|Naji Arwashan | Syrian Consul||Michigan|
Re: ‘Syrian expatriates’
I welcome this invitation from Creative Syria to participate in the discussion on the role of Syrian expatriates in building a better Syria. Being an expatriate myself for the last 20 years, and serving as Honorary Consul of Syria in Detroit since 2001 working on expatriates issues and concerns on daily basis, and being involved with a variety of cultural exchange programs made the topic presented by Creative Syria of a particular interest to me.
First, one should give credit to the Syrian leadership for recognizing the potential treasure of the Syrian expatriates, and for taking the initiative of issuing the necessary legislatives to keep the expatriates in touch with their homeland. This has been demonstrated by the creation of the Ministry of Expatriates, the military service ‚??badal‚?Ě decrees, and the continuous support by the government to expatriates conferences and organizations.
The response of the Syrian expatriates to the government overture has been very warm and very encouraging. When the Minster of Expatriates, Dr. Buthaina Shabaan, did a tour in U.S in 2003 we were overwhelmed in Michigan by the number of people who wanted to come to her reception. They showered her with their love and support, and many presented to her ideas for projects they would like to start in Syria. When we founded NOSSTIA (Network of Syrian Scientists and Technologist Abroad) six years ago, we were so pleased by the enthusiastic response of the Syrian scientists who were invited to the founding conference. Some of them had been away from Syria for over 30 years, and were just waiting for the opportunity to share their talents and expertise with their home-country. Also one should mention with pride the recent initiatives taken by expatriates to promote the image of Syria on the internet. The quality, the richness, and amount of volunteer work put in developing certain websites are simply inspirational. Creative Syria is certainly a bright example of what I am referring to here.
One general observation about Syrian expatriates is their desire to work independently from government bureaucracy. In the last expatriates conference organized in Damascus last May, the session that received most attention from expatriates was the one when Syrian NGOs presented their work. Conference participants wanted to hear more from independent non-government speakers, and to learn more about the NGOs activities and to find and identify ways of cooperation with them. We have seen this also in our experience with NOSSTIA where the board of trustees always values and maintains its independence from any government influence.
The Ministry of Expatriates is putting a lot of effort reaching to Syrian expatriates all over the world. But in my opinion, communication with expatriates is an area where more investment can be done. Unfortunately, there are still many expatriates who are not in the loop! Large number of them didn‚??t know about the expatriate‚??s conference or about the activities and services provided by the ministry. I would suggest here to the Ministry of Expatriates to commission to an NGO the task of starting an electronic newsletter dedicated to the affaires and news of the expatriates. The Ministry should put a big effort distributing such newsletter to all Syrian expatriates in the world (with the definite understanding that unsubscribing can be done by a click of a mouse). This certainly requires also an effort from our diplomatic missions to build and share their email lists. The newsletter would focus solely on expatriate‚??s news and would be a forum to address their questions and concerns, and also to explain new legislatives of interest to them.
The Syrian satellite channel is doing excellent work reaching out to expatriates and creating programs tailored to their need. But here we take this opportunity to advise the Syrian TV to join the league of Al-Jazeera, ART and the other prominent Arabic channels by migrating to subscription-based satellite where far more expatriate audience can be reached.
The unfortunate events of 9/11 created in the west a huge interest to learn more about the culture, religion and language of the Middle East. And here the Syrian expatriates can play an important role, on individual basis or on collective basis as clubs and associations, educating their neighbors, friends and colleagues about the richness of our culture and history. However expatriates need to take advantage of the tools available to them. The Ministry of Tourism is putting excellent publications and producing excellent CDs and DVDs about Syria that any expatriate can freely use but might not be aware of! That is another example where better communication with the expatriates can be of a great value. Sponsoring Syrian musical group to perform outside Syria is an excellent venue where Syrian expatriates can contribute. Syria has some very well established musical groups but also new talents and new groups are emerging every day. It is our experience that a good musical performance can be very effective in enhancing our image abroad. Two years ago when we sponsored Hamzeh Chacour and the Dervishes of Damascus to perform in Michigan, we were very pleased to see the Michigan theatre in Ann Arbor overbooked by American audience who were enchanted and delighted by the concert.
Second generation Syrian expatriates is a huge resource waiting to be cultivated. The national feeling of our youths and their pride of their cultural heritage is phenomenal. Private universities in neighboring countries in the Middle East have very successful summer programs created to attract their second and third generation expatriates from around the world. I believe our Syrian private schools and universities can and should start similar programs. Especially that Syria has the reputation for being the best place for learning Arabic!
Finally certain Syrian expatriates are regular visitors to Syria but some other might not be. An expatriate who has not been to Syria for a long time will be pleasantly surprised to see all the activities and animation that is taking place in Syria especially in the old quarters of Damascus and Aleppo. I strongly suggest that any expatriate can be proud if he brings a non-Syrian family member or a friend to show them round in Syria. Last year we arranged for the Consular Corps in Michigan to visit Syria. These are people who have traveled around the world. In Syria, they were impressed by the warm welcome of the Syrian people, the good food, the richness of our historical and religious sites, and by the degree to which the Roman ruins are preserved, and how close they can get to and touch those ruins. At the end of their stay, they told me with total amazement ‚??Syria is a very well kept secret!‚?Ě
I strongly believe that, we Syrian expatriates have an important role to reveal this good secret to the rest of the world!
Dr. Naji Arwashan
Honorary Consul General of Syria in Detroit