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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Kholoud Helmi: A brave woman from Syria

Kholoud Helmi

Syrian journalist Kholoud Helmi may have been forced to leave her homeland almost a decade ago but she continues to be a major spokesperson for those Syrians who have been unjustly persecuted, driven out of their homes, and arbitrarily detained. Despite the patriarchal nature of Syrian society, Helmi is one of many Syrian women who have played major roles in the country’s opposition to the brutal and oppressive Assad regime since the Syrian revolution for freedom and dignity began in the spring of 2011.

Co-founder and board member of Enab Baladi newspaper which was established 11 years ago while she was living under siege in her hometown of Daraya, Helmi believes that without women playing crucial roles in peacebuilding efforts it will be impossible to achieve stability in Syria. 

In her interviews, Helmi often recalls how her father discouraged her from pursuing journalism when it was time to choose a major for her university studies. Her father had convinced her that the only way a journalist could survive in Syria would be to become a puppet of the regime. But after first-hand witnessing the violence perpetrated by Bashar Assad’s regime in her hometown of Daraya, the arbitrary arrests (including her younger brother whose fate is still unknown), the shooting of unarmed peaceful demonstrators, and the senseless massacres of civilians, Helmi was compelled to help publish the stories of what was happening around her.

In 2015 Helmi was given the Anna Politkovskaya Award for her reporting of events in Syria, in 2016 Marie Claire Magazine declared her “The Bravest Woman in the World,” and in 2017 she was awarded the International Association’s Courage Under Fire Award for her participation in the documentary Cries From Syria.

Among the many interviews she has done, Helmi has been interviewed by the BBC and been a guest on the popular podcast Been There, Seen That, “a podcast that navigates the messy world of global conflicts and humanitarian crises as told by the people who have experienced them.”

Currently living in the UK after being granted asylum, Helmi is a Chevening Scholar and holds a Master’s Degree in media and development from SOAS University of London, the world’s leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Helmi also participated as a witness to the crimes committed in Syria against journalist Nabil al Sharbaji during last month’s People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists at The Hague in the Netherlands. Her testimony can be viewed here.

SYRIAWISE spoke with Helmi from her home in London.

Q: You have done many interviews with many different media platforms and have said repeatedly that one of your greatest fears is that Assad will be the one who writes the story of the Syrian revolution that will be recorded in the history books for future generations. What can those of us who know the truth do to help you keep that from happening?

I believe we hold the burden of writing down our own stories to keep them saved for future generations, avoid any exaggerations, and keep our memories alive. Those who know the truth should help amplify these narratives and help spread them to a new audience.

Q: Have you been able to archive any of the copies of Enab Baladi that were printed inside Syria or any of the information you gathered while creating them?

When we left Daraya, we left with our PJs on us only. I had to burn all the copies of the newspaper during the one-week siege, and to protect ourselves while the security forces raided the house. I know some friends managed to save some documents but compared to the huge archives we used to have, I think the ones we managed to save are so few.

Q: What message would you want to convey to your friends who are still inside Syria and to the ones who have immigrated or been displaced to different countries all over the world?

Keep up the fight against injustice

Q: “Winter on Fire; Cries from Syria” is a documentary film directed by Evgeny Afineevsky, and acquired by HBO. Could you share with us your participation in this film?

Winter on Fire is a separate documentary by the same director on Ukraine. However, I was one of the main witnesses/narrators of the “Cries from Syria” documentary. Enab Baladi helped send so much footage and we also helped in the narrative of the documentary.

Q:  Earlier this year SYRIAWISE published a review of The Book Collectors of Daraya: A Band of Syrian Rebels, Their Underground Library, and the Stories that Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui. The book states that one of the men that the book is about was also a co-founder of Enab Baladi. Were you connected to the underground library and its creators, or had you already fled Syria by that time?

I have already fled Daraya by that time. I was not connected to the library at all.

Q: Millions of Syrians have been displaced since the revolution began in 2011. Many of those who have been granted asylum in other parts of the world have come to the realization that their chances of returning to a Syria without Assad are slim and are now focusing on creating new lives for themselves and their families in their host countries. Have you considered doing that yourself, and if not, where do you see yourself five or ten years from now?

Similar to the millions of Syrians, now I am a refugee who is seeking a place to survive, settling down is something bigger than my current circumstances, due to the fact that my family and I are in separate places. Where do I see myself in five or ten years from now? I do not know. But if I survive the next five years, definitely I will be fighting for our stolen rights somewhere.

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