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Meet the Syrian Activists Recieving Human Rights Training in Canada

Posted: 07/09/2013 5:28 pm

When Ariya slips into the car, she must carry two sets of clothes: a hijab, and western garb. Without both, she risks arrest, beating, and rape.

She takes a harrowing, 500-km car ride from her home in the city of Al Hasakah, Syria, to Lebanon. Along the way are numerous checkpoints -- some manned by Syrian government forces, others by rebels. If the Muslim radicals among the rebels catch her in pants and a sleeveless T-shirt, she says she will be beaten and possibly even raped. But if government troops catch her in a Muslim robe and hijab, they might arrest her as a rebel supporter. So as she approaches each checkpoint, she frantically changes into the appropriate clothing.

Ariya believes the trip is worth the risk -- she counsels some of the estimated 1,500 Syrian women who have been victims of sexual assault in Syria's bloody civil war.

Since conflict erupted in April, 2011, reports from within Syria allege serious human rights abuses and widespread killing of civilians. While the global community argues about what steps to take, a Canadian organization -- Equitas -- quietly takes action, training activists like Ariya and Massoud Akko to stand up for human rights. Recently, both Ariya and Akko were in Canada for advanced human rights training that they will take back to their country and share with others.

Ariya asked us not to use her real name -- if the Syrian government knew she was in Canada, she would be arrested upon her return home. She and Akko come from a people caught in the crossfire. Members of Syria's Kurdish minority, they are hated and persecuted by both sides in the civil war. Nevertheless, they say they are committed activists fighting for the rights of all Syrians, Kurdish and non-Kurdish alike.

Sitting in the cafeteria of Ottawa's Lester B. Pearson Building before Ariya and Akko briefed Canadian Foreign Affairs officials, they told their stories to a member of our team.

In 2004, Ariya was a university student with no thought of a life in activism. But in March, 2004, a football match between Kurdish and Arabic Syrian teams in the north-eastern city of Al Qamishli erupted into racial violence. In cities across Syria, organized Arabic mobs attacked Kurds and looted Kurdish-owned shops with, Ariya and Akko alleged, the tacit support of the Syrian government.

Ariya heard that mobs planned to use rape as a weapon against Kurdish women. She decided the best way to protect herself was to help protect others, and began volunteering with a Kurdish human rights organization, monitoring and recording human rights abuses with a particular eye for those committed against women and children.

When war broke out, Ariya took on the role of counsellor. She works with victims of sexual violence within Syria, and with those who have fled to neighbouring Lebanon.

Akko has been a journalist since 2000. When the Al Qamishli riots broke out in 2004, he reported on the killing of Kurdish civilians by the Syrian army. The government charged Akko with spreading false news, and sentenced him to five years in prison. He fled the country and was granted asylum by Norway.

Akko said 167 members of the Syrian media have been killed so far -- some casualties in the fighting, some deliberately assassinated. Akko knew many of them -- he said his Facebook friends list is filling up with ghosts. To ensure the world knows what is happening, he moved from Norway to a town in Turkey near Syria's northern border to train volunteers to become human rights reporters.

The training sessions take place mostly online, but sometimes Akko slips into Syria to teach reporters how to write good news stories, do concise TV interviews, and stay alive in a combat zone.

Through contacts in their respective organizations, both Ariya and Akko learned about Equitas -- the International Centre for Human Rights Education based in Montreal. Equitas, which is funded by a combination of government and private donors, not only teaches people from around the world about human rights and about the international laws and systems that exist to protect rights, it also trains people how to educate others and mobilize their own communities to stand up for those rights.

Ariya was so determined to come to Canada for training that she twice risked the perilous trip to Lebanon -- once to get a travel visa, and once to catch her flight. She will have to do it again upon her return.

Both Ariya and Akko said that learning how to report human rights violations and war crimes to the United Nations was of particular value.

While the world dithers and Syrians suffer, it makes us proud as Canadians to know there are organizations in our country that are doing something to help the people of Syria.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com

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  • A Syrian army soldier exits his tank in the southwestern neighborhood of the Syrian city of Qusayr. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this Tuesday, June 4, 2013 file photo citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a locally made rocket being fired by Syrian rebels, in Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

  • Forces loyal to the Syrian army wave national flags as they celebrate in the main square of Qusayr in Syria's central Homs province on June 5, 2013, after government forces seized total control of the former rebel-stronghold. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Syrian army's soldiers sit on a tractor holding their weapons on June 5, 2013 in the city of Qusayr in Syria's central Homs province, after the Syrian government forces seized total control of the city and the surrounding region. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on June 6, 2013 shows a man carrying the Syrian flag, during a tour in Qusayr in the central Homs province. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Destroyed buildings ares seen in the village of al-Hamidiyeh, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province on June 7, 2013 as regime forces sought to mop up the final pockets of rebel resistance north of Qusayr, after retaking the key town that was an insurgent bastion for a year, a watchdog said. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Syrian army soldiers drive a tank in the town of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province on June 7, 2013 as regime forces sought to mop up the final pockets of rebel resistance north of Qusayr, after retaking the key town that was an insurgent bastion for a year, a watchdog said. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Syrian youths walk amongst the rubble in the village of al-Hamidiyeh, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province on June 7, 2013 as regime forces sought to mop up the final pockets of rebel resistance north of Qusayr, after retaking the key town that was an insurgent bastion for a year, a watchdog said. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on June 7, 2013, shows cars left behind by rebels in Dabaa, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad reclaimed control of the central village of Dabaa on June 6, Syrian state television said, a day after the army and Lebanon's Hezbollah captured a rebel bastion. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on June 7, 2013, shows a tunnel allegedly used by rebels in Dabaa, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on June 7, 2013, shows a heavily damaged sign signaling the entrance of Dabaa, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on June 7, 2013, shows cows standing next to a Syrian army tank in Dabaa, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on June 8, 2013 shows Syrian army soldier drinking water next to an army tank in the village of Buweida, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on June 8, 2013 shows Syrian army soldiers patroling a street in the village of Buweida, north of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on June 9, 2013 shows the damaged Saint Elias church in Qusayr in Syria's central Homs province, after government forces battled rebels for control of the area earlier this month. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, two Syrian men pull an unexploded rocket from a Syrian warplane in Idlib province, northern Syria, Monday, June 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)

