If you’re cringing this Thanksgiving at the homicidal youth gang that calls itself the Islamic State, you might consider the narratives of three young people in the Middle East who are trying to make a positive difference. The killers and fanatics may get the headlines, but these three represent an untold part of the story.
One is an Egyptian journalist who bravely investigated the growth of extremism and official corruption in the Sinai Peninsula. The threat there became obvious to the world last month when terrorists bombed a Russian airliner after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh. My journalist friend has been trying to warn people about the Sinai mess since 2011.
My two other unsung heroes are Syrian civil-society activists, brought to Washington by the Middle East Institute. They helped found groups that are keeping people alive in the nightmare of the Syrian civil war. One of them was imprisoned in Damascus for the crime of providing relief supplies.
These three haven’t lost hope that the Arab world will eventually become modern, despite its present torments. They remind me that the spirit of freedom and change that animated what we once hopefully called the Arab Spring is still alive, no matter how hard the dictators and religious zealots have tried to kill it.
Mohannad Sabry, 32, is a freelance journalist from Cairo. Starting in 2006, he became fascinated by the Sinai region. He spoke Bedouin dialects and traveled where few would dare go. He wanted to write a book about what he saw, but in 2008, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Once in remission, he went back to his work with new passion.
Sabry was a reporter during the January 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As a stringer for McClatchy Newspapers, he wrote an article in June 2011 about the brazen smuggling from the Sinai through tunnels into Gaza.
“I had AK-47s shoved in my face everywhere I went,” he tells me. “It was clear that this region was lawless enough to create a disaster.” The Egyptian military and police “turned a blind eye,” he said. Officials were profiting from the corruption that allowed the warlords to flourish and al-Qaeda extremists to take root.
As an independent journalist, Sabry saw things that could have saved Egypt from the ticking bomb in the Sinai. He has just published a book, “Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare.” It’s a reminder of what journalists do at their best.
Sandra Bitar, 35, is an activist from Homs. In May 2011, when the Syrian conflict was beginning, she co-founded a group called Emissa, which is the ancient Greek name of her city. After she was imprisoned twice, she was forced to leave Syria, and her group is now based in Turkey.
I ask what prison was like, and the answer is laced with tears. “In prison, you cannot sleep at night because of the screams of other prisoners who are being tortured. You see their bruised bodies in the corridors, and you smell the burned flesh.”
Bitar’s city of Homs is besieged by both the Islamic State and the Assad regime. Her group smuggles money from Turkey to fund relief and development projects. She refuses to take political sides. “We deliver services to everyone. We don’t allow politics into it,” she said.
Kadar Sheikhmous, 27, is from the predominantly Kurdish town of Qamishli in northeast Syria. He helped found the Union of Free Syrian Students in September 2011. He left after his colleagues were killed or had turned to violence. In 2013, he co-founded Shar for Development. Shar is the Kurdish word for “city”; one of the group’s missions has been to unite Kurds and Arabs despite the ethnic hatreds driving the war.
Sheikhmous is a computer engineer who, in another country, might be running a start-up. Instead, he’s using his skills to train representatives of 45 local councils across Syria on how to keep their Internet communications secure. “We believe that civil society is the foundation from which the solution will eventually come,” he explains.
Bitar tells me about a village called Saraqib, near extremist enclaves in Idlib province. The jihadists tried to veil women and ban smoking there, but they backed off after a wave of protests. “When you have a strong civil society, nobody dares to interfere,” she explains. “These groups are the first front against radicalism and dictatorship.”
Here’s the simple truth: The convulsions of the Middle East won’t end until citizens like these three have the power to fix what’s wrong.