Many thanks to Burhan for speaking at our event The Human Cost of War on 19th July. You can read Burhan’s testimony about her experience of war below, the video of our speakers is also available.
I come from the north of Syria, from the ancient city of Aleppo—the place where I was born, grew up, and lived until 2014. It was a simple life, revolving around friends, family, school, and eventually university. Everything seemed ordinary until the day we decided to demand our rightful freedom of speech and the control of Syria’s resources. We wanted to expose those who were stealing from the Syrian people.
“We want freedom, justice, and a new way of life!”
The year 2011 marked the start of the revolution in Syria. I took to the streets with peaceful protests, calling for the very essence of freedom because we were tired of being silenced and having no say in how our country should be governed. The regime of Assad had tight control over everything, treating Syria like their personal possession instead of governing for the people. We chanted with all our might, “We want freedom, justice, and a new way of life!” Little did we know the consequences that awaited us.
When I was in one of the peaceful protests, holding nothing but my empty hands, the Assad regime militias started shooting at us with live bullets. The sound of gunfire shocked me, and I couldn’t believe they would resort to such violence against their own people. In that moment, my sister grabbed my arm, panic in her eyes, and urged, “We have to go, now!”
But the most horrifying day was when the regime brought a missile truck just outside our house. It was around 9 am and I was in my room, and suddenly, a deafening sound filled the air, followed by white dust surrounding our house. I was terrified, thinking our house would collapse from the bombing. Tears streamed down my face, and I feared for my life. When the dust cleared out we saw the missile truck from the window. The truck stayed there for two long hours, firing eight missiles, each one claiming innocent lives just a couple of kilometres away. The memory of that day will never fade from my mind.
Another haunting experience was witnessing the first Russian Sukhoi plane flying low and then unleashing a monstrous sound, while releasing a missile striking another part of the city, followed by a dark smoke. I knew then that innocent lives were being targeted, and I couldn’t help but feel helpless and afraid for my fellow Syrians.
More and more memories come back while I am typing this—I survived 2 sniper shots, I crossed the deadliest path Karaj Al Hajez, and I lost my dad. I can’t talk about all these memories without thinking, why weapons? Why did we invent them? Why are we still using and developing them?
“Our unity became our shield against the horrors we faced every day.”
Amidst the chaos, we found strength in each other. My community—friends, family, my husband, and fellow activists—became a source of support and hope during the darkest hours. Our unity became our shield against the horrors we faced every day.
As the years passed, the weight of the conflict grew heavier, and the need to protect my loved ones pushed me to make a hard decision—to leave Aleppo behind. Leaving felt like leaving a piece of my soul in those ancient streets, but it was the only way to ensure safety and a chance at a better life for my family.
Leaving Syria didn’t mean forgetting. It didn’t mean giving up on the dream of a free and peaceful homeland. Instead, it made me a stronger advocate for peace, justice, and human rights. My experiences in Aleppo became a driving force to share our stories, to let the world know about the suffering and resilience of the Syrian people.
“I will keep fighting for peace and belonging.”
In a new land, I found kindred spirits who understood the pain and struggles of displacement. We became a family bound by the desire for a world without violence and oppression. My story became a voice for those who couldn’t speak, a plea for understanding and compassion.
Here in the UK, the faces around me are kind, and the people welcoming, but a part of me will always feel like a visitor—an eternal wanderer in search of a place to belong. The fleeting smiles and genuine hospitality remind me that humanity’s compassion knows no borders, but there’s a profound longing to be embraced by the familiarity of my own homeland.
I long to walk the streets where my father and I once walked, to breathe in the essence of my past and feel memories that have been preserved in the corners of my mind. The thought of never again seeing these roads, brings aches to my heart. I miss the sight of buildings that hold stories from my childhood—the places I visited and schools I went to. Which I can only revisit in my memories. While I seek to build new memories in a foreign land, I hold the memories from my homeland close to my heart.
Through it all, as I navigate the complexities of life in a foreign land, I carry with me the resilience of my people, the history of Aleppo, and the determination to go ahead despite the challenges.
Though I may never fully know the feeling of settlement in my life, I will keep fighting for peace and belonging.
Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak. When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God’s guidance and offering counsel to one another?
