Q & A: Carleton U. student Yaman Marwah raises money to feed beleaguered Syrians

This story originally appeared in Ottawa Magazine’s October edition. Order your copy here.

Interview by Mark Bourrie

Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen.
Carleton U student Yaman Marwah helps to feed residents of Aleppo through the Syrian Association of Ottawa. Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen.

Yaman Marwah is a fourth-year student of law and economics at Carleton University. At 19 years of age, he has lived more than half his life in exile from Bashar Assad’s murderous regime in Syria.

His group, the Syrian Association of Ottawa (SAO), has raised thousands of dollars to feed the people of Aleppo, a city of two million people that was captured by anti-government forces in tough house-to-house fighting last year.

Most of Aleppo, one of the oldest communities on earth, has been laid waste. While anti-government forces control the ground, the Syrian air force still dominates the skies and bombs the city constantly. The money raised by SAO goes directly to a bakery in the besieged city that feeds some 50,000 people every day.

How have things changed for you since Aleppo fell and you were able to return to Syria?
When we started as a student group, people donated coins. The maximum we got was $300. By October 2012, I was able to build my own connections in Ottawa with doctors, with a lot of media. In October, a friend of mine called me to say, “The border [with Turkey] is liberated.” I was able to raise $9,000 and get five media channels to cover my story. I went to Syria and was able to document everything. Money started coming in like crazy. From raising $9,000, we were able to raise $120,000, maybe even more. The money went into creating the bakery.

How many people have been fed since the bakery opened?
Every day we have 15,000 bags of pita given out for free. It’s a huge number. It’s a self-operating bakery, because people can buy more than they are given, but we are sending money all the time to keep the bakery from shutting down. We don’t want the bakery to shut down if something happens; we don’t want the people to starve.

This is not an ordinary bakery, is it?
The bakery cost $70,000 to build. There’s a double ceiling, and it’s in a basement. People are not allowed to line up for bread because Assad’s air force would attack them from the air. The names of the people are taken down, and the bread is delivered to them at their homes.

Is your fundraising making a difference?
All the money that we’ve collected has been used for humanitarian aid. We don’t see this as a political crisis or a civil war. We see it as a humanitarian crisis. We don’t know how long we are going to be able to get aid into Syria, but we keep raising money and we keep trying to get the money into Syria.

How hard is it these days for the people of Syria?
People have wanted a revolution in Syria forever. In 1997, people in Syria like my father wanted a revolution against Bashar Assad’s father. Before they started their revolution, the government captured and killed everyone involved. My father was lucky to be able to get out of the country. In 1982, there was the Hama Massacre. They [the Assad regime] killed 40,000 people, wiped out an entire city that had stood against them. Once the Arab uprising started, when Egypt started, when Tunisia started, we wanted to stand against what’s happening in Syria. It’s been very hard. The uprising has been going on for two years, but the regime has been there for 40 years — and they have actually faced revolutions before, so they know what to do.

The government seems to have no qualms about doing whatever it takes to stay in power.
None. In 1982, they wiped out Hama. In 1997, they took out every single person who stood against them. Now again, they’re using chemical weapons. It just shows you how weak they are, how desperate they are, that they want to stop this revolution as fast as they can.

What do you want to do when the fighting is over?
I would like to see my country build a new civil-legal society, one without corruption.