One of the most underreported aspects of the conflict that has been raging in Syria since the revolution began in the Spring of 2011 is the effect it has had on a whole generation of young people who grew up in an atmosphere of war. But not just any war, the violence in Syria is, and continues to be, the direct result of Bashar Assad’s genocidal campaign against his own people. Muhammad Najem was only eight years old when it all began and the pampered life he had led as the youngest child made it difficult for him to understand the changes that Assad’s siege on their East Ghouta neighborhood had made to life as he knew it.
Eventually the frustration he felt as a teenager, and the severity of the losses he experienced, inspired him to begin documenting the stories of other children in his hometown and broadcasting them to the world in the hopes that someone would take notice and bring an end to their misery.
One person who took notice was a young journalism student named Nora Neus who was working for CNN at the time. Although the story brought a lot of international attention, not all of it was positive, and the siege on the neighborhood where Najem and his family lived intensified after it was aired.
After relocating to Turkey, in December of 2018, Najem and his family were able to meet Neus in person and collaborate on a book titled Muhammad Najem, War Reporter, which was released this year.
Recently SYRIAWISE spoke to Najem from where he is living with his family in Istanbul.
SYRIAWISE: First of all, we want to tell you how much we love the book. We have read and reviewed other books written about and by Syrians that describe their experiences in their homeland since the revolution began in 2011 such as The Book Collectors of Daraya, The Beekeepers of Aleppo, and The Pianist of Yarmouk, but yours is different in that it is a graphic novel that very effectively tells your story with illustrations as well as words.
Muhammad Najem: Thank you so much. I hope that you enjoyed reading it.
S: Did you have any role in creating the illustrations by Julie Robine that tell your story and do you know Marc Nelson the teacher/artist from Illinois who has created drawings for many of our SYRIAWISE articles?
MN: Yes, I know Marc and I follow him on Twitter. His sketches are very beautiful and I wish I had his talent and creativity so I could draw like him, but unfortunately, I do not.
S: Even though it has become a source of controversy here in the U.S., Marc uses a graphic novel called Maus to teach his middle school students about the Nazi holocaust. Do you think your book would be a useful tool for teaching students here in the U.S. about the reality of life in Syria for Syrian children under the Assad regime’s genocidal campaign against its own people?
MN: Marc is a creative person and I wish him all the best. Honestly, I admire his activism and his sketches a lot. It would be great if our book could be used someday to teach students in the U.S. about the genocide being committed in Syria as well.
S: We understand that Nora Neus who wrote the book has become a very good friend of you and your family. Did she help you to get out of Syria to where you are now living in Turkey? How long did it take and was it difficult?
MN: Of course, Nora helped me a lot. But as for my departure from Syria, it was the Anadolu Agency, a Turkish media platform that my older brother works for, that helped us to get into Turkey. The way was not difficult but I did have to stay in Idlib in northern Syria for one year before being allowed to enter Turkey.
S: What has life been like for you and your family in Istanbul?
We realized how we had been living under the oppression of a dictatorship for more than five decades of Assad family rule that had put us in a position of being backwardMuhammad Najem
MN: I cannot even describe our feelings when we first entered Turkey. The moments were great and crazy. Turkey could be a normal country but for my family and I it was completely different due to our living in besieged areas of Syria and in the midst of so much destruction. We had never been outside of Syria before and that’s why everything was different. We realized how we had been living under the oppression of a dictatorship for more than five decades of Assad family rule that had put us in a position of being backward, industrially, educationally, and on all levels. So you can imagine my reaction when I saw the airport, airplanes, and skyscrapers. It was my first time to be on a plane when we flew from the Syrian border to Istanbul.
S: I know you feel like you missed the opportunity to continue your education in Turkey because you did not know the language, but were your younger siblings able to go to school since you’ve been there?
MN: My little brother joined a Turkish school for a short period but he faced discrimination by the attending teacher as she openly favored Turkish students over other nationalities. Because of that, he hated school and my mother decided to let him quit that school and enrolled him in an Arabic online school instead.
S: Whether it came naturally, or was a result of the circumstances you were living in, you seem to have a gift for journalism. Do you have plans to pursue a career in journalism or is there something else you would prefer to do with your life now?
I hope that the real-time experience I gained covering the war in my homeland will provide a chance for me to continue in the fieldMuhammad Najem
MN: As for journalism, I gained my skills through my older brother Firas. He works with the press and media and I used to observe him always, especially when he used his camera to capture the shelling and the people in our neighborhood. I learned a lot from him and eventually, it became something that I love. Without his help, I couldn’t have reached where I am today, working in media. It could be that I lost studying Journalism at university, but I hope that the real-time experience I gained covering the war in my homeland will provide a chance for me to continue in the field. After all, it takes more than words on a whiteboard to learn about journalism.
Honestly, I love journalism and I have goals that I want to achieve. And at the same time I would love to be acting in Hollywood and think if I had the chance to be there, I would take it. The same thing applies to soccer which was my first goal and dream during my early childhood: to be a soccer player. But due to the war, I think I lost that chance as well. But I will continue working in journalism. My hope is to reach the goals that I established in my mind — if it is God’s will.
S: In the Newsweek article, you said, “My biggest hope is to return to a peaceful Syria, to help rebuild and make our country strong again.” There are many Syrians who are now living in other countries all over the world. Although many of them still hang onto the hope of returning to a free and democratic Syria without the Assad regime, in reality, they find themselves focusing on building new lives where they have landed. You also said that when you were able to visit Syria it was difficult for you because things are so different. Do you still dream of going back and helping to rebuild the country someday?
MN: To be honest with you, with what Syria is today, and the reality I witnessed there personally, I must say that it is going to need a lot of time and effort to rebuild Syria. I think first of all, that the minds of many Syrians need to be liberated and reprogrammed so that education and science are once again given high priority. Syrians must concentrate on education first because one of the reasons that this war is still continuing is due to ignorance, and if we keep hating those living in the liberated areas, or those living in the regime areas, Syria will not return to being as united as it must be for our country to heal.
No matter how sweet the countries of exile are, our homeland remains the best refuge and should be the safest place for all of usMuhammad Najem
In my opinion, the most destructive mindset involves the idea of revenge for the victims. If every Syrian wants to take revenge, Syria will never return as a united country and Syrians will not be one people again. We used to accept all the varieties and segments of Syrian society such as Christians, Jews, atheists, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Alawites, and others.
We must all be of one heart and help overthrow the dictator Bashar Assad and elect an appropriate leader who will be able to find the best solutions for restoring the many diverse groups of Syrian people as one people. I am sure that I will be among those who will help with these efforts and do everything I can to get us there. No matter how sweet the countries of exile are, our homeland remains the best refuge and should be the safest place for all of us.