Advices and queries 27
Quaker Roots are calling on Friends to Witness at the ‘No Faith in War Day’ on Thursday 7th September. In order to be impactful and supportive we are asking Friends to let your life speak, for yourself, God and for those who are silenced due to the Arms Trade.
The day will be multifaith (insh’allah), where Friends and other religions will hold space to Witness before the opening of the DSEI Arms Fair on Tuesday 12th. We will endeavour to make it as accessible as we can. Quaker Roots, along with QPSW (Quaker Peace & Social Witness) and STAF (Stop the Arms Fair) are in the process of organising toilets, a food stall and a pastoral care tent. If you are aware of any other needs you may have please let us know.
For the day to be successful we need Friends, and lots of them. Friends to offer help, Friends to offer practicalities, Friends to join us in organising, Eldering, holding activities (banner making, songs, etc.). If you have an interest in helping out with one of these areas already, it would be great to hear from you, via our ‘get-involved’ page, or on firstname.lastname@example.org (you’re not committing to anything at this stage.)
There will be more details to follow, and other things Quaker Roots are planning; it’s fine if you’ve got questions or need more time before knowing how you might want to join in.
For those who missed our Know Your Rights training, we will be holding another for Quakers nearer the time, and Green & Black Cross (GBC) have two public sessions in May. The GBC website is also a great resource to understand protest law, what our rights are, and basic steps we can take to keep each other safe.
Preparing for Action at DSEI – open meetings each month.
All are welcome to our regular open meetings to hear more about our plans, ask questions and see how you’d like to get involved. See our events page for upcoming dates.
The app and website ‘Y-Stop’ has information on your rights around stop-and-search, as well as a space for you to record searches, challenge the police, and make complaints. It’s a good idea to download Y-Stop if you have a smartphone: https://y-stop.org/.
Take-aways from the Quaker Roots Open Meeting on February 22nd 2023
Quaker Roots held an open meeting to discuss ideas and concerns for action against the DSEI Arms Fair. This is a wee snippet of what came out of that meeting:
The Meeting for Worship outside DSEI Arms Fair is powerful and needs to happen again.
It is important to take action while the Arms Fair is happening and during the set-up week (No Faith in War day).
Taking part in a Merchants of Death tour through London.
Using singing as part of protest.
Working with other faith groups.
Linking with Friends who can’t attend in person, through social media perhaps?
Creating a clear schedule for day of action, so Friends know what is happening.
Having a mic available, so Friends can hear Ministry.
Having a variety of actions for people to do during the day.
Filming the whole event.
Friends hosting local TEDx talks about the importance for peace.
Friends gaining full information about legal rights and recent changes in protest law.
London Friends providing accommodation and food for travelling Friends.
We want to have a large presence of Friends.
Clear information and messaging for Friends to have at hand, leaflets etc.
Creating links between migrations, environment and conflict.
Have placards available for Friends to just pick up.
We also decided that it is important to have continuing open meetings, and Friends are invited to contribute and come with ideas. The next meeting will have time set aside to talk about how Friends can contribute further to make sure ideas happen.
In 2019, Maya produced this great little zine, to help remind us how to prepare for DSEI practically & spiritually, so we’re sharing again for 2021!
If you want to print it, you can download our ‘Things to bring to DSEI’ zine (you can simply print it on A4 and then fold it up into a little booklet) – otherwise, see the individual images below for what you can bring!
Please note, this article was written before the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in the USA, and the necessary conversations and protests about police brutality and structural racism both in that country and elsewhere that have followed. As the Quaker Roots core group we recognise that we have more to learn about these issues, our own complicity and ignorance, and that we need to reflect on our own structures and behaviours. We hope that you will engage with this process too, and have added some related links in the ‘Further reading’ section.
Before and after the Roots action last September we had questions from a number of Quakers about what our action consensus says about police engagement (the action consensus was a set of guidelines on how to approach our actions as part of the No Faith in War day, and can be found here). The part that seemed to give rise to the most questions was why we asked those engaged in the action not to hold ‘extended conversations with police officers’.
There are lots of different reasons why this was our approach, and we thought it would be helpful to explain them. We want to be transparent, and also to move forward conversations at a local level about this issue. We hope this is an opportunity for education and development for Quakers as activists.
