Northern Syria is surely not a place that produces much good news at the moment. The Syrian civil war is in its fourth year, the advance of the Islamic State has shown to the world what atrocities Syrians have to face and the desperate struggle for Kobani is still not decided. And yet one can find stories of cooperation, tolerance and hope in this very region. This is the tale of ARTA FM, a very special Radio station; and of its founder Siruan H. Hossein, who Checks&Balances had the opportunity to talk to. (You can find the complete Interview here.)
When Siruan H. Hossein arrived in Syria´s Kurdish region in 2013, he came with a project in mind. Hossein had previously worked for the German radio station WDR and its Funkhaus Europa series, a multilingual program that tries to bring together Germans and the many immigrant groups in the country.
In northern Syria, one can find a wide variety of nationalities and languages as well. Here, on a relatively small area Kurds live together with Arab Sunni Muslims as well as Syrian and Armenian Christians. In these surroundings Hossein set up ARTA FM: a trilingual, explicitly non-political and non-religious radio station. The first show went on Air on the 6th of July in 2013. Broadcasting from Amuda only at first, ARTA tries to make radio for the locals, produced by the locals and about local affairs. In order to achieve this Hossein had previously trained a multi-ethnic team of Kurds, Arabs and Syriac (Syrian Christian) people.
Today ARTA broadcasts from four different cities: Amuda, Qamishli, al-Malikiya (Kurdish: Dêrik) and Ras al-Ayn (Kurdish: Serê Kaniyê). All of these lie on the Turkish-Syrian border, in an area mostly controlled by Syria´s Kurdish community. Nevertheless the program is truly multicultural: ARTA has separate Arab and Kurdish editorial boards, both of which support each other in making programs in their respective language. They produce about 15 hours of program day; mostly news and other informational programs. On top of that the station in Qamishli produces a daily two hour program in Syriac, the language of the Christian communities in the region. Later this year programs in Armenian shall follow.
When asked about the motives which have led him to found ARTA FM Hossein is very clear:
The idea behind ARTA is to give the people of Northern Syria, all of them, a voice.[…] ARTA FM shall function as a bridge between the different ethnical and religious groups in the region. Therefore tolerance, respect and mutual recognition are very important values at ARTA. […] The region´s problems can only be solved successfully if the different groups work together.
But of course the story of Arta FM is not only a story of noble goals and great achievements. They were also setbacks and struggles. For example, Arta used to have a broadcasting station in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). The town has gained a sad reputation in recent weeks for being the desperate battleground between ISIL and the Kurds, who are backed by US led air support. Houssein told Checks&Balances about the difficulties
At first the local Kurdish government prohibited ARTA from broadcasting in this sensible area; later, with the advance of ISIL, it became too dangerous to go back.
The advance of ISIL in general has of course complicated the work of ARTA. While the situation in the other four cities has so far been relatively safe, the dangers of war are not far away here either:
The fighting can reach us at every moment because ISIL is an unpredictable force.
The people in Northern Syria are expecting more support for the international community, says Houssein. The most urgent matter is the general opening of a border crossing with Turkey, so that civilian refugees can legally enter Turkey. At the moment they are trapped in a deadly space between ISIL, the Assad regime and the Turkish and Iraqi borders.
At last Siruan H. Hossein shared with us his hopes for Syria´s future:
I want to live in a Syria that is free of oppression and discrimination. […] The people here are sick of dictatorship. They want to live in order and peace. And even though it will be a long and tough way until then, I think we can reach that goal. I want to live in Syria forever and give Syrians a voice.