'If we cared about Sunni-Shia differences, we would never have got married' - Syrian refugees

Nadezhda Kevorkova
Nadezhda Kevorkova has worked at RT since 2010, before which she was a special correspondent for ‘Novaya gazeta,’ ‘Nezavisimaya gazeta,’ and ‘Gazeta.’ Kevorkova has also worked extensively in Russian mass-media. As a war correspondent, she covered the Arab Spring, military and religious conflicts, and the anti-globalization movement. She has worked as a reporter in Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Cuba, and in the republics of the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and in the Far East. In 2001, after an invitation from US State Department, Kevorkova visited a number of states, including Alaska. As a correspondent of 'Gazeta' she reported from Indian settlements in the US. She covered the ‘Gaza Freedom Flotilla’ in 2008, 2010 and 2011; she also visited Gaza several times during the blockade. In 2010, Kevorkova was nominated for the ‘International Women of Courage’ award.
'If we cared about Sunni-Shia differences, we would never have got married' - Syrian refugees
If you still wish to think that the war raging in Syria is of religious character, you only have to speak to people to revise your opinion, because practically every family’s story defies the theory. 

Foreign militants and their associates are not interested in how inter-religious and inter-communal relations are built in Syria. Neither are they aware of such a well-known fact in Syria that Bashar al-Assad’s wife is a Sunni. Because it undermines the basic idea of the Syrian conflict, according to which Sunnis are allegedly fighting against Alawites and Shias. The president’s family is not an isolated case – on the contrary, it is quite widespread. There are a number of families who turn the concept of the religious Shia-Sunni war in Syria on its head. Two and a half years of attempts aimed at splitting Syria into groups separated by religious background have fallen by the wayside, largely because of such inter-religious marriages. 

Zahir and Lina fled from Homs in November 2011. He is a Sunni, she is a Shia. They live in the north of the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, in Hermel. The apartment building they live in was hit by a shell on April 20, 2012. 

Lina wears a Shia burqa – a black veil. She wore it when she lived in Syria and was wearing it when fleeing from her home after militants had encouraged the killing of Shias. She has met a lot of Sunni families in her life who supported her exactly for the reason she was a Shia who needed help and protection. Neither Zahir, nor his relatives have ever been asked why he married a Shia. Nobody has ever asked Lina about it, too, although her children follow the religion of their father. 

Zahir’s elder brother once owned a small factory manufacturing women’s handbags. The war started in the area it was located - the factory was ruined and the family members lost their jobs and money.

“I am from the al-Khalidiyah neighborhood, where the latest fights took place – right where our factory used to be”, Zahir says. All his Sunni neighbors were the first ones to flee to Shia areas of Lebanon.  

I ask him, why he, his relatives and Sunni neighbors didn’t take the side of the rebels. 

“Because we saw that militants and bandits were in charge – supporting them was out of the question. It was not dissatisfied people that were behind the events in Baba Amr, it was the militants,” says Zahir. He is talking about one of the first times the opposition took a Homs district by force. Later, the army recaptured it and saw that the militants, equipped with foreign equipment,   behaved in strange ways that didn’t conform with Muslim ideas at all; there were signs of public executions, torture, and piles of human bones lying around in the houses. 

RT Photo / Nadezhda Kevorkova

“At first it was only the Syrian militants, but then foreigners joined them. We saw it with our own eyes,” Zahir says. He believes that it was the invasion of the foreigners that brought about the disillusionment, since they, unaware of the Syrian state of affairs, wanted to turn public unrest into a religious war.  

“They made people participate in demonstrations at gunpoint. We tried hiding in other districts, but then the worst started happening,” he says.

By “the worst” Zahir means religious massacres. 

“Two of my friends were arrested and killed. They were Shia. Our neighbors were also killed. Unfortunately, these armed people were locals, and they knew who was Sunni and who was Shia,” Zahir explains. It’s clear that he’s reluctant to admit someone was killed in Syria because of their religion – it goes against the basic principles of Syrian life.  

He is convinced that the militant death squads were formed specifically to carry out such massacres and to instill terror in people’s hearts. 

“Most Syrians didn’t go along with that, despite the fear, the threats and the propaganda,” Zahir says.