The reasons for our approach include: taking the same approach as other groups across the whole week of action, making sure the protest space we create is open to all who want to participate, avoiding being party to information-gathering and inadvertently assisting in surveillance, and recognising the bigger picture within which all interactions with the police take place. Finally, we say something of what we think a ‘Quaker’ response to the police could be.
This article was written by Hannah, a Roots activist, with input from the Quaker Roots core group. This is quite a lengthy document, because it is an exploration of lots of issues, rather than a statement.
Being consistent with groups we’re taking action with
Firstly, we took the approach we did partly to be in line with other groups taking action as part of the Stop the Arms Fair week of action. This was in part a matter of consistency, so that people attending actions over the week were asked to uphold a similar approach to protest e.g. acting nonviolently, over the whole week of action. Importantly, it is also an acknowledgement that we were not ‘going it alone’. Roots working alone in this context would be almost impossible to imagine: we set the network up in order to take action initially against the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair, as part of the long-established and experienced Stop the Arms Fair coalition. We were acting to support them, not be independent of them.
Furthermore, part of recognising that we are taking action within a network of groups is recognising who those groups are, and what we can learn from them and – maybe someday – teach. Across the whole week of action, groups taking part come from a wide range of communities and issue-campaigns, so they are much more diverse than Quaker communities in this country tend to be. This means we have things to learn from them.
Keeping the space safe for all, including those who fear the police
Next, we want and need the movements that we are part of (whether that be the peace movement, the climate justice movement, or economic and social justice struggles) to be diverse and to especially give space to and empower leadership from those who are ‘at the sharp end’ of these injustices. If they do not, these movements will be counterproductive. In order to do this we need to prioritise the relationships of people in the movement. We want to live out allyship by using protest spaces to speak and make connections with those who are part of the movement, rather than with the police. That’s our priority.
Everyone should remember that your own view of the police as an institution and as individual officers is shaped by your own personal privilege and status (a topic very live within Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment). This topic has a number of different facets. For example, whilst middle class, white people might feel fine having a friendly conversation with a police officer, people of colour, people with insecure immigration statuses, trans people and others, have sometimes had very negative experiences of the police, or may be more anxious since they know that they are more likely to suffer police brutality, or are disproportionately targeted e.g. by stop and searches. When those who feel comfortable engaging with police (because of their privilege) do so, it can make members of marginalised groups feel less safe and less welcome in those spaces. This is particularly ironic, given that black and brown people are more likely to face the violent consequences of weapons sales, both in the UK and worldwide. If we act in ways that deter people who are more likely to be affected by the very thing we’re protesting against from joining resistance struggles, this should give us pause and make us question and reassess our behaviour. Take the experience of the Wretched of the Earth in the 2015 March for Climate, Justice and Jobs as a sobering example: as they put it, the way they were treated on the day of the demonstration indicated a ‘colonial mentality’ which echoed the ‘history of conquest, genocide, and slavery’ at the ‘foundation of our modern economic system – the very system responsible for the global disaster that is climate change’. We do not want to recreate the militarist, racist mentalities that we protest against.
As a white, middle-class, cisgendered person I know instinctively that I still often see individual police officers as people who might help me in difficult situations. This is despite having witnessed huge numbers of negative experiences that people have had with police officers (and having had them myself), especially on protests, and despite hearing about decades of historic abuses against the LGBTQ* community of which I am part. This trust is very deeply ingrained in many people of my status and background. And it is not the same for everyone: quite the reverse.
‘Racist policing happened at last year’s DSEI as it happened at previous ones. If you can ignore this and expect to be treated well, that’s a luxury.’
There are real and recent experiences of different groups being differently policed at DSEI, and we do not believe this is coincidental. Repeatedly, we have observed and heard of smaller groups, or groups with more black and brown activists, being policed more heavily than the larger, older and whiter groups – which are also those that usually attend faith actions, including Quaker ones (I am by no means saying the No Faith in War day does not have people of colour participating – it did and has done at every one I’ve attended). Racist policing happened at last year’s DSEI as it happened at previous ones. If you can ignore this and expect to be treated well, that’s a luxury. I heard numerous accounts from Quakers saying that they felt the police treated them well (either at the day of action or during arrest later). That’s fine, but please do not extrapolate this experience out to everyone who was at the DSEI protests over the week, because it was not a universal experience.
