Edwar Hanna and Nour Harastani, founders of Syrbanism, discuss the initiative’s plan to empower the Syrian people and contribute to Syria’s reconstruction process.
Q&A with Syrbanism
Edwar Hanna and Nour Harastani, architects and founders of Syrbanism, an initiative that aims to increase awareness about the rights of people in Syria’s reconstruction process, speak about the group’s history, mission and next step forward.
How and why did you start Syrbanism?
Syrbanism was created by Nour and myself in 2017, as we saw the need for a space that invites Syrian architects and urban planners to come together and exchange knowledge about urbanism in Syria and the Syrian context. Both Nour and I are architects from Damascus, and the idea first came to us in September 2012, during a workshop in Cairo.
In 2016, after we completed our master’s degrees in urban design, we felt that the need for our idea was more urgent, as our country was changing dramatically. We believed that this open space, in addition to bringing together Syrian architects and experts, would equip non-architects and urbanists with the information needed to expand their knowledge about Syria’s urban realities, empowering them to be part of the discussion.
Today, Syrbanism’s network involves architects, lawyers, anthropologists, sociologists and communication practitioners who support us voluntarily on a project-by-project basis. The network is spread out across the world – I live in Vienna while Nour lives in Berlin. Others are in Oxford, Budapest, Damascus, Washington DC and elsewhere.
We also reach many people globally thanks to our use of social media – our ‘audience’ includes ordinary Syrians inside the country and in the diaspora who are concerned about their rights and homes, as well as policymakers, implementers, architects and media.
What is the main vision that drives Syrbanism?
We believe that cities belong to people, and that people should have an essential role in designing their own experiences in their urban settings. We also believe that the architect’s role in the MENA region should shift from being purely a building designer to a facilitator who realises the needs of people in urban settings through the design process of placemaking. These beliefs developed over the years, and crystalised as we started to question our role in rebuilding our country after the start of its destruction in 2012.
One of my inspirations was also working with the Community Architect Network (CAN) in Cambodia while doing my master’s at UCL. This network works to establish a link between groups of young architects and professionals in various countries and connect them with communities. Upon my return, Nour and I realised that we didn’t have a similar model for Syria, or the MENA region in general, so we began to think about how to create one.
In the context of limited information, but high anxiety, about current and upcoming urban policy developments in Syria, we decided to establish Syrbanism. We did this in an attempt to address the need for people to engage with policy development and speak to others, with opinions and thoughts based on factual knowledge and accurate resources rather than rumour.
We aimed to help a diverse group of people debate and analyse comparative situations and options, and hopefully spark better decision-making and advocacy about urban rights in the Syrian context, as well as an international sustainable development goals (SDG) agenda to ‘leave no one behind’.
How does the Sybanism team access data and complete its research?
It is indeed challenging to find reliable information; therefore, we rely on different approaches and methods to conduct our research. We believe in a participatory and interdisciplinary approach, where a wide range of individuals and institutions from different perspectives and backgrounds contribute to our research.
Open source research is vital for our projects and philosophy, yet at the same time additional depth is also needed, so we go further and analyse policies and laws and gather data by conducting surveys and interviews, attending workshops and conferences, and utilising our network of practitioners and social media. This helps us research more comprehensively the ever-changing, volatile situation and on-ground realities for the residents of the studied areas.
One of our key objectives has always been to provide accurate, timely and accessible information about Syria’s urban reconstruction policies. This is in response to the challenge of accessing clear and depoliticised information about property rights and urban policy developments in Syria’s conflict and post-conflict situations, which means that for the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons impacted by the Syrian conflict, there is sustained uncertainty, fear, dispossession and potential injustice.
So we work on supporting the design, production and dissemination of research about Syrian and comparative post-conflict urban development, as well as providing additional informational and analytical resources to inform this area of focus for both Syrians inside the country, those in the diaspora and interested stakeholders internationally.
After the data collection process, we validate the information using different methods, including consulting with stakeholders, organisations that previously worked in similar projects or experts for legal and technical advice. Information dissemination in a highly polarised context is a large responsibility, and we understand that it is our duty to be highly accountable for the accuracy of the information we provide.
Your main tool for communication is video – how come? Why do you think video resonates with your audience?
Our theory of change is that by providing information, resources and support to Syrian diaspora, in-country actors and intermediaries, such as the media and international observers, we can help lessen misinformation and the anxiety around Syrian urban reconstruction policies and options, allowing all parties to make more informed decisions and maximise social inclusion, respect for human rights and property rights, and together build a more peaceful future for Syria and a more stable situation for the international community.
Our mission requires tackling complicated topics that are related to reconstruction terminologies, approaches, legislations, informality and legal procedures. So, our theory of change requires working further than data collection, dissemination and simplifying the information to make it understandable for non-expert audiences. In order to achieve this mission we use Communication for Development (C4D) principles – this is an area of international development practice that is growing significantly among UN agencies and civil society organisations because it strategically approaches behaviour change, advocacy and citizen engagement.