He talks about the help his family received from the Shia and the times when both the Shia and the Sunni gave them shelter. When they were running from Homs, many people helped them along the way and showed them safe paths, even though Zahir is Sunni and his wife is Shia. Thanks to all that help, they managed to survive and cross the border into Lebanon.

 ‘We knew that the Hezbollah-controlled regions (Hezbollah is Shia-dominated – RT) are peaceful and that the locals treat the Sunnis as family. We get on well with the people of Hermel,’ says Zahir. 

When the Hermel people learnt that a family with small kids had arrived in their town, they were quick to find accommodation for them. That Hezbollah never hesitates to help somebody out of trouble or solve their routine problems, is a well-known fact in Lebanon.

Zahir and Lina didn’t even have to look for help: when people saw a family of refugees, they called the local authority, who quickly found food and shelter for them. The local government provides for their accommodation, their furniture, a washing machine, a cooker, and even their blankets.

 ‘No one has ever asked us: are you Sunnis? Trust me: we’ve never heard that question. We will confirm that to anyone who wants proof,’ says Zahir. 

I ask him whether the Shia do indeed hate the Righteous Caliphs, who are venerated by the Sunnis, or if they speak dishonorably of Aicha, the Prophet’s wife – in other words, whether the militant propaganda is right. And how does it affect their family?

Zahir has heard worse, not only about the Shia, so the question does not surprise him. But he doubts anyone can seriously believe these claims. He believes no Muslim would say something like that. In Syria, he has never met a Sunni who would honestly believe such allegations.

 ‘My wife is Shia. If we cared about the Sunni-Shia differences, we would never have got married. No one would draw such dividing lines in Syria,’ says Zahir.

Free Syrian Army fighters stand together in Al-Sukhna in Homs province (Reuters / Mohamed Abdel Aziz)

I wonder what Zahir, a Sunni himself, would say if his Sunni children decided to join Hezbollah, a Shia movement.

‘If my kids want to join Hezbollah, as far as I am concerned, I am all for it. I would tell them, “God bless you”,’ says Zahir.

He means what he says. When in 2006 Lebanon was attacked by Israel, the Sunni and the Shia alike joined the ranks of Hezbollah to take part in the Resistance campaigns and to release southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation.

“I would give everything for Hezbollah, not only my children,” says Lina, joining our conversation. 

“We fare well enough here, as if we were still in Syria,” says the head of the family. “They have been so nice to us in Lebanon that we have almost forgotten we are not at home anymore. Besides, all of our Syrian relatives are here as well.” 

Zahir went to school until only the ninth grade, while his wife Lina almost made it to a university. 

“I had no luck passing an Arabic exam, so I just turned around and went home,” Lina tells me, laughing. 

They hope they might be able to return to Syria soon. Many refugees are already going back, provided that their home provinces have been cleared of insurgents. 

“Our friends are telling us the Syrian army has already gained control of our neighborhood. The government is clearing the rubble and planning a reconstruction effort. Our house needs repairs as it has gotten a few cracks, but it’s all better than a ruin. The government has promised to rebuild everything that’s been destroyed, and provide cash benefits, too,” says Zahir. 

Zahir believes the people of Syria have their own tenacity to thank for being safely delivered from a US-led bombing campaign. 

“We see it as Syria’s victory that the Americans have given up on the idea of air strikes,” he says. “In the words of our honorable President, he who ends a war is the true hero.”

Zahir believes Syria will also manage the chemical weapons controversy, once it has been left to its own devices. Moreover, he is convinced the whole story was a false flag from the start. 

“There had been no mention of chemical weapons before the war,” he explains. “When Obama started blustering about his “red line,” it all sounded like empty talk to us. I won’t deny that I’m an Assad supporter, but let’s look at those allegations in terms of logic. The Syrian army was on the offensive at the time. Why would they use chemical weapons while advancing?” 

This family has been lucky: Zahir has managed to find a job in Lebanon as a barber. I ask him if he has enough clientele – after all, the Shia are known for keeping their beards. 

“Well, they still have their hair cut, don’t they?” Zahir laughs. “Besides, I have many clients, not all of them Hezbollah. And I cut people’s hair without asking them whether they are Sunni or Shia.”

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.