Choices of protest tactics can also make some groups feel more excluded. Extinction Rebellion groups have been criticised, for example, for the emphasis on arrest as an aim. As Athian Akec, UK Youth Parliament member for Camden put it in his article When I look at Extinction Rebellion, all I see is white faces. That has to change ‘One friend of mine was stop-and-searched by the police 12 times last year. When I told him that the Extinction Rebellion protesters were purposefully getting themselves arrested, he rolled his eyes in sheer irritation. “That’s not an option for black people,” he said, adding that if he was arrested, the police would undoubtedly treat him differently, and his future career prospects might also be destroyed. The tactic of deliberately seeking arrest has further alienated disenfranchised communities like mine who, across generations, have had bad experiences with the police.”’ This fact informs Roots actions now and will in the future.
Affecting the police’s view of other groups, by comparison
Moreover, it’s inevitable that groups of activists will be compared to each other and that that comparison – be it conscious or unconscious – may be used to impose different kinds of police response. This is especially true when, as in the Stop the Arms Fair week of action, consecutive action days are being led by different struggles/campaigns e.g. stop arming Israel, no border, climate emergency, no faith in war, etc., and when other distinct groups, e.g. Kurdish community groups, also attend together. When a large group of predominantly (though not exclusively) white, older, middle-class-looking people – like Quakers – (who might generally expect to have neutral or positive encounters with the police) have ‘friendly’ conversations with police officers, it makes those who may want a more distant relationship (because they have had generally worse experiences of policing in their communities) look actively uncooperative by comparison. These differences can also serve to reinforce police biases. Both of these factors can result in groups that are less cooperative being confronted by a more defensive/aggressive style of policing.
I have noticed this in other contexts, where Quakers come to look like the ‘acceptable’ face of protesting, and others by comparison look threatening, merely for doing something other than what looks to outsiders like a load of people being quiet i.e. a meeting for worship. When a group of us were regularly protesting a fossil fuel company’s sponsorship of the British Museum by holding meetings for worship in the atrium a few years back, a manager once said “We like it when the Quakers come, you’re very easy to manage”. Maybe that’s OK in some ways, but it’s not very fair when other groups who try to be even slightly more interventionist end up looking confrontational by comparison, and are treated worse as a result – as if protesters should be expected to be completely docile, and Quakers are model examples of this.
A diverse range of people usually take action as part of the DSEI week of action, much more so than other movements that some of us have been involved in. We’ve had the opportunity to hear feedback from previous occasions, which is important since a lot of those people’s life experiences are not well represented within Quaker activist circles, so we have a lot to learn, and we really want to listen and respond to what they tell us.
Avoiding facilitating information-gathering and surveillance
Furthermore, during interactions with the police at protests, many of us will have had bad experiences of surveillance and information-gathering. What might look like small talk can be used to gather information on yourself and your fellow protesters: information which might have very serious consequences, for example being used in evidence against someone in court, or to commence deportation proceedings if their immigration status is not secure (have a look at a video about the role of police liaison officers from NetPol). Such information can also be used to prevent planned actions from taking place, because of police interference.
Police liaison officers are specially trained to do this information-gathering work in a ‘friendly’ way, so it’s quite easy to let things slip once they have gained your confidence. And it’s a really horrible feeling when you realise you’ve inadvertently shared something you do not have permission to share, or something which might incriminate someone else or put them at risk, or mean an action has less chance of success. Sometimes better (as a Roots activist from Scotland put it) to “keep schtum”?
The bigger picture
Finally, I am always aware when I am speaking to someone in a police uniform that this is never just an interaction between two people. It may be that as well, but ultimately police personnel are part of a system of security and control; a system that is willing to brutalise people in order to defend existing power structures. At protests, they are present to report on and gather intelligence from every interaction. They very rarely share their personal beliefs, but are performing a task that they have been given, and one that if they refuse to do, they will face reprimand, and perhaps even lose their job. They are also, at DSEI, not who we are at a demonstration to engage with and primarily to challenge – that is in this case the arms industry (companies, government involvement, etc). This of course involves the police (there are some great resources about police militarisation springing up), but we are there to stop DSEI, not focus on the police.
