When Iyad Yousef graduated from university in Latakia, Syria in 2012, he had one thing on his mind: leaving his native country and working for a non-governmental organization. Doing so, he reckoned, would help tell the story of the atrocities occurring in Syria to the outside world.
As Syria marks the fifth anniversary of its Civil War and uprising, there are few news outlets that don’t cover events inside the country. But Yousef, a newly minted Economics Major who was just 23 years old at the time, wanted to put his expertise as a Syrian to work for other organizations that could help quell the country’s unrest.
His first stop: the United States, where he had an uncle who told him that the first thing he had to do was to take English classes. Yousef was so driven and enthusiastic that before long he was applying to Brandeis University in Boston, where he would be accepted into the Masters’ program.
It wasn’t long before Yousef was studying at the university’s renowned Heller School for Social Policy and Management with a specialty in Coexistence and Conflict Resolution. A term paper on the problems plaguing his native land, where his parents and most of his family still reside, became a bit of an academic obsession: He soon had a 65-page, 25,000-word paper on his hands that has caught the attention of Middle East scholars at the prestigious St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.
Yousef has tentatively titled the paper The White Lie. “The reason I am writing this paper is to conduct research on whether the US should supply weapons to Ahrar al-Sham,” he says. “Ahrar al-Sham wanted to be perceived as a collection of moderate armed groups so they could receive military and financial support from the U.S. and the West.”
As Yousef’s paper grew, so did violence against civilians in Syria. Yousef learned that the GCC country of Kuwait had become a main hub for donors in Gulf countries who were funding armed groups in Syria. This revelation led him to investigate donors who transferred money to Kuwait – specifically figures such as Shafi al-Ajami and Hakim Mutairi. Kuwait had become such an active money hub, says Yousef, because of its weak anti-terror legislation.
The United States has since pressured Kuwait to adopt a law to prevent extremist donors from funding the Nusra Front and ISIS. Yousef, in his academic research, says he thinks the cash spigot to Syria probably dried up as a result of the new law. “I though the law is the reason why Ahrar al-Sham was trying to be perceived in the press as a moderate armed group,” Yousef says.
Before receiving his degree from Brandeis and trying to edit down his paper, The White Lie, so that it can be published by St. Andrew’s, Yousef interned at the Carter Center, a think tank founded by the former U.S. president. His main project at the Carter Center was to contribute to the Conflict Mapping Project, which lets anyone go online and track where and how much each group is fighting for control of the small Levant country. Yousef has also built a new website with a friend who wishes to remain anonymous, as an online community for Syrians to debate the issues facing their country five years on. The site is so new he hasn’t had time to post anything on it yet.
When will Iyad Yousef return to his homeland? He says he would like to do so as a worker in another NGO, such as Human Rights Watch. He recently joined that organization as an intern. Yousef ultimately wants to focus his attention on Syria. He says that as the war rages on, he would stay abroad and uncover even more information about Syria in an academic setting. In fact, he applied to another Masters’ program – this time at Oxford University. Yousef says he hopes to get an acceptance letter from Oxford by the end of this week.