Exactly one year ago, Zaina Erhaim was stopped at Heathrow airport. She was searched and questioned, before her passport confiscated. The document had been reported stolen by her home country of Syria.
This apparent intervention by Bashar al-Assad – and the UK’s inaction – becomes all the more shocking when you consider Erhaim’s unrivalled credentials: a journalist who was awarded the Index on Censorship freedom of expression award earlier that year, a writer, film-maker and human-rights activist. At the time she was held, she had been travelling to Write On Kew literary festival to talk about her experiences, which include risking her life to move to besieged Aleppo to train around 100 citizen reporters to report on their experiences.
Erhaim took the incident especially to heart because of her strong connection to the UK. As well as studying journalism in London on the Chevening Scholarship – which is funded by the Foreign Commonwealth Office – she also worked for BBC Arabic and has written for publications including The Guardian and The Economist.
“I was so frustrated that this was happening in the UK. I’m really so exposed and there’s nothing I could do,” explained Erhaim, who is now based with husband Mahmoud Rashwani and 18-month-old daughter Zara in Turkey, after fleeing Syria in late 2015. “You think that being on the right side of human rights will help you eventually, but they clearly decided to stand with a dictator over a journalist.”
Over the past year, Erhaim’s freedom of travel has been severely restricted, and she’s been forced to miss three film and journalism festivals. Only last month, at great expense, was she able to obtain her new two-year passport from the Syrian authorities in Turkey.
The scary thing is that if this happened to me and I’m known in Syria, what about those who are local, regular people who are being treated like this and no one knows about it?
Yet, the 32-year-old says, her main aim of making the event public was to prevent it from happening to others. “The scary thing is that if this happened to me and I’m known in Syria, what about those who are local, regular people who are being treated like this and no one knows about it? Imagine how many people are going through this.”
This selflessness is characteristic throughout Erhaim’s work, which was recognised last weekend in Verden, Germany, with the inaugural Anita Augspurg Women Rebels Against War prize. The award for a “strong stand against war expressing the acknowledgement of women struggling for peace” was bestowed by the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organisation founded by feminist pioneer Anita Augspurg, born in the same town 160 years ago.
The award is fitting for Erhaim, who has had to fight for her rights for as long as she can remember, from refusing to wear a hijab as a teenager in her conservative home city of Idlib, to being derided for wanting to become a journalist.
These experiences, and those of living in war, heavily inform Erhaim’s work as a film-maker. Her Syria’s Rebellious Women (2015) is a moving series of short films documenting the lives of ordinary women caught up in conflict.
“Particularly in the last couple of years, many regimes – and I think the media has joined them in this – have shamed the word 'rebel', as if rebels were troublemakers, trying to make people’s lives miserable,” she commented. “They eliminated the idea that these rebels were trying to make life better for people, not just to make them feel miserable or live in poor conflict. Focusing on that name with a focus on women, that was very exciting for me.”
As Syria coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Erhaim is now working on helping women tell their stories through blogs and videos on the Syria Stories website. She is also heading a “liberated-t” social-media project to fight negative gender stereotypes on women, for her symbolised in the masculinity of the Arabic language.
And while her run-in with authorities over her passport might have been an ordeal, there are now much more bigger issues at stake, she says. “At least in London I knew they couldn’t deport me to Damascus, they wouldn’t put me in prison, and for me that’s the best that I can hope for. If this had happened in neighbouring countries, I could be delivered back to the region and could easily be killed by torture.
“As a Syrian, we’ve seen the worst, so even such a very big matter as confiscating my passport doesn’t seem so bad compared to everything else.”
For now, Erhaim is focusing is on a different kind of documentation.
“I have this duty for Syria. I can't be there any more, so at least I can help those who are writing our history. When people are saying men are doing this and that, someone can show them a document or a visual document to say no – there are women who were doing this and this is really what happened.”