Today, we honor Raed Fares, a brave Syrian activist and member of the Human Rights Foundation family who lost his life two years ago today. Raed was fond of saying, “Revolution is an idea, and an idea cannot be killed.” His own legacy is a testament to that belief.
From Kefranbel, a rebel-held town in war-torn Syria, Raed started a peaceful revolution that changed the lives of thousands. Bashar al-Assad’s bloody, 50-year-long dictatorship that had killed over 500,000 people and displaced half of the population, and ordinary people took to the streets and called for freedom. But his Raed’s revolution went beyond mobilizing protesters. His work would change Syrians from the inside, freeing them from the fears and barriers caused by decades of oppression, and instilling in them democratic values and hope.
Raed began making banners in late 2011. These banners, displayed during Kafranbel’s weekly Friday protests, were written in both English and Arabic and inspired defiance, creativity, and sadness within Syria and beyond.
Raed filmed and reported on protests, bombings, and Assad’s chemical attacks, becoming the most trusted source of on-the-ground information about Syria’s war, covering areas where foreign correspondents could not go. With fabric, paint, and his wit, he created banners that asked leaders of the free world to help Syria.
In 2013, Raed founded Radio Fresh, a 24-hour station that provided Syrians with unbiased reporting in a media landscape filled with government propaganda and fundamentalist narratives. Together with the thousands of Syrians inspired by his dream, Raed laid the groundwork for Syria’s democratic future by working to create a civil society from rubble and giving a voice to survivors of war.
Raed used his radio station, Radio Fresh, as a platform to spread democratic values and share an important counter-narrative to extremist messages from groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). He created the Complaint Show, which allowed people to voice their concerns, in the belief that that citizens should be able to hold leaders accountable. Radio Fresh also employed dozens of women, breaking new ground in a town where most women do not work outside of the home.
Due to its opposition to the regime and extremist groups, Radio Fresh was under constant threat. In 2014 alone, Raed was repeatedly shot by gunmen linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), targeted by a car bomb, and kidnapped and tortured by Jabhat al Nusra (now HTS). In 2015, militants from the group attacked Radio Fresh itself, and a year later, they kidnapped Raed again, only to quickly release him when met with intense public pressure.
Raed always knew the dangers of his job but refused to give up the work that transformed the lives of Syrians; work that his team continues today. Radio Fresh serves as a reminder of the importance of independent reporting in closed societies, and the role that independent media can play in countering extremist narratives.
Raed and his fellow activist, Hamoud Jneed, were assassinated by extremists on November 23, 2018. Raed posed a threat to the fundamentalist groups that preached violence and hate to legitimize their own existence. Raed won over hearts and minds by uniting his community through music, humor, life, freedom, and hope.
Since his death, the people of Kafranbel continue to make banners and stage protests similar to those created by Raed. His efforts gave a creative outlet to people who need a way to communicate their frustrations and express their hope.
Raed’s community has also continued to build from the foundation that he laid: his news station Radio Fresh continues to air, and all the reporters and civil society members that he trained continue to work every day to build a better future for Syria.
Raed taught us that if we want freedom, if we want democracy, then we need to lay the groundwork today. As we send out our love and deepest condolences to Raed’s family and friends, we also want to remind the world to support Syrians now – it can’t wait. In Raed’s memory, consider making a donation to support Radio Fresh and Raed’s nonprofit, the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, via the Syria Campaign here.