Story of a poet telling his fight against the Al Assad regime

By Juliette Rémond-Tiédrez

Being confined for nearly two months gave me loads of time to listen to podcasts and read more. Somewhat by coincidence my reading and listening started focusing on the ongoing Syrian civil war. This focus on Syria started with Omar Youssef Suleiman’s latest book Le Dernier Syrien, the Last Syrian. Omar Youssef Suleiman is a Syrian poet and journalist who has been living in France as a political refugee since 2012. More information on his biography and news can be found on his website, as well as here concerning his latest book Le Dernier Syrien, out in January 2020.

Today I would like to focus on his story, the story of a Syrian who switched from being an extremist Islamist Salafist to a pro-democracy activist fighting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.


Picture available on Omar Youssef Suleiman’s website.

Omar Youssef Suleiman was born in 1987 near Damas in a deeply religious family. In interviews given at the end of 2015 on French radios France inter and France culture, he explained that religion governed every aspect of his life in Syria: his family would only talk about religion, and, at the beginning, he would only be reading religious texts or old Arabic literature. However, religion was important at a whole other level in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he moved when he was 13. He explained that he was in Saudi Arabia when the 9/11 terror attacks happened, and there, he saw people cheering. He admitted that he cheered as well. At the time he considered Osama Ben Laden as a hero, saving the Arab world from the United States and Israel. For him, being an extremist Islamist Salafist seemed like a normal thing to be in Saudi Arabia.

Soon after going back to Syria however, he started questioning his faith and Salafist ideas. This process began when he moved to Homs to study literature. After having always lived with his grand-parents, uncles, and aunts and then his parents, Homs was the first place where Omar Youssef Suleiman was alone and free to do whatever he pleased. He therefore started going to the mosque, but also to church to ask questions and do research about religions. He began questioning Islam but also Christianism and any other religion. After his research he concluded that he did not need religion anymore and decided to become an atheist. Being an atheist was tough in Syria as it was associated to being a liar and a thief. But Omar Youssef Suleiman stuck to atheism.

Another “religion” Omar Youssef Suleiman grew up with was the cult of Hafez, and later Bashar, Al-Assad. In the same radio interview, the poet explained how the Al-Assad propaganda would start at an early age. Indeed, already when he was 7-8 years old, he was taught to scream, every morning, at school “Long life to the Bath party, long life to Hafez Al-Assad” or “Death to Israel, death to the Muslim Brotherhood”. He abandoned this religion as well. Indeed, in 2011, Omar Youssef Suleiman organised one of the first peaceful protest against the regime, in his university city of Homs. He said to have dropped classes, and exams, everything, to dive in fully into the protests. The poet remembers thinking that the fall of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunisia, was like a dream for the Arab world, a dream that he wanted coming true in Syria. When the regime ruthlessly responded to the peaceful protests, Omar Youssef Suleiman started contacting important newspapers, like the BBC, to inform them of the situation on the ground. He began filming protesters being brutalised and even killed and shared it on YouTube. Through those videos, the young poet was screaming for help, but the international community didn’t react.

In 2012, protesting became too dangerous for Omar Youssef Suleiman and he fled to neighboring Jordan. There he met with the French ambassador who arranged for his transfer to France where he was granted political asylum. His first year in Paris was hard as he did not speak any French, was a foreigner and was poor. Later, he said that, even if he was living in poverty, his moving to France had given him his life and dignity back and that was enough. Today, he is fluent in French and even wrote his last book, the Last Syrian, in French. When asked why he chose France, Omar Youssef Suleiman answered that he had always been interested by French culture since reading Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon. Furthermore, France was known as the human rights and freedom country, the opposite of Syria. Although he was far from the war, fear didn’t really leave, “we left the war, but the war never left us”.

During this whole time, Omar Youssef Suleiman had been writing. He first started when he was in Riyadh, where he had no friends and felt very lonely. During the summer, when school was over, he wouldn’t go out but would read and write at home. The poet then enrolled in a literature university programme in Homs. Today, although he also writes novels, Omar Youssef Suleiman mainly writes poem collections such as Far from Damas. His writings are politically active. His favorite poet, Paul Éluard, said “the poet is not only a poet – he is a man of freedom, a man of humanity”. It was therefore only logical for Omar Youssef Suleiman to write about freedom and humanity, but also about war, Syria, exile, and memory.

