• A Syrian soldier carries a wounded woman in eastern Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. (SANA)Source: SANA
Comment: Posting about tragedy on social media doesn’t make you an activist, nor is it truly useful in terms of effecting positive change. Amal Awad believes it’s only in the smallest actions that we can hope to make a difference.
Amal Awad

16 Dec 2016 - 11:48 AM  UPDATED 19 Dec 2016 - 9:50 AM

When Aleppo took over my newsfeed on Facebook this week, it prompted me to flash back to a couple of years prior, to a moment during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in 2014.

Social media had accelerated into overdrive – a cyber war that ran like an inflated bubble around a real one. At one end, a powerful military gamified its offensive, cartoonish in its use of social media to promote its “wins”, awarding people with badges for shares online.

Elsewhere, people of all backgrounds posted articles, opinions and images – many gruesome – to raise awareness about Operation Protective Shield, an offensive that followed Operation Pillar of Defence in Gaza, just two years earlier, both of which saw many casualties.

But war isn’t new – only the way we document it changes. So then, with the swiftness that the Internet affords us, many people’s traumatic and burdened reality of civil war had transformed into a series of hashtags.

I have no way of deciphering the true intention behind some of those posts, but I know which ones felt icky – the profile pictures of bloodied children, the endless demonstrations against those who didn’t see street protest as the most effective way to deal with war in another part of the world. If you weren’t angry, you risked being part of the problem.

But war isn’t new – only the way we document it changes. So then, with the swiftness that the Internet affords us, many people’s traumatic and burdened reality of civil war had transformed into a series of hashtags.

Not only did a lot of it seem more like attention for the people posting it – “Do you care as much as I do?” – but it achieved, quite simply, nothing more than additional anger, fear and sadness.

The truth is, I felt helpless, in addition to angry and sad. I hated the way the miserable events were being used, because the problem was so much larger than a hashtag. It was war on the ground – real, bloody, tragic – far from the relative luxury of flame wars online.

This is not to say that silence is preferable; it’s not an option. I understood the fury. I got that it was personal for many; as a woman of Palestinian heritage, it’s impossible for me to not feel connected to the grief experienced under occupation. But it’s not grief I could take ownership of, because I wasn’t living it.

So I paid attention. Where social media became most useful to me was in hearing from those in Gaza. Twitter, a space I don’t particularly enjoy being in, was useful for that. In fact, social media’s best uses are, in my opinion, the access it gives you to those “stories no one ever tells” in the media.

While I expected to hear stories, I was wary of liberally sharing things, too. Would I become another participant in a grotesque circus? The kind that plays out on social media, where changing a profile picture means you care more than the person who posts a snap of their lamb roast and tries to get through the day. Where five-minute subtitled videos make us all experts on complex world events and human experiences?

For a long time now, Aleppo has been burning. On a normal day, someone will be posting about Syria, or arguing for their side of the conflict. 

That Gaza social media experience came roaring back to me in recent days, not for the first time, when #Aleppo began to trend (again).

For a long time now, Aleppo has been burning. On a normal day, someone will be posting about Syria, or arguing for their side of the conflict. The mess doesn’t get cleaned up just because your favourite TV show’s new season is premiering that night. It just trends according to the ebb and flow of tragedy and how it compares to the loss of a beloved celebrity.

It seems that, the world over, every refugee crisis, every crippling side effect of war, doesn’t have so much a ripple-on effect as a blast. #theworldisbroken #syria

And so I have been asking myself recently: beyond participating via Internet, what role can I play to make it all better?

This is something I have been thinking about a great deal, given the refugee crisis and the world’s troubled response to it. Social media feeds, at least from my end, would suggest that we all care terribly about the fate of refugees, guilty for not doing enough and trying to make it better by vocalising it.

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I don’t pretend to know how this will get better. I don’t have a listicle that you can read during your break that outlines everything you can do to save Syrian refugees. I only have suggestions and I offer this gentle plea: find the thing that will help, even in a small – but real – way.

Everyone has something in them, an active part that knows how to give, in a way that’s useful.

It’s in a friend of mine in Sydney, who takes her passion for and skill in art to refugees locally, helping them to heal and move forward. She’s not their saviour and doesn’t pretend to be. But what she does helps. It’s in a photographer friend who works with children to document their experiences through art therapy, something he undertakes at his own expense.  

It’s in the several women I met in the Arab world who go into refugee camps and offer their services – as performing clowns, as dancing healers, as patrons of charities who want to create safe spaces for children to be educated, even in the confines of a barbed wire camp. Everything they do is a small act that has a large impact.

I can tell you that it is the little things that can achieve much, because it is the refugees themselves who have told me. I was recently privileged to be able to visit the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan with global NGO Oxfam – although ‘camp’ cannot describe what is, in reality, a city of refugees from the Syrian conflict.

Everyone has something in them, an active part that knows how to give, in a way that’s useful.

It was not an easy visit – self-conscious, I felt like an interloper. Would I be just another journalist joining the spectacle if I wrote about it? Taking pictures with refugee kids to earn some saviour stripes? Was I going to write an article then make myself the point by sharing it online? Because it happens, and sometimes we don’t even know we’re doing it. You know the type of post, brimming with the false modesty that lights up social media so often – “So I wrote a thing …”.

I had to talk myself out of talking myself out of it. It’s not about me, or what people think of me. I wasn’t planning to take group shots and publicise them on Instagram. And of course, I didn’t want to take advantage of anyone’s experiences for my gain. I am not the selfless do-gooder journalist. I only wanted to offer the people I met the opportunity to share their stories, because I know how powerful storytelling can be. I wanted to help in any way I could.

The refugees I met were pleased to meet me and have a photo taken. I didn’t ask them directly if they minded my presence; my translator assured me they didn’t. “They’re used to seeing so many [journalists],” Joelle Bassoul, Oxfam’s media advisor for the Syria response, told me. They set me straight with their receptivity – my conversations with them confirmed that they wanted people in the “outside world” to be aware of their experiences; they wanted not to be forgotten.

It was a humbling experience, but it also taught me that Zaatari is their (temporary) home, not a spectacle I was participating in. More importantly, the enthusiasm with which refugees I interviewed spoke to me suggested that they saw the value in media coverage, whether it’s five minutes of radio or a web article that prompts people to think.

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I have to believe that it helps in some way. But not everyone has to jump on a plane and visit a camp, or become a journalist. This isn't a call to become a weeping artist who saves refugees. You are not the story – you are part of the solution.

How we care should not be the convenience of a quick share or sad face on social media. It shouldn’t be something we respond to because a friend questions your authenticity if you don’t post articles about it on social media. There are many people who cared long before it became cool to do so.

So I reiterate: find ‘that’ thing you do and do it. It’s there and it’s useful. If it means helping someone closest to you, it might mean helping someone close to them. This applies to not just the Syrian refugee crisis, but any worthwhile problem requiring a solution. It applies to the cyber ticker tape of war. And another possibility: donate money to a cause you trust.

Alone, perhaps these acts won’t bring peace, but it might help address a problem. And if praying or sending bundles of positive energy is your thing, don’t let anyone guilt you out of it. Those things matter, too.

I revisit these feelings often enough, but as #Aleppo continues to trend on social media, I ponder the devastating luxury I have in watching it from afar, knowing that any difference I can make must be small in the overall scheme of things. But it’s better than nothing at all.


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