A Quakerly approach to police officers?
We understand that this approach to the police may differ from the approach some Quakers have taken in the past in other actions, and might feel strange and new. This has been the case for some in the Roots core group, too.
As Quakers, we acknowledge and are called to answer that of God in everyone (members of the police, arms dealers, protesters: everyone), and theologically and experientially, we recognise that anyone may be transformed by the Spirit at any time (I am cheekily reminded of the Seize the Day song P.C. 365, in which a constable who’d been policing the Faslane 365 protests changed ‘sides’ and decided to join the blockade right at the end…Sadly, though not surprisingly, this was a fictional account). However, this transformation does not necessarily happen only when we use words to persuade people i.e. don’t think that because you are not trying to talk a police officer round to what we’re doing, they’re not able to be affected by Quaker witness. I think that the Spirit can do things with and without us, through us and unbeknown to us. People can and do leave police forces because of what they see inside of the institution, and perhaps the treatment of social justice protesters contributes to this. We’ll still do what we do: singing songs, blocking roads, holding meetings for worship, standing our ground, trying to live the kingdom… and this can still have an impact on those witnessing it – police officers and others. I’ve never felt that in those moments, it was my powers of spoken persuasion that were going to be the most significant thing. Actions can speak louder than words.
‘….the Spirit can do things with and without us, through us and unbeknown to us.’
I know that many Quakers choose to respond individually to police officers specifically because they do not want to recognise or bow to the kind of dehumanising effect that uniforms can have. I’ve heard a lot of Quakers want to reject that, and go out of their way to see the unique individual ‘behind the uniform’. I want to acknowledge that impulse, but also to remind Friends that the ability to do that – to want to trust, take a risk, and respect and be courteous and warm to someone who has the ability to detain you which might mean your livelihood and long-term liberty is at risk, is a luxury which many do not have. I value the kind of ‘live as you want the world to be’ approach which in this circumstance would see everyone, whoever they are, as a human worthy of a conversation. Indeed, our action consensus opens: ‘We understand that throughout our action we will encounter many different people, including staff from the ExCeL centre, police officers, security guards, truck drivers, members of the public. We will recognise the humanity of all those we encounter, approaching them with dignity and respect.’ But I want that instinct to be understood in the context of power relations as they are in the world we live in. In this context, I believe that being called to be both salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) means being allies to those protesting with us and those who suffer through the arms trade first and foremost, and being light to all present, but without endangering those who we work alongside, which friendly relations with police officers present can do.
These are some of the reasons our action consensus reads as it does, and we hope you can respect the approach, even if it differs from the approach you have taken in the past. All of this should be looked at in the context of a broader discussion around power and privilege, within Quakers and in our wider society. As a reminder, Roots are committed to nonviolence and do not advocate for violence towards police officers, or anyone else. What we were, and are, advocating, is for an understanding of how structural violence and inequality affects protests, and the people on them.
Hannah Brock Womack, on behalf of the Quaker Roots core group
If you’re interested in finding out more about policing and/or protest (or in general), here are some places you could start:
Here at Roots of Resistance we are incredibly grateful for the support of Friends who have gotten involved in various ways since we started, and especially as we took action against the DSEI arms fair last September.
Many people have offered their skills or spaces, volunteering their time and resources to make our network come to life. Roots is people-powered, but it also requires some money to make things happen, and some of the support we’ve been given is financial, through individuals, meetings and trust funds. Without this support, a lot of what we’ve been able to do wouldn’t have happened.
In the interests of transparency and accountability, we’re sharing an update of our finances.
Since we opened a bank account in April 2019, we have received the following income:
From individuals: £428
From Quaker meetings: £624
From Quaker trust funds: £2500
Of that, we have thus far spent:
£1374 enabling Friends to attend Roots of Resistance trainings, organising meetings, the action in September at the arms fair itself, and the debrief day afterwards. This was mostly spent on travel, but also on childcare for some trainings
£489 on equipment for the action on 3rd September
£129 on online support for our meeting (mostly in a subscription for Zoom, which we held meetings and online trainings on, many of which were recorded for use after the event)
We therefore still have c. £1350 in our account. We are incredibly grateful for the support from Friends, and will continue to use the money not yet spent in resisting the arms trade through actions in the future.