His poems are in Arabic, sometimes in French, but luckily for us Ghada Mourad translated some of his pieces in English, including his Do Not Tell Anyone poem.


Do Not Tell Anyone


Do you remember our childhood fighting game?

What’s happened is that we’ve entered the screen

And God has taken our place


Between the wide front lines

The sniper lens stops

A victim falls apart in my heart


The father who spreads his hand

Is covering the sun

So it won’t get burned by the face of a dead child


As we cross the borders

Fleeing from live bullets

Do not tell anyone that we are alive

I thought that this poem was a good one to share as, according to me, it is a good summary of Omar Youssef Suleiman’s life: the questioning of God, the Syrian war and fleeing. Furthermore, raising awareness, through poetry, about the crimes committed by the Syrian regime always seems necessary, especially as two former members of the Syrian military are currently being trialed in Germany for war crimes and crimes against humanity

Meet the Syrians

Meet the Syrians is a one-week celebration event that gathers over 100 Syrian artists from all over the world to celebrate art for freedom, with the goal of showing art work and connecting with other communities as artists, freedom seekers and fellow humans. This event holds an art exhibition, screening of videos made by digital artists, and theatrical and musical performances.

Meet the Syrians is the first project of the non-profit organisation AMAS (Annamarie Art Stichting). The founders of AMAS, Sofia Dawoudi and Fawaz Zaza, intend to take this project on a journey that started in Amsterdam in 2017 and will travel to cities that welcome the concept, such as The Hague or Geneva, cities that symbolize peace and Justice. The event is designed to attract more artists every year and to develop working realtionships with artists of various nationalities in the future.

Creating Rights is proud to support AMAS’ project Meet the Syrians. The vision of the project, to organise a forum where artists and various audiences can connect and exchange on humanitarian issues through a joyful and celebratory atmosphere, represents a perfect illustration of what art can achieve. Moreover, Creating Rights believes in the importance of reminding the human dimension of each individual fleeing war, in order to bring European populations to see beyond the waves of faceless refugees.

Creating Rights supports Meet the Syrians in different ways in an effort to make the next event happen. We provide assistance in connecting to the art and international legal worlds in The Hague. We also offer advice in drafting proposals for funding purposes.

Artwork by some of these artist is visible as part of the Virtual Gallery. Have a look at the fantastic work by Dima Nashawi, Farah Presley, Hiba Al-Fardous Al-Azem, Falak al Ghazzi, and Wajdi Saleh.

We will post here soon more information on the next venues of Meet the Syrians.

The Virtual Gallery

A permanent project Creating Rights undertakes is to display a virtual and temporary exhibition of art works by socially engaged artists on its website. We envision Creating Rights’ platform to offer visibility to emerging artists from everywhere in the world for whom art became a necessity or a means to express visions of human rights.

You can see here Bruce Clarke’s artwoks, displayed as the first artist on the Creating Rights’ Virtual Gallery.

Today, Creating Rights would like to introduce you to five artists that are part of Meet the Syrians, a project led by AnnaMarie Arts Stichting, and supported by Creating Rights as it will be travelling in 2018 to The Hague, the city of international peace and justice. More on this specific project can be seen here.

Today, you can discover the work and the vision of five of these Syrian artists: Dima Nashawi, Farah Presley, Hiba Al-Fardous Al-Azem, Falak al Ghazzi, and Wajdi Saleh. Two of Dima Nashawi’s artworks are visible on the home page of Creating Rights.

We thank all of them greatly for their collaboration with Creating Rights.


Dima Nashawi 

“I am an illustratrator, clown and founder of the Memory Initiative of Syrian Culture project (MISC).

Through my illustrations I tend to reflect my personal life experiences and my interactions with human rights issues around the world. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to deliver, through art, a message to the world: Syria is as a country of artists, a home for peaceful activists eager to live and create civil projects for a better future. My main concern is to advocate for the brutally arrested detainees who are denied fair trials and are held in harsh conditions.

