Syrian activist Naji Jerf was known by many as el-Khal - or uncle - for his mentorship and training of many young people in the revolutionary movement. Jerf was assassinated by suspected Islamic State group gunmen in Geziantep, Turkey while bringing lunch back to his family in December.
There has been a good deal of coverage of his death, but the core of his work and his dedication and contributions to the Syrian revolution have often been overlooked by English media. Born in 1977 from a Leftist family, Jerf grew up in Salamiyah, a city renowned for its role in the Syrian revolution. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Tishreen University and worked as an al-Jazeera documentary producer in Damascus until the beginning of the revolution.
When protests against the regime erupted in Syria, Jerf moved back to his home town and became one of the city’s most prominent activists, drawing on his background in order to serve the movement.
Jerf was a founding member of both the Local Coordination Committees and the Coordination Committee in Salamiyah, and acted as the main connection between them. Jerf also founded the Salamiyah City Media Office, which documented and archived the protest movement in the city and 18 neighbouring villages, responsible for releasing statements about developments in the city. His film, White Carnations for Salamiyah, focused on the city's revolutionary mobilisation and civil society movement during the revolution.
Seeing a need for a print outlet to cover and archive the revolution, Jerf founded Hentah Magazine, focused on issues such as national identity and sectarianism. The magazine also produced local news and untold stories from Salamiyah and elsewhere. During the regime's military campaigns in the neighbouring cities of Hama and Homs in late 2011, many residents fled to Salamiyah, where locals and civil society groups received them and displayed great amounts of solidarity.
Jerf was an active part of this effort, helping fund and deliver aid to the internally displaced. Jerf would covertly make his way down to the cities on his motorcycle, helping with media coverage and relief efforts. From the beginning of the revolution, Jerf and other activists wanted by security forces would move from house-to-house in different towns to avoid arrest and make covert trips into the city to participate in protests or to visit their families.
After a wave of arrests in the city, Jerf fled to Homs, where he continued to contribute to the cause. In Homs, Jerf would sleep in a different place every night, while training activists, helping in setting up local media offices, securing funding and bringing aid into areas in need.
While he was in Homs, Jerf's wife, poet Boshra Kashmar, gave birth to their first daughter, whom they named Emesa, after Homs' ancient Greek title. Then, Jerf found the regime closing in on him again. So he fled, this time to Damascus.
On the run
Working out of a covert office in Jaramana, in rural Damascus, Jerf worked on documenting protests in the capital and surrounding villages. He worked on connecting local activists with media outlets to cover the protests and regime's repression.
Jerf did not spend much time in Damascus and soon moved to provincial Daraa, where he again went about training activists. However, due to regime threats, he left for Jordan, where he was deported to Turkey by Jordanian intelligence. Stuck in Turkey, Jerf worked from the border town of Gaziantep for Basma Syria, a civil society group working for a "liberatory, progressive transition to a new Syria".
Eventually, Jerf became the group's manager, where he managed funding of civil society and media initiatives, as well as training over 700 journalists and media activists in writing, photography, information security and other essential areas that would allow them to report from Syria.
|Jerf envisioned a free and sovereign Syria, and always worked towards a democratic secular state built on the principles of the revolution.|
Jerf's involvement with Salamiyah continued, representing his city in revolutionary initiatives and negotiations. For instance, he was a founding member of Action Group for Salamiyah, a group of activists who meet regularly to discuss developments, media coverage, and future planning. He also played a vital role in negotiations to free Adra workers, many of whom are from Salamiyah, who were kidnapped by rebel group Jaish al-Islam in rural Damascus.
Jerf expanded Hentah Magazine, increasing reach and continuing to publish articles about prisoners and martyrs, refugees, Kurds, Palestine, FSA, IS, and broader questions regarding Syria and the revolution. 27 issues were published under him. He also founded Hentawi Magazine, a version geared towards 9-15 year olds.
Standing against extremism
After the emergence of IS, Jerf, like other revolutionary activists, worked to cover developments in areas occupied by the extremist group and expose their crimes.
Many of the activists working in the anti-IS activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently were trained by Jerf at Basma Syria. He worked as an adviser to the campaign, developing their coverage and media strategies. Before his death he was working with the group on a production to promote their campaign.
One of Jerf’s last works was the film "ISIS in Aleppo", which covered the extremist group's role in kidnapping, torturing, and assassinating many activists and civilians in the city. It also showed how Free Syrian Army factions were able to temporarily expel the IS from Aleppo.
Jerf envisioned a sovereign and free Syria, and always worked towards a democratic secular state built on the principles of the revolution.
Jerf was known for his veneration of the martyr, persistently reminding people of fallen comrades through all his work, with the last edition of Hentah Magazine before his death for example being dedicated for Palestinian-Syrian prisoner Ali Shihabi.
Several Palestinian artists and writers mourned Jerf, calling him the martyr or son of both causes for his unwavering dedication to the Palestinian cause, matched only by his dedication to the Syrian revolution. Jerf was well-versed with Palestinian culture and enjoyed good relations with the cadres of Palestinian factions in Syria.
He was known for his work ethic and long working hours, which stemmed from his dedication to the revolution. He worked long hours and often for little or no pay, especially towards the end of his life. He kept hope in his heart for the future of Syria, rejected despair and pursued the vision of the free country he had always envisioned.
He always maintained that Syrians could not lose their battle against the regime and IS. During one interview Jerf reminded Syrians that modernisation is a historical inevitability.
It is important to tell the story of Jerf and those akin to him, the representatives of a Syrian alternative oft-dismissed and ignored. Jerf's assassination deeply shook the community, ostensibly due to his mentorship of activits and journalists but moreover for what he represented: the revolutionary contingent of activists, councils, and fighters across Syria and abroad continue the struggle for their revolution and their rights.
Jerf might be gone but the cause he fought for will be carried on by those he taught and mentored.
(Special thanks to Omran Hallak, Maher Esber, Nidal Bitari, Aziz Asaad, Hussam Eesa of Raqqa Being Slaughtered Silently, Joseph Mardelli, and Budour Hassan for their input in this piece)
Omar Abbas was a medical student and activist in Damascus and is now residing in California.
Opinions in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.