Syria has loomed large in both the news and in the public consciousness over the last three years, between the stories of those seeking refuge in Europe, the activities of the Islamic State and the images of bombing damage done to cities like Aleppo. As is the case with all contemporary wars, the realpolitik of the situation is an obscured nest of international and private interests, and to us distant observers, it appears largely a chaotic swirl of violence, bereft of a simple narrative that we can grasp, beyond the condemnation of Islamic State.
With a background both as a social care worker – and as a DJ – Calvin James Sweeney set off for Syria for the first time four years ago and has been back five more times since, working as a volunteer medic in the Rojava, the Kurdish de facto autonomous region in the north of Syria. His experiences there combined with his own skill set and bunch of connections led Calvin to establish Syrias Vibes as a label under which he could channel his own energy – and the energy of those willing to support the cause – towards a specific aid target in northern Syria. We sat down with Calvin to talk about his experiences at the centre of one of the world’s biggest humanitarian and political crises, and what he’s hoping to do about it.
We’ll start with the most basic stuff. Tell me about yourself and what you were doing in Dublin before you went to Syria.
I grew up in Blanch. I was a social care worker for about 10 years and I worked in special schools. I guess I specialised with young offenders, young people with emotional behavioural difficulties, autism, and I started working with [people with] dementia.
What year did you first travel to Syria?
I went for the first time in 2012 and I’ve been five times since.
Was there any particular attraction to the place?
You know when people think of some Middle Eastern countries, the media would portray them dangerous places, with lots of people who wouldn’t want you there, but it wasn’t the case in either place. They’re very normal people, very friendly, just trying to get on with their lives like the rest of us.
And you were in northern Syria, what exactly is going on there?
In the north, the Islamic State took a stronghold. With the outbreak of the moderate Rebels in the centre and the south, the Regime couldn’t really deal with the north, so they effectively withdrew and left it to ISIS. There was a strong Kurdish presence in the north, so they set up their own militias and pushed the Islamic State out of most parts of northern Syria. They established an administration, they announced democratic confederalism, and it’s the Kurds who are running the show.
Has that got a bit more stability than the rest of the country?
Oh most definitely. But it’s still susceptible to the occasional suicide bombing, and ISIS do tend to try to snatch and grab towns and cities. There’s a city called Şeddadê that’s been moving back and forth [between them] so the Kurds are moving south now, and clearing villages and towns to the south of that because Islamic State are using that area as a springboard to attack the rest of northern Syria.
Did you set up in one particular area or did you move around?
I moved around quite a lot, but mostly I was based in a city called Qamişlo, which would be the capital of the Kurdish region, Rojava, but I worked in Kobanî, Amûdê, and Manbij.
Were you working as a medic over there, or was it more that you were utilising your own skills and background?
A bit of both. When I approached them I told them, and I was very honest with my skill set, that I had some hospital experience working in a social care environment. There was a bit of “Have you ever done this?” No. “Have you ever done this?” No. “Don’t worry, we’ll show you how.” But since we were working in a rescue centre on standby, we had a lot of time for training. So some days I’d be teaching them English, and they’d be teaching me to drain a lung.
What’s the infrastructure for those who go over there and volunteer?
Well it’s very tricky, because in the north, the Assad regime has no sway whatsoever. So the Kurdish-Iraqi government controls the border. Technically it’s closed to everybody and to everything, but there are a few organisations that are able to get people across the border, legally and illegally. A lot of the big NGOs, they’re there, but the don’t a presence there. You don’t see them driving around in their big 4x4s or they don’t have offices with signs on them. They’re operating very cloak and dagger. They’re there, but not there.
What kind of presence of Westerners is there amongst the people who are volunteering?
Since there’s a socialist revolution, it’s attracting a lot of people who are that way inclined, so a lot of old-school Trotskyists, Leninists, Anarchists, a lot of them are being funded by their own political parties from Catalunya, from England. There’d be a small presence, maybe 40 or 50 people, like that. But then there’d be a lot of Westerners out fighting for the Kurds as well. They’re from everywhere, America, Brazil, Australia, England, all over.
And are they getting involved in a militia effort?
Like a kind of International Brigade?
There are about 1,400 of them that have been involved since the start of the war. There’s always about 60 or 70 of them there [at one time]. But they spread them out to different parts. You couldn’t just have a brigade of 40 American lads doing what they want. A unit would be called a tabur, maybe you’d have 40 guys in a tabur, so you’d have maybe two, three, four Westerners. There’s a medical unit that’s made up of all Westerners, and when there’s no operations, they travel around the north teaching first aid. But they’re the only all Western group.
