Friday, November 6, 2009

Visit my new blog:

As you might know I have left UNDP and Syria in order to start a new position with Danish Red Cross in South Sudan. As always there will be a new blog ready....

Monday, September 14, 2009

Field Visit

In August I finally got to go on a field visit out of Damascus. The purpose was to visit two of the projects I am on charge of, to see the progress in the work and to participate in a workshop on drought.

The first day was spent in Deir Ezzor, a town in the Syrian Desert mostly known for oil and the Euphrates River. I went to see the old souq that UNDP is working on restoring, I visited a training center where UNDP provides business related training for young people in the region and finally I went to the municipality building to see the site identified for a UNDP supported one-stop window for the citizens of Deir Ezzor.

As always the most interesting sights were the ones seen after working hours such as the suspension bridge of the Euphrates and dinner by the river smoking shisha with an actual apple on top.

Second day of the visit was spent in Raqqa with initially a visit to the newly renovated one-stop window at the municipality and a visit with the governor of Raqqa in his overly impressive office. Finally, I participated in a workshop on drought where MPs and farmer unions, etc. were busy pointing fingers at each other….

Nice to finally get out of the office for a change.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Another weekend in Beirut...

As you might know there is election coming up in Lebanon and as always it is hard to predict what will happen when democracy hits the Middle East.

For this reason I felt it would be a good idea to hurry up and have another weekend in this amazing country. Beirut is a great city and I will let the images speak for themselves:

Ok, maybe I will write a bit: the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood is super charming and filled with restaurants, cafes and bars - my favorite place to be.

Next to Gemmayzeh is Downtown with the famous Al-Omari mosque also known as the Blue Mosque. The mosque was built by Rafik Hariri, former prime minister who made a fortune on the rebuilding of Beirut after the war but mostly famous for being killed in a car bomb in 2005 - presumable by the Syrians.

Unlike the Blue Mosque, which is very new, the Martyr's Statue was there during the war. The Downtown area lies where the green line divided the Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods during the civil war and it is clear from looking at the Martyr' Statue that it was right in the line of fire.

The actual reason for me going to Beirut was to meet up with a good friend from Bangladesh, Norwegian Nina. We have not seen each other since I left Bangladesh in 2004, so it was a great reunion celebrated with red wine and nargileh.

The road back to Syria offers many exciting experiences - besides the crazy way people drive in the mountains. During the Israeli attack on Lebanon in the 2006 war the bridge on the road to Syria was bombed. The Americans are now funded the reconstruction of the bridge but as you can see on the photo it seems some problems have occurred on the way!

Last experience on the trip was a stop at the Kefraya vineyard. Here we have a delightful wine tasting and a lovely lunch.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Syrian wedding

Not so long ago I was invited to the wedding of one of my favorite colleagues, Rania. She is a very sweet girl, but facing the same issue as most Syrian girls – moving closer to 30!!! In her late 20s it was definitely time for her to get married and so she did.

The wedding party was women only. This is very common in Syria but a first time for me. The reason for the women only choice is based on religion. At these parties all women participating at the wedding can feel comfortable taking of their hijab (veil) and dress a little less modest that they would do normally. The bride can show her beautiful dress and the nice hair that must have taken hours to do. In order to make sure all 300 women at the party can see her from all angles three big screens were placed on the back wall and a camera crew (women only) would follow her around.

The bride spends most of the time on a podium dancing, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. Often the women dancing with her are single women hoping to make an impression on some of the older ladies attending in the quiet wish that one of them might be found suitable for a son and thereby the next one staring in the dance show that the wedding is centered around.

After a few hours of dancing and the dinner a sudden commotion starts. Rumours are spreading that the groom is on his way. Quickly, women start to cover up and not soon after the groom shows up – a bit nervous, but then again who wouldn’t be having to enter a room of 300 women all waiting to see you. He goes up to the bride and offers her a tray full of what seemed expensive jewelry. Together they exchange rings and dress up the bride with the jewelry. She then dances for him and then the wedding cake is cut. The whole thing projected onto the big screens so everyone can follow the festivities.
The wedding is over within 3 hours, everybody goes home and the bride and groom can now look forward to a happy life together – starting with a honeymoon in Thailand! At UNDP we can look forward to a future without Rania, since she now has taken on the position of full time wife!

As you can probably guess I was not able to take photos of the bride. However, I did get a few shots of the very impressive cake!!!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Spring Specials

After a long and hard winter spring finally arrived and it was time to get back in gear. Those of you who have been following me on Facebook know that I have been spending almost a much time out of Syria as in the country. However, I have had time to spend a few hours in the office – occasionally – and this has paid off with some exceptional experiences.

In April I was lucky enough to receive an invitation for a visit to the Tishreen Palace to meet the First Lady of Syria, Asma Al-Assad. The meeting was in connection with the NGO project I am working on (see previous post) – a project that the First Lady is actively supporting. It was an experience to meet this remarkable woman and to visit the Tishreen Palace which gates I drive past every day to work.

In May I was put in charge of a project focusing on capacity building of the Syrian Parliament. In this connection, I was invited to visit the parliament and got the great big tour of the place. The Parliament or People’s Council is a very impressive place and it was quite the experience.

Unfortunately, I was not able to document the visits to some of the highest institutions on Syria. However, I am able to share a few photos from the most special spring experience – my visit back home. Denmark in May is just amazing and I must admit to a small feeling of home sickness sneaking up on me. Spending time with my sister’s wonderful children just added to that feeling…

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Long weekend in Lebanon

Finally came spring and along with it a nice long weekend thanks to the Syrian Revolution Day and the birthday of the Prophet. With no intention of spending a four-day weekend in Damascus I went with two friends to Lebanon. Roheet and Bo had spend some time preparing this trip, I only decided to go the night before, so I didn’t quite know what I had agreed to….but as most often it is at those times the best experience occur – and this time was no exception.

