Diplomacy is changing radically. It is no longer the strict purview of governments and traditional institutions. Everybody can be an ambassador for his or her country. The Global Diplomacy Lab promotes this development with the aid of bold thinkers who we portray in this series.
Dilshad Muhammad, a political scientist from Syria, is one of them.
Dilshad Muhammad stands in front of a series of black-and-white photographs. They show pregnant women, babies, and children. “These are the children we found, those we have not found yet,” explains one of the women from the Casa por la Identidad de Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the organization dedicated to finding the children who were torn from their families by the military junta in Argentina. More than 500 infants were stolen from parents who were suspected of being opponents of the regime; the children should grow up in families loyal to the regime.
Global Diplomacy Lab
The Global Diplomacy Lab (GDL) brings together academics, artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and diplomats from all over the world. Together they reflect on what the foreign policy of the future should look like. The 6th Global Diplomacy Lab took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In this series, we present four members of the Lab. The GDL is an initiative of the Federal Foreign Office, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, Stiftung Mercator, and the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
Since the parents, too, often disappeared, were tortured or killed, the grandmothers were often the only ones left to search for the children. This is how the most famous protest movement in Argentina came about: the Abuelas, the grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, who have a headquarters of sort in this house.
“This sounds awfully familiar,” says political scientist Dilshad Muhammad while walking through the exhibition. A native of Syria, he fled to Germany two years ago. “In Syria, too, an estimated several thousands of children have disappeared from politically inconvenient families before and during the war. And Damascus also had secret prisons for political prisoners like the one in which we are standing now.”
The Casa por la Identidad de Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo is not a normal house; it is part of a former clandestine detention camp operated by the military dictatorship in the center of Buenos Aires. Here, pregnant women were imprisoned so that their babies could be taken away from them immediately after birth. The inmates also included thousands of political prisoners who were tortured and forced to do hard labor. Today, it is a site of remembrance and education. Volunteers give tours of the premises to school classes, Argentinians, and tourists – including, on this day, to the participants of the Global Diplomacy Lab.
Learning first-hand about how Argentina deals with the mass atrocities of the past
It is one of five site visits in Buenos Aires where they learn first-hand about how Argentina deals with the mass atrocities of the past and what challenges it faces in doing so. While Muhammad’s group is visiting the abuelas, other teams visit, for example, the Parque de la memoria, which commemorates the victims of the military regime, or the media project “MU,” a newspaper fighting against discrimination by giving minorities a voice.
"We are talking about something that happened more than thirty years ago, and it still takes so much effort and work to find out what happened."
Muhammad’s group learns about the campaigns organized by the abuelas to find the children who are now in their mid-thirties and often have no idea that their parents are not their biological parents. “Are there photos of your mother when she was pregnant with you?,” reads one of the posters. “If not, take a genetic test!”
It is a painful process for everybody involved, and it is not over yet. Some 200 children have been found; some 300 are still missing. “The many parallels are just one of the things that make me think,” says Muhammad. “The other one is how long it takes to come to terms with it. We are talking about something that happened more than thirty years ago, and it still takes so much effort and work to find out what happened, to bring those responsible to trial, and to bridge the divides that the crimes of the military are still causing in society. This shows me once again how much work we will have to do once the war in Syria is over, some day.”
The 31-year-old Muhammad comes from Sere Kaniye/Ra‘s al-‘Ain, a small town near the Syrian-Turkish border. He studied English literature until the revolution broke out in 2011 and all men were drafted into Assad’s army. To avoid conscription, he and his wife fled to Turkey, where he worked as a political journalist for a news website. His job and the events in Syria increased his interest in politics, and he enrolled in a master’s program in political science at Istanbul Aydin University.
Since he was at the top of his class, a professor recommended him for a semester abroad in Marburg. At the time, Muhammad and his wife had a ten-month-old daughter. He had to leave both of them behind for the duration of the semester but was hoping for a future in Germany. For the situation in Turkey is uncertain; Syrian refugees never lose their “guest” status, which makes it difficult to fully integrate.
Ploughing through the Spiegel magazine's archive for information about his new home.
But Muhammad managed to impress also his professors in Marburg; they and the administrative staff supported him, helped him fill out applications, and, as a special case, he was given both asylum and refugee status in Germany. He was able to bring his wife and daughter to Germany and finish his studies. For the last two years, he and his family have lived in Düsseldorf. His four-year-old daughter goes to kindergarten and speaks German fluently, while her parents are still learning the language. For now, Muhammad is happy about the Spiegel magazine’s huge archive of English-language texts, which he ploughs through for information about his new home.
This is how he partly spends his time as long as his professional situation is still unclear. Either he will continue his studies by writing his dissertation or go into the field of hands-on development policy. He already participated in a five-month program of the German Development Institute (DIE) in Bonn. This is how he also learned about the Global Diplomacy Lab.
What brought him to Buenos Aires was above all the topic: building networks to fight mass atrocities. “I believe this is the approach we need,” he says. “There are so many good examples for that. Three years ago, a few people in Syria founded Syria Civil Defence, a network of volunteers who rescue injured people. They coordinate via WhatsApp and, as a result, are often the first responders on site. This is so effective that they have even been nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. Small networks, initiated by a few people, can fill the gap between governments and NGOs and really make a difference.”
"We can learn a lot from how Argentina has succeeded in transforming itself from a country that was destroyed by so much hatred into a democracy."
The 7th Global Diplomacy Lab, which will take place in Berlin in November, aims to bring forth concrete ideas such as these. The 6th Lab in Buenos Aires is conceived as an “Incubator Lab”: it is about gathering information, networking, and brainstorming. At the 7th Lab, the “Impact Lab,” the members will then develop concrete ideas.
“I am very excited about this,” says Muhammad. “I have taken away so much from here. We can learn a lot from how Argentina has succeeded in transforming itself from a country that was destroyed by so much hatred into a democracy with functioning institutions that are properly dealing with the past.”
His main take-away from the Lab, however, is hope – also for his own country. He does not know yet whether he will ever return. “I will go where I can make the biggest difference: maybe this will be at a university in Syria, maybe it will be with an organization abroad. In any case, I work for the day when I can lead a group like this through Syria and tell them how we have overcome the horrors of the past.”