Which group are you affiliated with?
With Heyva Sor, the Kurdish Red Crescent.
How do they interact with the existing Kurdish government? Are they making their own plans, or are they being asked to do certain things by the government?
Well, back in 2012 there was the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and they were being accused of being biased to people in the north, because down south [of Syria] it’s all Arab, but in the north it’s very diverse. You have Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent was accused of being biased towards these ethnic groups so a gang from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the official Kurdish Red Crescent, they bunched together and approached the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to see if they would change the group and just call it the “Syrian Red Crescent” and represent everybody, but they were having none of it, they were like, “No, we’re the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and that’s the way it is.” So they [the Kurds] splintered off in 2012 and set up their own [organisation]. So they would work closely with the Kurdish government, but that’s just how it works. Down south you’d have the White Helmets [Syrian Civil Defense], and they’d be working closely with the Rebels, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent would just work with the Regime. We could only respond to calls by the hospital, the police, the military… because if someone just randomly called you up and said come out here… you can’t just drive down some alleyway answering a phone call. So it’s hospitals, police and military, we only respond to them. There was one time that we responded to a car-bomb that took out a Regime checkpoint, so that was very strange. But it was great and it showed that we are not biased, that we’ll help anybody. I’ve said in interviews before that we’ve treated Islamic State fighters, many of them, Rebel groups, everyone.
Even if, as you said that is the most stable part of the country, I presume that it’s still a distance away from being in anyway viable as a state at the moment.
Oh definitely. They have American support at the moment, but America’s the most ultra-capitalist state in the world, and now Rojava has announced democratic confederalism, so they’re absolute polar opposites in terms of ideology. [The Kurds] used to want to push for their own state, and that’s what the Kurds in Turkey were fighting for, but they’ve kind of come to the conclusion that that’s not really going to happen so what they’re pushing for is autonomy – to be able to deal with themselves, to make their own decisions. And they’re bringing amazing things to the table like women’s rights. Any council meeting would have to be at least 60/40 men to women, or 60/40 women to men. There always needs to be a 40% representation for either sex. That’s quite remarkable for somewhere in the Middle East.
That’d be pretty remarkable here.
Yeah it’d be pretty remarkable everywhere else.
And are you thinking of going back?
Yep. I’m hoping to start doing aid runs from Iraq into Syria, as you can imagine there’s a shitload of red tape so we’re just trying to iron that out. I’m hoping to go back for the Raqqa offensive, whenever that happens. But who knows?
Have you been presented to much actual danger to yourself?
Oh yeah, several times.
What was that like? Did you question why you were there?
The first time there was a fight between the Kurds and the Regime that lasted 72 hours. It was pretty heavy, I’d never been in anything like that. I’d only been working with them for three weeks when it happened, so they tried to keep me out of it because I didn’t speak the language, so I was left behind in the office, I was thinking, “This is bullshit, I didn’t fly however many hours to sit in an office when stuff happens”. So I said this to my boss, so we went down to a Regime prison surrounded by Kurds and they were firing rockets at each other and I was just watching this like you’d be watching it on telly. And then this guy just rolled up with an anti-aircraft machine called a Douchka and just opened up and destroyed the second floor [of the prison], I’d never seen anything like it. And then everyone cheered and we were handing out Paracetamol and Band-Aids… that was very exciting and worrying at the same time.
The next day, we were parked up by the school at a Y-junction. Myself and the driver – I spoke no Kurdish, he spoke no English, so we were just kind of smiling at each other! – and behind us a mortar and a heavy machine unit started set up and started hammering one way. Then one group are hammering this way, another is hammering that way, another is hammering that way and we found ourselves in the middle and we’re watching tracer rounds and rockets going over our heads, so I’m going, “What do we do? What do we do?” When you start driving around, that’s when you run into something, so we just sat tight and it lasted about two hours. Rockets landing 30 feet away from us.
Do you ever get used to that at all?
Yeah, you get very used it.
You said there that you didn’t speak the language, do you speak it now?
I do, I do, but it’s very basic.
I assume even that changes the whole interaction with the place, once you have interaction with people in their own language.
Well the doctor that I lived with – well he was a dentist, but he would have been our most skilled doctor – he spoke English, so whenever we were on operations I would not be too far from him. But then when we were in places like Manbij which is just all Arab, you’re taking in people who are just speaking Arabic, and of course they’re traumatised and people are screaming at you, and I have no idea what they’re saying. So that was difficult whenever we were on operations in the Arab territories.