MISC project was initiated during my Masters studies of Arts and Cultural Management at King’s College University of London, UK. The project continued supported by AFAQ fund granted in 2017. It is an attempt to help Syrians to transmit the memory of the conflict and, by doing so, to reclaim their own agency. It is a project based on researches that support the thesis that preserving these memories could be a possible fertile resource for the creation of a common ground for the future Syrian identity, overcoming divisions and promoting inclusion. The tool chosen for the preservation includes visual narratives.

My recent participation in collective exhibitions was in ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition in London within “AWAN” festival. “AWAN” festival is an annual event that celebrates Arab female artists, by offering them the platform to increase the visibility of their artwork and also by exposing their talent to newer audiences.

I also participated in several collective exhibitions in Syria ; and organized two exhibitions to advocate for social causes in Damascus. The first was in 2010 to support refugee children under the umbrella of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The second was in 2011 to support children with cancer through Basma, a Syrian nonprofit organization. Both exhibitions were inspired by children texts and stories.

Finally, I am a clown member in Clown Me In, a theatre company founded by Sabine Choucair from Lebanon and Gabriela Munoz from Mexico. Through interactive workshops and performances, the company uses clowning to spread laughter and provide relief to disadvantaged communities while exploring human vulnerabilities and providing individuals a way to accept them. Clown Me In has worked in communities around the world, including in Mexico, Lebanon, India, Brazil, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Greece and the United Kingdom, as well as with Palestinian refugees.

You can see my portfolio online on Behance, Facebook, and Instagram.”

Dima’s page on the Meet the Syrians‘ project website is visible here.
“Maryam is a former detainee by the Syrian regime. I drew this illustration to represent her testimony through my work with “Al Nabad” media outlet, working together in documenting detainees’ testimonies as part of the Syrian collective memory. 
While listening to her audio testimony, telling about her detention experience, subconsciously, I drew a sketch of a woman with peaceful smile. Her hair was like a rainy cloud, raining above the prison’s ugly elements and growing flowers instead and allowing the sun to shine. 
I knew Maryam a little at the begining of the revolution through her brother who is a dear friend. She was detained due to her civil activism against the regime in 2014, asking for freedom, social and political reformation. She went through a very harsh experience. She was tortured and sexually abused by the investigator. However, every couple of minutes through her horrible statement, Maryam tends to highlight a human detail that happened with her in theprison for example her relationship with her colleagues. She would be very appreciated to those little glimpse of moments as a way to survive detention, and lead her life.” 
Visible here.
The Civil Society” 
“This artworks is envisioned to support the civil society in Syria in particular, and in every country more generally. The civil society that challenges death and arms by spreading and supporting arts, knowledge, music, sports … etc. 
This illustration is a stand of appreciation for their efforts in Syria in very difficult times of conflict. For they maintained their civil work despite all the atrocities and oppression by different actors including the regime and the extremist militias, and living in a constant shelling by the regime and its allies.  
I contributed with this piece of art in Arts the Arms fair campaignThe art campaign was to draw attention to the world’s largest arms fair taking place in London Sept 12, 2017 by initiating online campaign and big art exhibition at the same time.” 
Visible here
“I Wish I Could”
“This is an art work within the campaign of #SaveAleppo. Wishing to have the power to stop the shelling from falling on the city and destroying it. 
“I wish I could” is my wish to protect the city, its residences. However, I could not, but I will continue with my art to resist and stand against perpetrators.”  
Mentioned here.  
The Secret of The Raindrops”
 “I composed and illustrated the story following the detention of a close friend, Lana, by the Syrian regime in 2015. The story uses symbolic elements to highlight the issue of arbitrary detention against civil activists by different actors, and the Syrian society’s engagement and struggle for the release of prisoners of consciousness.

In the story, Lana is the main character that goes through a journey to reveal the destiny of her mother who disappears suddenly in the woods. Leaving no trace behind but her name in a raindrop hanging on a branch. A passing by deer hold it in the eyes and vanishes. Lana eventually discovers the secret of the imprisoned names and help her mother and others suffer from the same fate to be free. 

In this illustration, the witch and Lana manage to free the raindrops that ascended by the rainbow shell to the sky. The sky started to rain when the raindrops reached the moon, and the rain turned into human beings before falling on the ground and be free again from their prisons. 