I have shouted in the streets against the Iraq war, Nuclear Arms, EDL, Monsanto and Climate chaos but never have really felt my deepest conscience so loudly until I sat in silence in the street at London Excel centre in September.
A year and a half before September 2019 and rumblings about Roots of Resistance slowly pulsed in the Quakersphere. Things were happening in my periphery, my quite distant periphery I am ashamed to say, a year and a half is a mighty long time away. Though this small yet determined group were setting the stage for a Quaker strong show of resistance of the Arms Trade. For me this only came into focus a week or two before the allotted time in September. Nonchalantly rocking up to find my place within the spiritual circle that was so diligently cushioned by the organisational powers of Roots of Resistance.
At Friends house on the Monday we came as groups and individuals to mould together as one which for me is a gift of Quakers, a collective hive……. though not to say there aren’t some disgruntled strong-minded bees that need a wee bit more cajoling into place. We are perfectly imperfect. Learning songs of revolutions and protests gone by, holding stillness in preparation of what is to come. ‘Don’t forget your bustcard!’ was a constant cry, well I thought I don’t need one of those. I had made a conscious choice not to get arrested so no need to know solicitors’ numbers or what to say at police stations. That was still true up until the point a police liaison officer shouted, ‘move off the road’ and my conscience made me put my bag on my back and clip it tight. Luckily earlier I had slipped one of those bustcards into my pocket after all.
But I’m going ahead of myself. When I alighted from the rail transport outside the Excel Centre, I quickly found myself on the end of a Catholic procession. We slowly made our way through to the silent gathering that stood, placards aloft and peaceful faces resolute. I quickly learned that the roads had been held since early in the morning by strong collective action. A small number of purposeful folk are mighty. Throughout the day, worships of many faiths occurred and intermingled. The crowd swelled to a sizeable number. The hard work of a few Quaker had brought the collective passion of many.
The second Meeting for Worship brimmed with impassioned song and ministry. My thoughts were guided by those people who couldn’t be with us in that road. The people who had been murdered, injured, traumatised and displaced from their homes and lives because of the weapons industry. The industry that was trying to set up a show home just a few meters away, to display their wears like toys for the wealthy, without conscious or care of who was going to be on the sharp end of the machines. So, when I heard ‘move off the road’, I fastened my bag tight and sat, waiting. Though, I felt I took very little part in the immovable predicament I found myself in. There was such stillness, such peace that the loud voice of my faith, conscience and the collective power that felt like it resonated through all of us glued me fast to the tarmac. ‘dear friend, dear friend……’ the song on our breath binding us all with strength to be where we needed to be.
Being lifted off that road by the officers, felt like a journey in itself. Moving from a place of spiritual strength and unity to the slow walk into a harsh individualistic world. This was brutal, the power of my conviction running in droplets down my face, which the officers mistook for fear. As I try and
answer uncertainly the police officers’ questions, I am quickly informed by them that ‘we are not the enemy’. Later I contemplate the officer’s words, playing my lost response back in my head ‘no you are not the enemy, merely a vessel for those who hold the stacks of money, and so you are nothing to me’.
The police station was easier, in some regards. I had emerged from the grasp of the Light and was able to be me, as much as a person can ever be truly themselves in a brightly tiled white box. With this, I felt strongly the physical presence of Privilege. There were moments of uncertainty and feelings of trepidation when asking for what I needed but overwhelmingly I felt a sense of entitlement. I felt able to speak abruptly to the officers who were disrespecting me, I felt able to ask for endless cups of water and to look past the power dynamics at play into the eyes of the officers. I felt peace, on the most part, in my cell. This I am sure is not everyone’s experience. A holding cell is a disorientating and isolated place which would easily be made worse if a person felt unsafe or forgotten. Being released six hours later into the warm embrace of people I knew and people I didn’t, made me very aware of why many centuries ago we became known as Friends.
The protests raged on for a whole week outside the Excel centre. Incredible people putting their bodies aligned with their convictions. Does it all make a difference, well only time will tell. I do know for certain that this experience has changed me and the way I want to protest. Bring on the gentle anger.