You were saying that there are other Irish guys over there but that they were fighting?
Where do they come to it from? Are they socialist revolutionaries banding in? Or of Kurdish origin themselves?
I read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, and the similarities between the two wars and the two places, they were just exact blueprints of each other. So the war, the revolution, it attracts all sorts. So you have a lot of revolutionary types, most of them would be British or American servicemen, who served in Iraq and felt that the Obama administration pulled them out too early, and they feel a bit guilty that they got sent over there on a job that they didn’t want to do, but that they got so close to finishing that job and then they got [pulled out]. So they’re kind of back to finish the job. All Republicans as well. And then there are the – what would you call them? – the “humanitarian” kind. And then there would have been the adventurers, the absolute lunatics who didn’t know what they were doing there, they just happened to be there. So yeah, it attracted a very diverse bunch of people.
So your next trip back is when?
Hopefully January, when the Raqqa offensive happens. But it’s going to be a big one, it’s going to take a year.
What is the Raqqa offensive?
Raqqa is the capital of the Islamic State in Syria. When [the Kurds] were taking Manbij, they kind of pretended they were going to take Raqqa. They built up their army, moved towards Raqqa so that a substantial amount of ISIS fighters would leave Manbij to reinforce Raqqa, and when they felt enough people had left, that’s when they pushed for Manbij, and they just gave up on Raqqa. But now since the Turkey has invaded with American support, it’s making things very complicated for the Kurds. It’s very hard for them to trust the Americans. And it’s the Americans that want them [the Kurds] to push for Raqqa because no one else will be able to do it. The Regime don’t have the resources to take on ISIS, because they’re dealing with the Rebels in the south and in the west, so basically the Kurds are the only ones who can take it. So at the moment they’re thinking, why should we take it? What’s in it for us? It’s Arab territory, we don’t want to administer it, we can’t administer it, and if we take it, it’ll take a year and a lot of resources and you’ll probably just end up telling us to give it to the Turks. So right now they’re ironing out negotiations. But apparently Obama wants the ball rolling before he’s out of office. So… we’ll see.
You have a book?
I never actually planned on a book. It’s an interesting enough story, not that many Irish people have been in the fray. The Irish lads that were there were fighting so I think I had a nice view of what was going on there as a neutral, working in the capacity that I was working in there. So I’m working on that at the moment.
Tell me about the nights you’re going to be doing?
At the first one, we had a dinner here in the Woollen Mills from 6. We were just putting the word out to people who are getting involved, people who have helped us out in the past, people who want to help us in the future. We sat down and had a few courses, and I gave a talk about what’s going on out there, our plans for the future, and then we moved in next door [to the Grand Social] where we had bands and DJs.
There’s going to more nights like this?
We’re planning on putting one on about every three months. We’re planning on putting one on at Christmas. But since I’m a DJ myself and know most of the other promoters in town, a lot of them are getting involved, so The Emigrant Disco, which happens every year, is linking in with us this year. There’s a producer in London called Psychemagik who is putting a night on in London for us. People are doing marathons, or a charity cycle.
The Emigrant Disco is 100%, the gig in London is 100% as well. Hopefully we can just get a presence for putting on good nights, and then more will follow.
And it’s in aid of SCOOP Foundation, is that right?
Well, Syrias Vibes is a pet project of SCOOP, so we want to get two new ambulances on the road, get them converted and staff them. The wages are so low over there that a nurse and a driver would cost €3 a day. So for staffing you’re looking at €1,000 to cover the staffing of the vehicle itself. We’re aiming big but we’re confident we can hit our targets.
So you can use Syrias Vibes as a kind of catch-all branding for this project?
Yeah, because any time I would put a post up [on social media] from the ground, people were just helpless about what to do and how to get involved. And I think just before I left there was that episode with the kid, Omran Daqneesh, in the back of the ambulance, and everyone was just like, “How do we help? How do we alleviate this?” So a lot of people were putting other people on to me, people I had never met, people I had no mutual friends with, just asking “What can I do?” and it’s just snowballed from there. So Syrias Vibes is not just me, it’s me trying to be a catalyst for anyone who wants to help, or wants to ensure that their money goes to the right place.
To donate to Syrias Vibes, or to find out more about Calvin’s charitable efforts both through a journal of his visits to Syria, and the events they are working with, visit syriasvibes.com
The Emigrant Disco, which is supporting Syrias Vibes, takes place in Yamamori Tengu on Friday 23rd December featuring sets from David Kitt, John Mahon, Shocko and Calvin himself. Tickets are available from eventbrite.com
Words: Ian Lamont