the latest government response to the uprisings across the Middle East. Those protests started in December 2010 with one desperate Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest what he felt was a corrupt and unjust government. His singular act launched a movement that became known as the Arab Spring. This fire has scorched its way across the region, resulting so far in tens of thousands of lives lost and the toppling of four governments.

>>Click here to continue reading.

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Second story from Amman is up on the main site.

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Jordanians to Obama: You broke your promise and did nothing for us

Story by Anthony Savvides // Photo by Matt Kauffman

AMMAN, Jordan – This November, the United States will elect a president, and while many American pundits believe Obama will remain in the White House for a second term, some in the Middle East would welcome a change.

Many here believe that Obama has been a disappointment, failing to deliver on early promises to push for a policy shift in the region.

“The Arabs have been very disappointed with him because when he [became] president, the first thing he said when he was sworn in was that he was going to set up a Palestinian state,” said Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Amman-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism. “Then he had the Cairo declaration, and we all thought he was going to make a difference, but nothing happened.”

In Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, entitled “A New Beginning,” he tried to reestablish strong ties between the American and Arab worlds. Many in the region were hopeful – for change, a new attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and, indeed, a new beginning. But people here wonder why that “new” approach never seemed to become a reality.

Prince El Hassan bin Talal spoke to a group of students during a press conference about Jordanian politics and social issues. He touched on the problems in Jordan concerning the influx of refugees and the Palestinian issue, as well as President Obama’s position toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As the years passed, the tide shifted back to mistrust. Obama famously said in his Cairo address that the US would not “turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.” But, Arab observers say that Obama never followed through, and policies in the region have remained as they always have been: pro-Israeli.

“I don’t believe in liberal theories of the person as president,” said Sara Ababneh, professor of political and international relations in the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “The US is an imperial power, and that’s how they act [in the region]. As a superpower, [the US] does what it needs to do.”

Distrust of the US has deep roots: The American government supported the establishment of the Israeli state and, over the years, offered its support with billions of dollars and political muscle. There have been efforts to mediate peace, some more dramatic than others. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton coaxed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yassar Arafat to shake hands during a ceremony. The moment, hailed at the time, is now considered no more than a symbolic snapshot of an unrealized hope for prolonged peace.

>>Click here to continue reading.

My first story from Amman

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A new wave of (mostly) peaceful protests across Jordan call for reform

Story by Anthony Savvides and Hanna Trudo // Photos by Nasser Jaber*

AMMAN, Jordan – Protests in the Middle East rarely erupt without violence, but in Jordan, reformers haven’t been as quick to pick up arms. Counter to the uprisings in neighboring countries, Jordan’s protests related to political reform have produced relatively low death counts and almost no hand-to-hand combat between agitators and police.

While things could still turn violent here, experts believe that the relative peace is due to the country’s collective support of King Abdullah II – the leader who continues to remain popular with the majority of 6 million Jordanians.

“[King Abdullah] has a manhood, and the people here love him. He has popularity,” said Shorouq AlShawabkeh, a 22-year-old native Ammani studying civil engineering at the University of Jordan. “Some leaders are just loved by the people. People are influenced by him.”

Protesters on May 15 in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank. Protestors were hit with tear gas, even though they say they were peaceful as they marched.

In Egypt, more than 846 people have died in protests since the revolution there began in January. Syria’s deaths have totaled roughly 453, followed by more than 300 in Libya and 219 in Tunisia. Jordan, a strategic location sharing a border with Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon, has reported deaths that only total in the low double digits.

In Jordan, protests generally fall into two categories: those that reflect Jordanians’ call for political reform and an end to corruption in the king’s court, and; those that call for the Palestinians to recover their homeland, what is now known as the West Bank.

Continue reading the story here.

Written by AESavvides

May 23, 2011 at 9:18 pm