C4D focuses on participation for knowledge building rather than just old-style information delivery. With social media and other aspects of the digital revolution, we all have greater opportunities to communicate, share and be effective, and this needs to be strategic and well-planned.
So, since more than 80 percent of the Syrian diaspora and those inside the country use social media for communication, we utilise social media as the digital channel of information. And since the topics are very complex, a short video with simple graphics can portray more than a million words of text, as the human brain processes images 60 times faster than text.
We produce videos in both Arabic and English. The former is for raising awareness among local communities, and the latter is for advocacy within the international community. We always include voice over and subtitles for non-verbal and deafblind conditions.
Do you think that reconstruction will start soon? And how do you hope Syrbanism will contribute to the process?
‘Reconstruction’ is a contested word and concept, so it’s really important to have clarity about what is meant by this term. For us real reconstruction has not begun yet, because we consider reconstruction to be socially just on different levels, which means that besides being accountable and negotiable, any reconstruction project should consider building lives rather than just houses.
At this stage of Syrbanism, we have been focusing on awareness-raising and knowledge production about housing rights as part of the reconstruction debate. The statement, ‘Housing is a human right not a luxury’, is a message that we always try to integrate into the current reconstruction debates.
We believe, and hope, that Syrbanism can contribute to the process by helping develop a better understanding of the correlation between social justice and reconstruction, as this will establish a common ground of mutual recognition that should ground discussions and policy.
What is the biggest challenge facing Syrbanism?
The biggest challenge we face is the scale of the need for information, and the obstacles people are facing to have a voice about their rights in the current context of Syria, as well as in the ‘post-conflict’ landscape.
It is not enough to share information, for example, about the need to document ownership for displaced owners if there are no avenues for people to register these rights or find solutions. The challenge is in conveying the seriousness of the duty to help, whether to the EU or various governments. This needs to be more than just lip service; there needs to be a proper reconstruction agenda. This is not just our challenge of course, but it is what we see as the biggest challenge facing Syrbanism, and we can overcome it through significant engagement with organisations that can assist at larger scales.
What is Syrbanism’s biggest achievement to date?
Our biggest achievement has been meeting this need for information – we had the idea to raise awareness around these issues and equip people with knowledge about their rights in the current turbulent context, but we didn’t know just how much this would resonate with others. Syrbanism has proven to be very timely, and we are humbled by the response we have received.
Through our videos and social media platforms, we wanted to build knowledge and assist the Syrian people. We produced online campaigns without waiting for funding or making elaborate project plans. We saw a need and we acted, despite not knowing a great deal about advocacy or media production – but we did it.
We produced four short informational videos – two in English and two in Arabic – to clearly and simply present the facts about the Law 10 process and the Marota City project. The videos thoroughly explain the procedures and options that citizens need to know about their property rights, while also focusing on urban issues, such as what is appropriate development. These videos received over 20,000 views within the first week of their publishing, demonstrating the need for this type of information. What we particularly value is that these videos were, and still are, being shared by many people irrespective of political ideology, because the content is for everyone. We hope that with all parties understanding the negative impacts of these projects, positive change is more likely, and justice regarding urban rights in Syria is more achievable.
It is hard to know exactly what influences policy change, but in some small way, Syrbanism has played a role, as it shines a light on the problems of policies such as Law 10, which had clauses amended – a positive change brought forth by the pressure of the general public and international community.
What are you working on now?
For the past few years, Syrbanism has worked to provide information to avoid unfair consequences for people because this was the urgent context in Syria. Now we are shifting from a prevention paradigm to an intervention paradigm, where we focus on supporting people in accessing their property rights through documentation.
We are planning a field project that addresses the urban vulnerability of displaced Syrians in the context of refugee camps. More specifically, we will delve into the role of women in protecting housing, land and property (HLP) rights in refugee camps. The problem in this situation is that refugees can have a significant amount of valid evidence of their property ownership, but this evidence is under threat of loss or neglect over time or during resettlement as there is often a misunderstanding of what counts as evidence and the value of that.
Such informal or unrecognised evidence, which could help people make their claims, includes intimate knowledge, photos, and stories from elderly people and neighbours. All this evidence disappears during the long process of healing. Therefore, evidence collection should definitely start before it is completely lost. We plan to facilitate an interactive workshop on the importance of unverifiable evidence, and raise awareness on how this evidence could be verified and used to claim their houses back.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Syrbanism is a finalist for Tamayouz’s Middle Eastern Architectural Personality of the Year, also known as the Mohamed Makiya Prize. This architecture award recognizes individuals and organisations that work to advance the field of architecture in the Middle East and North Africa.