This story is an attempt to remind of the prisoners of consciousness in Syria, to put together all efforts to free them. Moreover, it is a call to change the law in Syria that is used to persecute the prisoners of consciousness and put their lives in extreme danger. Many of them died in torture and for many, their fates are unknown, so it is essential to save the lives of those remaining.”

Mentioned here.

Farah Presley

Farah Presley is a painter and a children’s books writer. She has been painting for almost three years, made two short films with her group (Maajooneh) composed of two artists, in 2015 and 2016. She made a first children’s book (Peace Flower), which is not published yet. Farah lives in Istanbul, Turkey.
Farah’s page on Meet the Syrians‘ project webiste is visible here.
Short films
Fade to Black (visible also here)
Yaman (visible also here)
“Finally we are one #1”
“Finally we are one #2”
“Meeting Place”

Hiba Al-Fardous Al-Azem

“My name is Hiba Alazm and I am from Syria but live at the moment in Germany. I studied Painting and my speciality was “Water Colors” because of its beauty and I feel that the water colors can express my feelings. I contributed to many collective exhibitions in Syria. The last one in 2014 was called “Syria in young eyes”. My last exhibition took place in Holland as part of the Meet the Syrians project.”

Hiba’s website is visible here. See also Instagram.

“I’ve chosen these paintings, painted for most of them in Syria in time of war, because they express the pain and the suffering that the oppressed Syrians are facing. Sometimes colors can express more than words in terms of Pain and Unfairness. Also Black and White express opposite sides: Peace and War, Hope and Pain, Brightness and Darkness.
I hope the oppression will vanish all around the world soon, and that all children can have a better life than the one we had and live in peace and justice.”
Heba’s page on Meet the Syrians‘ project website is visible here.
“Asylum’s journey”
“Price of freedom”

Falak al-Ghazzi

“I am Falak al ghazzi from Damascus, Syria. I do different kinds of art and handcraft. but lately I do fire painting and I drill on eggshell. Through the use of flame in the drawing I wanted to send a message to the whole world of what is happening in Syria of killing people and children.”


“The Scream”

“The Scream is about a young man and his family trying to cross the border to get to safety, but the police took hold of him and prevented him from completing his way. He shouted this way and I felt that he was screaming with a burning voice that expressed the suffering of all the Syrians.”


“The face of a syrian girl”

“The blood is covering her face, but in her eyes there are insistence and challenge.”

“The old man”

” This is a picture showing an old man after his house was demolished, it filled his face with dust and he lost everything he had. The look in his eyes reflects how deep is grief is.”

Wajdi Saleh

Wajdi Saleh is a Syrian artist living and working in Istanbul, Turkey who, using his art, has taken it upon himself to document and disclose the suffering of the Syrian people concerning the genocide done by Assad and his allies. Wajdi has participated in many activities and exhibitions like the Meet the Syrians’s exhibition, which was held in the Netherlands in April 2017. He also earned the medallion of the first place for graphic design in Behance international competition.

In “Blueprints of war: Syrian artists paint the struggle“, CNN delivered one of Wajdi’s messages seeable in a piece of artwork speaking about the genocide that took place in the city of Duma in August 2015. His artwork, “Waiting”, is part of the “15 Works of Art That Will Change the Way You Look at The Syrian Conflict”, published by Buzzfeed. His artwork is also the subject of the article “Conceptual Art in The Syrian Uprising”  published on Syrianuntold. More of his work can be found on the website of Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, as well as on the Brezilian website Abduzeedo, here and here.

Wajdi is now is preparing for his exhibition which will take place in Istanbul, Turkey in the few coming months. His artwork is shared on Facebook and Behance.

Wajdi’s page on the Meet the Syrians‘ project website is visible here.




“Wish of Eid”

“Wish of Eid is the work that I love the most because in my opinion it is the one that best describes the Syrian Revolution. I have posted it in the year 2014 in the period of Eid which is one of two celebrated holidays by Muslims around the world and most of the Syrians.

My wish for Eid was:

“For Eid, I do not want a tank, I do not want a bullet, I do not want your weapons nor your army nor your protection.

I want to fly from here to there, I want to visit that place and buy toys like kids do… For Eid, I want to be happy… for one day… at least, so grab your belongings… and leave”


“Water Bomb”

“It unmasks yet another type of crimes that were committed by the regime in Syria by putting an area under fierce siege and cutting out all sources of life, including water. Using this strategy the regime succeeded in killing many innocents, but with the documentation of this crime through “Water Bomb” and other works done by other artists and activists, the awareness was raised and the siege was lifted with the help of international pressure.”



