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Syrian Exiles Find Refuge In 'House For Everyone'

The uprising in Syria is hardly the peaceful protest movement it was when it first started, nearly two years ago. But still, Syrian activists bent on building a democratic society are doing their part to keep the dream alive, even though many of them are now in exile. (This story initially aired on Jan. 8, 2013 on All Things Considered.)

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The uprising in Syria is hardly the peaceful protest movement it was when it first started nearly two years ago. But still, Syrian activists bent on building a Democratic society are doing their part to keep that dream alive, even though many of them are now in exile. NPR's Kelly McEvers visited a house that's a way station for such exiles, and she brings us this story.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It's called Beit Qamishlo or the House of Qamishli. It's named after a city in northeastern Syria. But the house isn't in Syria. It's in Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. The house is pretty humble; concrete blocks, tile floors, Arabic slogans taped on the walls, read here by an interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Reading) Beit Qamishlo is a house for everyone. It's a window to Syria's future. Under one roof we plant life together and freedom. We write on its wall together.

MCEVERS: More than just ideas, Beit Qamishlo is a hostel; a place for Syrians who've escaped their country to crash until they find more permanent digs. It's an education center where young Syrian refugees take English and art classes on the weekends. And it's a performance space, where readings, speeches, and debates fill the night.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: On this night, it's "Tales of a Prisoner," a recurring series featuring men and women from the previous generation of Syrians who opposed their government. Young Syrians from around the country huddle to listen on couches and plastic chairs, in a spare and smoky room warmed by an electric heater.

MALIK DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The speaker is Malik Dagestani, a self-described communist who opposed the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria's current president, Bashar al-Assad. Dagestani was detained for his political activity in 1987 and held for nine years.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Dagestani says he was beaten and tortured so badly in the first days of his detention that he couldn't walk or even stand for weeks. He eventually was transferred to a prison he calls a storage place for thousands of others like him. A year later, he was able to pay someone to smuggle in letters. That's when he first saw a picture of his second daughter, who was born while he was away.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: To pass the time in prison, Dagestani and his colleagues studied English, fashioned musical instruments out of wood scraps, made candles from marmalade jars and put on plays. By the time he got out, he didn't know what a fax machine was, was flabbergasted by the Windows operating system. The day of his release, Dagestani called his house, but only his youngest daughter was at home.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This is your father. Who? Your father. Who? He called his oldest daughter. I am your father, he said, I was just released. But she just handed the phone to someone else. She didn't know what to do. Like so many Syrians, the founder of Beit Qamishlo did time in prison, too. He's a jolly man with an infectious grin who goes by the name Abu Raman. Abu Raman's latest detention was just as Syria's uprising began back in March 2011. There, he met activists and political organizers from around the country.

ABU RAMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Raman says he founded Beit Qamishlo to repeat what he learned in prison; that nationalism isn't something that comes from the state but rather something you learn from each other. He started the prison series so the older generation could finally speak out about what happened to them. He hopes young activists who crash at Beit Qamishlo can learn from people like Malik Dagestani.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: After Dagestani's speech, an activist asks him if he thinks it was worth it to suffer for what he believed in, especially now the new generation has risen up with no intention of turning back.

DAGESTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: If we knew how many people would die, he says, we might have told them not to start this uprising. Now, the men with guns are the heroes. How will we go back from that? it's people like Dagestani and places like Beit Qamishlo that Western countries say they hope to support. So far, Abu Raman says he relies on donations from friends.

RAMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He says the house costs about $400 a month in rent and about the same again for heat and electricity. But he says the money is about to run out. The U.S. State Department says it aims to provide, quote, "nonlethal assistance to unarmed civilians and grassroots organizations aimed at building a nationwide network of diverse activists." So, Abu Raman says, what about us? Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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