‘Men, particularly young men, are much more respectful here and in one year I’ve had less catcalling and harassment in the street than I’d get in one week in the UK,’ Dani Ellis tells us from her base in northern Syria during lockdown.
The 32-year-old electrical engineer, from London, ventured to the autonomous region of Rojava 18 months ago to volunteer with the Kurds and now she is helping fight against a Turkish invasion.
Rojava, which is roughly the same size as Slovakia, has been self-governing since 2012 after a group of Kurds set up a secular, ethnically inclusive and bottom-up democratic system.
Unlike in the rest of Syria, women are at the forefront of things in Rojava with equal rights in the workplace and rape and polygamy banned.
Explaining her motivation for moving to Rojava, Dani tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I had been following the stories of foreign volunteers fighting the Turks and ISIS here in Rojava for some time, but what ultimately caused me to travel here was hearing about the killing of Anna Campbell by the Turkish Air Force during Turkey’s invasion of the city of Afrin in early 2018.
‘I didn’t know her, but she was a friend of a friend and hearing her story from them and those who knew her here was what inspired me the most.
‘She made me realise that it wasn’t just ex-military men coming to fight but young women from all over the world were joining to contribute to all aspects of society.
‘I read as much as I could about the multi-ethnic, distributed democracy that had been built here out of the ashes of ISIS’s brutal occupation and to me it felt like a model of a future society that addressed many of the issues affecting all countries today: climate change, extreme wealth inequality, racism and sexism.
‘I quickly realised it was something I wanted to contribute to personally.’
Dani moved to Rojava in December 2018 to join the women’s revolution as part of an ecological group.
But her focus shifted in October 2019 when a further Turkish invasion severely impacted the area.
She remembers being in a meeting trying to raise funds to build a small solar-powered station for a women’s community centre when the first airstrikes hit.
Following the attacks, her attention turned to helping in any way she could with tasks including recovering bodies from rubble and distributing aid. Almost 200,000 northeastern Syrians were displaced by the flighting, with the majority of refugees being women and children.
Dani also went about using her camera to film footage for TV stations who were unable to get reporters into areas due to the dangers.
Dodging bullets aside, most recently the coronavirus has been a threat to deal with. A full lockdown was enforced in northeastern Syria on March 21 and photos posted on Dani’s Twitter account @lapinesque shows previously bustling streets now void of people.
All non-essential travel between cities has been banned for the past few months.
Despite the extremely tough conditions, Dani has been struck by the ‘sense of neighbourliness and community’ that continues to surface in Rojava.
She says: ‘It’s almost impossible to walk around cities in northeastern Syria without at least one family inviting you in for tea or at the very least chat and get a group photo.
‘The people I’ve met during lockdown have been defiant and in high spirits.’
Dani adds that the ‘coalition of municipalities’ that form Rojava has been ‘incredibly proactive with lockdowns and social distancing’ and as a result, only a few deaths from Covid-19 have been confirmed.
The Londoner is currently living in a houseshare with other women who work in the healthcare system.
Rojava’s healthcare system has been heavily affected by war, with only a few hospitals fully operational and very limited supplies.
In a bid to help with the medical situation, Dani has been working in a hospital workshop where she is responsible for maintaining electrical and medical equipment.
Her workdays usually span 14 to 15 hours but she says that she doesn’t mind as ‘the work is enormously satisfying’.
When she wants a bit of a respite, Dani says she likes to hitchhike or take a ride with an ambulance crew to see her friends in other cities.
She muses: ‘One of the greatest pleasures here is the kindness of strangers and the conversations you end up having when catching a lift or on public transport.
While Dani has been inspired by the female empowerment she has found in Rojava, she says society in the region is still more conservative in many ways than Western countries.
For instance, wearing shorts or vest tops in public is not something you see very often.
But at the same time it’s quite common to see, for instance, a group of girls out, some in ‘very Western-style clothing’, some with hijabs, some without, and some in traditional Arabic or Kurdish dress.
Asked how her family feel about being in a war zone, Dani says they are ‘obviously concerned’ about her safety but at the same time she feels like they are proud that she is doing something she strongly believes in, and ‘something in the service of a people who have been oppressed for centuries’.
Before turning in to sleep before starting another 15 hour day with the threat of airstrikes, gunfire and coronavirus looming, Dani ends with a thought about the region she has come to call a second home.
She tells us: ‘I think too often people see Syria as just a failed state, or as a quagmire.
‘But northeastern Syria is an incredible beacon of peace and prosperity in the midst of a nearly decade-long civil war. Despite huge parts being left in ruins by ISIS, and a brutal occupation underway by Turkey and former members of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrian Christians alike have managed to carve out a tight-nit, multicultural society that I honestly think represents a model of a political and cultural system that the rest of humanity needs to adopt if we are to cope with the enormous difficulties we face this century.
‘If I would have to sum up Rojava in the way people here do, it would have to be Jin, Jiyan, Azadi. It means Women, Life, Freedom in Kurdish; the three most important pillars of this revolution.’
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