  • Rebels prepare to launch mortar rounds towards government forces in southern Damascus on June 10, 2013. Twin suicide bombers targeted a Damascus police station killing at least 14 people, as the Syrian army launched multiple attacks on rebel positions in the northern province of Aleppo. (WARD AL-KESWANI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Syrian young boy walks holding an old rifle as he helps fighters belonging to the 'Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan' battalion on June 13, 2013 in the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Syrian rebel fighter belonging to the 'Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan' battalion holds a position on June 13, 2013 in the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan in front of the army base of Wadi Deif, down in the valley. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Syrian rebel fighter throughout a trench dig by the rebels to hold a position, 100m far from the regime-controlled military base of Wadi Deif on June 14, 2013 in the village of Kfarruma in the Syrian province of Idlib. (DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Syrian rebel fighter smokes a cigarette in front of sandbags as he takes a break while digging a trench, 100m far from the military base of Wadi Deif in the hands of regime forces on June 14, 2013 in the village of Kfarruma in the Syrian province of Idlib. (DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • The regime-controlled military base of Wadi Deif is displayed on June 14, 2013 through the scope of a rebel fighter rifle from a trench in the village of Kfarruma in the Syrian province of Idlib. (DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Rebel fighter poses infront of a tank reportedly confiscated from an army barracks in the northwestern Syrian city of Sermin on June 14, 2013. (MOHAMED KADDOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows buildings damaged by fighting between rebel fighters and Syrian government forces, in Homs province, Syria, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)

  • This citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels using a rocket launcher to attack Syrian soldiers loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad, in Homs province, Syria, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)

  • This Tuesday, June 18, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian rebel shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

  • This Wednesday, June 19, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows homes damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, Syria. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)

  • In this Thursday, June 20, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Syrian rebel fires a heavy machine gun towards Syrian soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

  • This citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian rebel firing a heavy machine gun towards Syrian soldiers loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad, in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, June 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

  • Rebel fighters take part in prayers in the Suleiman al-Halabi nieghbourhood in Aleppo on June 20, 2013. (ABO AL-NUR SADK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • The body of a dead rebel fighter lies next to that of a dead civilian during clashes with pro-government forces in the Suleiman al-Halabi nieghbourhood in Aleppo on June 20, 2013. (ABO AL-NUR SADK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Injured rebel fighters hide from sniper fire as they await to be evacuated by their comrades during clashes with pro-government forces in the Suleiman al-Halabi nieghbourhood in Aleppo on June 20, 2013. (ABO AL-NUR SADK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Smoke billows from buildings in the Jubaila neighbourhood of Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor following an airstrike by government forces on June 21, 2013. (AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Rebel walks in front of a destroyed building in the village of Al-Rami, near the town of Ariha, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on June 22, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Rebels inspect a T-72 tank parked in a secret location close to the village of Al-Rami, near the town of Ariha, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on June 22, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Rebel tries to locate a fighter plane as he stands on top of a anti aricraft gun in the village of Al-Rami, near the town of Ariha, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on June 22, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians investigate damages after two suicide bombings hit security compounds in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, June 23, 2013. (AP Photo/SANA)

  • Syrian medics attend to a fighter called Abdullah in his twenties after he was wounded in the head and lost the ability to speak following an explosion that hit his motorcycle in Al-Rami village in the northwestern province of Idlib on June 24, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • This Monday, June 24, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian rebel firing his weapon during heavy clashes with Syrian soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

  • Syrian girls walk with their mother as she turns to look at smoke billowing from three shells dropped on the town of Al-Bara in the northwestern province of Idlib on June 24, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • This Tuesday, June 25, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a female Free Syrian Army fighter aiming her weapon, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

  • Rebel fighters take aim at government forces positioned in the northern Syrian town of Al-Fawaa, located northeast of Idlib, on June 26, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • This citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian rebel firing his weapon during heavy clashes with Syrian soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

  • This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows a damaged antique shop that was destroyed by a blast struck in the vicinity of the Greek Orthodox Virgin Mary Church in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Bab Sharqi in central Damascus, Syria, Thursday, June 27, 2013. (AP Photo/SANA)

  • In this Thursday, June 27, 2013, citizen journalism file image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Syrian stands in the rubble of a destroyed buildings from Syrian forces shelling, in the al-Hamidiyyeh neighborhood of Homs province, Syria. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi, File)

  • An opposition fighter prepares a home-made rocket before launching it towards government forces in Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on June 27, 2013. (ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • An opposition fighters' home-made rocket is launched towards government forces in Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on June 27, 2013. (ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Syrians walk down a destroyed street in the centre of Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on June 27, 2013. (AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A long exposure picture shows the trace of a rocket launched in a regime-controlled area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on June 28, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Syrian girl crosses the street holding a bag in the centre of Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on June 28, 2013. (ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A rebel fighter carries a home made explosive in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib on June 28, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

 

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