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Story Publication logo August 1, 2012

In Turkey, a New Life for Syrian Activist


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From afar Turkey is a model for others. But within the country, Turks wrangle over their legacy and...

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Mahmoud Hassino. Image by Bradley Secker. Turkey, 2012.

ISTANBUL–Mahmoud Hassino is not stuck anymore.

Though he has no place to call home, he has freed himself.

He got stuck when he fled Syria nine months ago for Turkey and soon sensed that his life in exile had become pointless.

He had fled because the two rebellions he was waging were getting dangerous for him.

One was for Syria and one was for himself, a gay man in a country where he was considered an outsider, and a criminal under Syrian law.

An arts and culture writer for a Syrian magazine, he had put his talents into his battle for Syria by spreading the word about the uprising when it took off in 2011.

He helped the uprising's message flow on in print with leaflets and underground newspapers and new websites on the Internet. Any way that he could possibly think of he tried.

He had also joined a like-minded group of mostly gay and lesbian Syrians in Damascus and they linked up with other Syrians in the opposition underground and soon they had an underground network that sprawled across Syria.

At first, most were strangers.

"The Arab Spring inspired us. We thought we could do something and we could feel that were recruiting more people," he said.

Never before had he been an activist. But with people dying in protests or losing their jobs because they had signed petitions or had spoken up, he felt caught up and stepped forward.

One of the hopes that united him and his friends when they met almost nightly was that change would come peacefully.

"But when they–the government–started killing children, we thought if they don't care about children, it would be impossible to do anything. I was the most pessimistic of all," he recalled.

One still hopeful friend believed they could win peacefully and kept trying to make that point. He would go up to soldiers lined up at a confrontation and hand them flowers.

"But they arrested and killed him," Mahmoud says flatly.

The day before he left, five more close friends were arrested. Another friend was killed soon after trying to reach the Turkish border.

As for his other battle – his rebellion – he had decided after years of uncertainty and fears to become more open about his homosexuality.

He had started a blog a few years before about being gay in Syria, but he wrote anonymously. He had struggled for years to deal with his sexuality and now wanted to help Syrians like himself who knew what they were facing.

In the new mood of Syria, he felt enlivened, charged to win this battle, too.

But word of his daring spread to powerful relatives, who threatened to do something against him to protect their family name.

So he fled.

But not to a refugee camp, as have thousands now in Turkey. He came to Istanbul, where he thought he could work and start over.

He couldn't. At least, at first.

"I really felt lost. I didn't want to leave the country," he said. Unable to access his Syrian bank account, he went hungry for days and scrambled for work.

Along with a foreign videographer, he visited the Syrian refugee camps set up by the Turkish government near the Syrian border and was overcome by despair. People were suffering from the shock of war and little was being done for them.

"Children 14- 15-years-old were still wetting their beds. And the people in the camps were being manipulated. They were being told, 'You are lucky you are alive. People are dying.' Some camps were not getting enough food. But I couldn't do anything. I wanted to make a difference. I was upset."

He disagreed with some of the refugees and didn't like what he heard from them. He thought his battle for Syria was over and it was time to move on.

Then came a chance to help a foreign photographer inside of Syria. He went along and worked on his own documentary as well. It's about the youth of Syria and what the struggle has done to them.

That was when he got unstuck.

He met Syrians who were optimistic and had not, as he feared, been turned into monsters. "They didn't want revenge." But he also met Syrians who were suffering greatly.

He decided he wouldn't leave Syria no matter where he lived. Instead of putting Syria behind as he was thinking, he would "work in my way for Syria."

He would finish his video about the children. He would finish his book and find a publisher for his novel about a young gay man in Syria. He would keep up his blog about being gay in Syria and the Arab world.

He didn't know where he would do this and that has been a worry because he has no visa and his chances of staying in Turkey are uncertain.

But that doesn't matter now.

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