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In Ancient Aleppo, Plotting The Future

Syrians carry a large revolution flag and chant slogans during a protest in Aleppo, Syria, where young people and children sang songs against President Bashar Assad and the Syrian regime, Dec. 21, 2012.
Virginie Nguyen Hoang
Syrians carry a large revolution flag and chant slogans during a protest in Aleppo, Syria, where young people and children sang songs against President Bashar Assad and the Syrian regime, Dec. 21, 2012.

A soft-spoken, clean-shaven, 31-year-old aid worker hopes to determine, in part, the future of Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

In a rare test of democracy, Abdul Rahman Kahir won a seat on the Aleppo provincial council in a vote on March 3. The 29-member council is an attempt to restore civilian rule in the rebel-held province of 6 million people. The balloting, carried out by 224 electors, was held in a Turkish hotel near the Syrian border because of security concerns in Aleppo, a province swept by deadly violence since July.

Despite all of the obstacles, Kahir says the vote was a good start.

"It's a chance to rebuild our community again," he says.

Aleppo was Syria's commercial capital, a modern city that now suffers from shortages of water, flour and electricity and widespread destruction. Disease is rampant because of festering piles of garbage.

President Bashar Assad's military launches bombing runs and ballistic missile strikes almost daily. A few weeks before he came to southern Turkey to vote, Kahir was out on the street in Aleppo in the early evening when a Scud missile hit the Jabal Badro neighborhood.

"It looked like Judgment Day, with the light and the sound," he says, estimating that he was 300 feet from the explosion.

The first thing he did was find a place to hide, Kahir says. Then he went to the bomb sites and started taking people to the hospital.

Kahir won top votes in the election for the provincial council because of his work as an activist, organizing aid distributions in the city and in the province.

"A lot of people trust me," he says, explaining his election success.

He joined the revolt in 2011, when Aleppo's rebellion was limited to a few activists and students. He was forced to quit his job as a customs official in Aleppo's industrial center when his name appeared on a wanted list. He fled the country and spent time in Jordan, the Gulf and Turkey, finally returning to Aleppo last summer.

"I couldn't do anything outside Syria, and the most important thing is we have to finish this," he says.

Kahir never considered joining armed rebels. A banking and finance major in college, he started working on aid distribution, collecting donations from businessmen who supported the revolt. He organized neighborhood groups to distribute the aid.

"After that, we divided the city into 10 sectors," he says — including one in the government-held part of Aleppo, covering the district where he grew up. He prodded each neighborhood committee to elect a leader.

Six months ago, he created a union of aid workers to streamline the system. He had the clout and the network to convince the Turkish government to donate more than a thousand tons of flour when Aleppo's bakeries had run out of reserves and prices were skyrocketing in January.

These unofficial civilian groups, mostly run by a generation of young activists, have held Aleppo — both the city and the province — together. The challenge for the newly elected council is to win wider legitimacy. Armed rebel groups are the recognized power across the province, and ultraconservative Islamist militias have tried to win over the population by distributing flour and fuel.

Kahir and the other young activists running for the provincial council could have won all 29 seats in a vote that was limited to the 224 electors chosen to represent Aleppo and provincial towns.

But some stepped aside to allow older, more established opposition figures to sit on the council. Kahir explains that it was a strategic decision to share responsibility with an older generation to build trust among a war-weary population. They have life experience, he says.

"The young people are always thinking so fast, and we always think we can do everything," Kahir explains. "It must be run by young people, but with the older generation to help."

Syria's revolution was started by young people who saw the older generation as subdued into silence by the oppressive Assad regime. They organized demonstrations, navigated social media, faced arrest and torture, and joined armed rebel militias. Now in Aleppo, the first free election brings Kahir closer to his goal since his first demonstration: a democratic system in Syria, where everyone in the country will have a vote.

"I am so tired, but you always see there is a lot of work to do," he says. "We have no time to rest."

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Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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