“#Save_Syrian_Children is the hashtag that Syrian activists started, and I used it as a name for one of my works in which I show a less-than 10 year old boy being shot on the grass of the play ground by an Assad’s sniper. The boy died and with his death, the humanity of many people died as well.”

“Peace Rifle”

“It is the call and wish of 23 millions Syrians (Population of Syria before the Revolution). Everybody asked the international community to stop the usage of weapons so that everybody will live a normal free life in which no weapons were used and the repressive regime of Assad did not exist.”


“Human Dignity”

“Published for the first time on Creating Rights. It is a pure humanitarian work. It shows how an old man left all the flags of the many different countries and parties that are involved in the Syrian Revolution behind him saying “Alone with dignity rather than alive with humiliation” and walked away from his devastated land so he would finish whatever is left of his lifetime and die with dignity despite everybody.”


Dance or Die: A Story of Dance over War

By Nolwenn Guibert

“I dance to be free, to be strong, to look for a perfect world”

Dance or Die is a story of exile and survival. It is the story of Ahmad Joudeh, a Palestinian –born Syrian dancer who grew up in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus and who defied the odds of war and repression as well as a hostile father to train as a dancer. Having been sponsored by the Dutch National Ballet to train and perform in Amsterdam, Ahmad is quickly becoming a household name in the world of ballet and on social media.

The tatoo inked in Sanskrit in the nape of his neck–“Dance or Die”–takes centre stage throughout the documentary. Film director Roozbeh Kaboly shot a lot of the scenes from the back with the tatoo in full view in the foreground as a reminder that for Joudeh, dance equals life and that a life without dance is not worth living. Joudeh explains that his tatoo was an act of defiance to ISIS rule back in Syria and to ISIS’ favored mode of execution; beheading. Under ISIS rule, ballet was equated to homosexuality, which put Joudeh’s life at risk.

The documentary contains a number of powerful artistic moments, from Joudeh dancing in the rubbles of the Yarmouk camp near Damascus and the ruins of Palmyra before his departure to The Netherlands to the Esplanade du Trocadero in Paris to a duo on Italian TV with Roberto Bolle–one of the world’s most acclaimed ballet dancers–danced to the live performance of Sting’s Inshallah, another story of exile.


One can only be drawn to Joudeh’s inate sense of movement and artistry and the total passion he puts into his dancing.

On a more personal level, the documentary portrays Joudeh as a dedicated, fun and hard working young man but also as an individual struggling with the traumas of war and exile and having a father who never supported his son’s passion. At times, the melancholy in Joudeh’s eyes takes over the light that shines through when he dances.

Joudeh’s reunion with his father at a German refugee center is an intimate moment shared before the camera. It marks a moment of anticipation and hope, which comes back later in the film when Joudeh’s father watches him perform, probably for the first time, and one can see the sheer pride in a father’s teary eyes as well as regret for the years lost.

Joudeh is a gifted dancer and a wonderufl advocate of peace through art. He will undoubtedly go on to touch many audiences throughout the world. I hope he also finds his peace.

For those reading the blog in The Hague, Ahmad Joudeh will be performing on Sunday 15 April at 16h at the Universal Sufi Center for an event entitled “The Music of Life: Dance for Peace”.

The documentary “Dance or Die” premiered on 18 March in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, as advertised here on Creating Rights.



“Dance or Die” with Ahmad Joudeh

By Nolwenn Guibert

The 15th edition of the Cinedans festival is taking place in Amsterdam this week between 14 and 18 March. Cinedans is a “Dance on Screen” festival that showcases carefully selected dance films and documentaries about internationally renowned dancers and choreographers.

On Sunday, 18th March, as part of the festival and the “De Wolf Danst” project, the movie “Dance or Die” will premiere. Dance or Die follows the journey of Ahmad Joudeh, an inspiring and inspirational young dancing talent from Syria, who was given the opportunity to train in The Netherlands, leaving behind his war-torn country and family. This story is one of resilience and commitment to one’s passion for the arts in the face of adversity and continuing struggles. Never has ballet been more current.