The New Zealand Man Trying to Draw Attention to the Abduction of a Syrian Schoolteacher
Earlier this month, Usama Ajjan disappeared along with three Spanish journalists in Aleppo. But while the Spaniards made international news, Usama largely did not.
Earlier this month, a man named Usama Ajjan went missing. He was reportedly kidnapped while driving in Aleppo with two other Syrians and three Spanish journalists. Gunmen pulled them over, let the two other Syrians go free, and kidnapped Usama and the three Spaniards: Antonio Pampliega, José Manuel López, and Ángel Sastre.
But Usama's disappearance didn't make the news, and it continues to be largely ignored by the wider world.
A New York Times article about the kidnapping uses a photo of the Spanish journalists from Usama's Facebook page, but credits the image to "Ahmad Ajjan, via Associated Press" (Ahmad is Usama's brother). It refers to Usama in the article only as "the group's fixer," and does not mention whether he was taken along with the others. It is one of many articles that sports Usama's photos without mentioning his name even once.
Usama is a Syrian schoolteacher, but he seems to have been working as a translator and fixer for the Spanish journalists when they were kidnapped.
And he had been doing some journalism of his own before he was kidnapped. A couple months prior, he'd started submitting photos to an amateur news site about Middle Eastern affairs based out of a small New Zealand city.
Steve Addison runs that website. He found out about Usama's disappearance on Wednesday, as the news about the Spanish journalists was breaking internationally. Since then, he's been running a miniature awareness-raising campaign about Usama from his home in Dunedin. He managed to alert people at Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders to Usama's disappearance, but he's struggled to make any real headway in getting Usama's name into media stories.
Addison is not the most obvious person to be running the campaign. He lives over 9,900 miles away, he doesn't speak Arabic—"I point and smile," he texted me—and it's not like he has heaps of experience with this stuff. He's also never been to Syria—the closest he's gotten is the Jordanian border—and he's never met Usama in person. They know each other exclusively online. But Usama's his friend, he says, and he therefore wants to make sure Usama is included in hostage negotiations, if any ever take place. Besides that, he's not quite sure what else to do.
VICE: How did you find out Usama had gone missing?
Steve Addison: I was asked by a friend in common if I had heard from him, because she was worried, she hadn't heard from him in some time. I contacted an acquaintance who had just returned from Aleppo to Australia, and he was able to confirm he had just heard that Usama had gone missing.
When you found out he had gone missing, how did you feel?
Pretty devastated. You know that these things happen in Syria, and particularly in Aleppo. But when it happens, it's still a shock. And I'm concerned about the fact that they let two people go and still bothered to take him. The Spanish journalists have publicity value, and they have financial value. Usama has neither financial nor publicity value. So it worries me in terms of what their intentions may be. Because he doesn't have the value to them that the Spanish journalists do. I suppose [this article] might give him some of that value.
What did you do when you heard the news?
I checked with his brother before I did anything. I said, "You're his brother, do you want me to try to get some publicity, or is it going to hurt?" And his view was, "No, after ten days, it can't hurt. If they were going to let him go, they were going to do it by now. We have to do something different." That's when I started trying to get some awareness of the fact that he was taken along with the Spanish journalists.
I've been in touch with Amnesty International, they've been great, they noted the case through their Syrian office in London, they're aware of it. I've been in contact with Reporters Without Borders, because I think that it's important people know there are four, not three people, who were kidnapped. And it's important that all four come back.
Did it surprise you at that time that international media weren't reporting that he had been with the Spanish journalists?
It does. And it concerns me. Usama is going out of his way to help journalists, he is risking his life through his fundraising, through the awareness work he's involved in. He's as worthy of a mention as foreign people who go to Aleppo to cover what's happening.
So Usama's full-time job is teaching, and he also does fixing and translating for journalists, and some community journalism himself?
The journalism is something that I guess I've tried to engage Usama in. I'd made contact with him through social media. Usama's set up a Facebook page, called A Little Help Is Enough. And he uses it to fundraise, there's quite a network of people on that Facebook site, and quite a few of us will touch base and trade messages through that. Because we all have a common interest in Syria.
Since I've been to Jordan last year and went to some of the refugee camps, we've started a bit of a fledgling website where we aim to give people in conflict zones a voice. And Usama has embraced the concept, and got on board. He's mainly been sending in photos at this stage, to post along with a few words about what's been happening in those photos. So he's been pretty keen on the project, and we've spoken a lot, and it's one of the things that's made it quite devastating, because I feel that I've gotten to know him quite well over the past couple of months. We chat on the WhatsApp app, which seems to be the chosen way of chatting in the Middle East, and keep in pretty regular contact.
What was he fundraising for?
He fundraises for school materials and uniforms and clothing, etc.
What do you know about how his friends and family in Syria are dealing with his kidnapping?
I've seen an awful lot of support on social media for him. His brother seems to be very much taking charge, which is wonderful. I think one of the sad things is that they are all so accustomed to death and disappearance. And I guess what concerns me most is the lack of hope that I see from people in Aleppo who know about his situation. I think we have a naïve hope in the West that things will be okay. And I don't see any sense of optimism from those who know him best, who are living in Syria.
Do you feel weird going into it with that optimism?
It does seem a bit naïve, actually. I think you do what you can, and it's important to document that he is there and what has happened to him. I have every hope that he will be freed, and that he's not being harmed. But it does feel somewhat naïve and optimistic to think that what we're doing in the West could make any difference to what's happening on the ground in Aleppo.
And you've been trying to talk to Spanish media about Usama?
I was contacted by the Spanish media, and put them in touch with his Facebook page, in the hope that he would be included in the story. And they have lifted the photos, they have sourced them to him, and not mentioned him at all, which is pretty disappointing. And I've been quite angry about that.
And you told them, this is someone who was taken along with the Spanish journalists?
That's right, I was very clear.
Has it been frustrating so far trying to talk about Usama in the media?
I've found local media extremely helpful. International media seems to be disinterested in anyone who's not Western.
Amnesty International's London office confirmed that Addison had contacted them. "Our research team has been checking with our Syria contacts to try to find out more information but have no news at this time. We will continue to look into the matter," a spokeswoman said.
In an email to Steve, Reporters Without Borders said it had included Usama's name in a press release, but "Unfortunately, at the time of the writing, we did not know much about him so we only put one sentence."
"Now you that you sent me this useful [information]," the email went on, "I'll make sure to mention him and his work in our next publication or in any contact with people we have."
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