Most of Friday was spend in Beirut looking for a slightly reliable car rental company. Obviously, rental cars are not insured there and it took us a while to find a place when the writing in small did not imply bankruptcy for all of us in case of an accident or theft. However, eventually we managed to get a car and get out of Beirut.

Lebanon is a very small country and easy to travel in. We drove into the mountains with great views of snow topped mountains on one side and the Mediterranean on the other side. We made a small stop on the way in Deir al-Qamar, a cosy small village, for some lunch and supplies. We then continued to El Barouk where the entrance to Chouf Natur Reserve is. Here we found a wonderful guesthouse with the best home cooked food I have had so far in this region.

We were planning on a full days hike in the park. Supposedly there would be nicely marked trails and lots of beautiful nature. Whether this was the case we never found out since the place was buried under about a meter of snow. It takes more to stop us though and we managed to hike for five hours in the snow. Though it was cold for the feet, the sun was shining and the views were amazing.

Next day we continued our road trip. First stop was Beit Eddin and a nice old palace, we then continued on to a marsh area and ended up – by accident (I shall say no more but those of you how knows how bad I am at giving directions can probably guess) - in Baalbek. Besides from being Hezbollah land with lots of signs thereof it is also home of an amazing old ruin town – definitely worth visiting.

Last night was spend in Beirut and lucky for me and my credit cards there were room for three hour power shopping Monday morning before heading back to good old Damascus.

Petra - a new wonder of the world

Situated in Jordan, more than 2000 years old Petra is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Middle East - I went straight on the beaten track....


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Working with civil society in Syria

I came to Syria one year ago to work as programme officer with UNDP in Damascus. My area of expertise lie within civil society and gender. Before arriving in Syria I was working with civil society in Nepal where the playing field is very different from here. After 12 years of civil war in Nepal the government is often non-existing outside of the major cities and civil society is filling the gaps both in terms of charity, development and advocacy. Coming to Syria the picture is quite different. At first glance it is difficult to recognise the civil society and the organisations involved within this field. However, it is there and it is very active. The Syrian civil society is characterised by being very diverse and nuanced - both in terms of geography, working areas, professionalism and community ties.

Syria has a long and proud tradition of charity based work. The country has a large number of charity organisations working with different marginalised groups in the country. Within the last 6-7 years a new trend has been noticeable. A new type of organisations are being established, namely development oriented organisations or as we know them, NGOs. These organisations focus more on long-term impacts and empowerment of people. In other words, where as the charities would give women and men a fish to eat, the NGOs are giving people a fishing pole and teaching them how to fish. Finally, there is also a growing number of advocacy NGOs mostly within the environmental area i.e organisations focusing on the rights of the people fishing.

As mentioned these new organisations have been growing steadily in number and size for the past 6-7 year. This is a very positive trend and UNDP is dedicated to support this process and these organisations. For this reason UNDP has been working with the Syrian Trust for Development, a newly established NGO in the country to develop the framework for a platform for NGOs in the country. It has been a long and hard process and we are still only at the beginning of the journey. The idea is to provide the civil society with a place to come together to network, discuss development issues and learn from each other. It is extremely important that the platform is driven by the member, that is serves their needs and that they see an added value in participating in this work. We have therefore been working hard throughout the last year talking to the organisations in the country to make sure that it is their needs that are reflected in the design of the platform.
In December we had a large national dialogue workshop with 30+ organisations participating. After an introduction of our work and surveys conducted on civil society in Syria the participants broke into working groups to discuss what they needed from a platform catering to NGOs. The outcome has now been formulated into a 3-year project we are hoping to initiate in the spring.

During these 3 years we will be setting up the actual platform including membership criteria, organisational structures and applying for legal registration with the government. Additionally, the platform will be offering several services identified by the members themselves. First and foremost, we will concentrate on establishing networks for the organisations to participate in. A network can be focusing on specific developmental issues such as women’s rights, environment, etc. This all depends on the interest of the members. The NGOs can then come together to discuss how to address these issues and learn from each other. Civil society in Syria is very scattered and diverse. Often they are not aware of the work or even existence of other organisations working within the same field or in similar areas. During our many meetings with organisations last year including the national dialogue this came out very clearly and already several ties between organisations have been established in informal ways. Establishing networks for the NGOs to get together will be very beneficial to the members of the platform.
Finally, the platform will work with developing the capacities of the organisations. As with many newly established organisations the NGOs in Syria is often characterised by a few persons getting together with a interest in making a difference in their community. The will and interest is there but often there is a lack of capacities to do the actual project management, to report back to donors and to apply for the funds. The platform is hoping to be able to address this issue through capacity building activities and the establishment of a grant clinic.

All in all, it is a very exciting project. The past year has been very interesting in terms of having the possibility to work with these organisations and learn more about the situation of the organisations and the challenges they face as well as the opportunities that are present now. It has been hard work to develop this new 3-year project and we have often had to change certain things based on the input we received from the organisations. Based on this process however we are certain that the project developed is based directly on the needs and wishes of the future members of the platform.

As mentioned this is only the first step on a long road. It is well known that in Syria nothing happens overnight and just like Rome was not build in one day neither will this platform be. The next 3 years will be interested and exciting. I have one year left in the country and will not be able to follow the project all the way. However, this is the life of a development worker and hopefully the platform website will be up and running within this year and I will be able to follow the process online from wherever my next job will take me.