Mala Gel, which means “People’s House” in Kurdish, is the name for a civil society institution that spread throughout the Kurdish areas of Syria in the months after the start of the Syrian uprising. The organization’s mission is to provide social and economic services and to ensure the security of residents in areas where the central government’s presence on the ground receded and its institutions were weakened.
There are six branches of Mala Gel in the city of Qamishli, where the organization has also assumed the duties of the municipality.
“The doors of the institution are open to all citizens regardless of race or religion,” said Ahmad Fattah, the president of Mala Gel in the western district of the city. “We are not a political party or religious group.”
A visitor to one of the Mala Gel centres in the neighbourhood of Qadour Beik, however, would immediately notice the red, yellow and green flag of the Democratic Society Movement, which has connections with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known by its Kurdish acronym PKK), with the image of its leader Abdullah Ocalan at the centre. Similar flags can be found at each of the Mala Gel branches.
Khaled Sheikhmous, the head of the Mala Gel centre in this neighbourhood, insists the organization has no relationship with any political parties or movements. In fact, the organization, which was based on Ocalan’s idea of autonomous democracy, is not just for Kurds but for all of Qamishli, said Sheikhmous. His words echoed by Butrous Abu Antar, an Assyrian member of Mala Gel.
But despite these assurances, it is no secret that the city of Qamishli is divided politically between Kurds, Arabs and Christians, mostly Assyrians and Syriacs, and no side can carry out such activities in another’s area.
In Kurdish neighbourhoods, the Democratic Society Movement is dominant, and some Mala Gel workers, such as Ahmed Fattah, are even party members.. But there are also some independents and members of other Kurdish parties who are active in Mala Gel, as well as Christians and Arab Muslims.
Mala Gel, whose members are elected locally, is made up of a number of specialized committees, such as the reconciliation committee to arbitrate conflicts, and the services committee, which distributes humanitarian aid, cleans the streets, and tries to ensure the provision of electricity, water and adequate sanitation.
There is also a protection committee, which oversees the security of each neighbourhood with unarmed night patrols, and a community committee to solve family and marital problems and disputes between neighbours, as well as a women’s committee concerned with issues affecting women. It is important to note that women are also active in the other committees.
“We got some relief items from the Kurdistan region of Iraq and the Kurds in Turkey via the Kurdish Supreme Committee, and medicine from the Syrian Red Crescent…and we distributed them to the people of the city, without discrimination,” said Jumaa Darwish, a member of Mala Gel in the Western Quarter.
Darwish said they also provide medical services to poor individuals and families, even referring some to the clinics of the Qamishli-based Kurdish Red Crescent, where they are receiving treatment, medication and surgery if necessary.
In response to a question from The Damascus Bureau, Darwish said that members of Mala Gel do not receive salaries. In fact, many end up donating from their own savings to help keep the organization running. Kurdish immigrants in Europe have also sent financial assistance. Darwish pays the rent of Mala Gel’s headquarters in the Western Quarter himself, and has opened another apartment he owns to the committees for their use.
Mala Gel also offers services to the displaced arriving from other Syrian provinces.
“Mala Gel in the Western Quarter opened a school for us, which now houses about fifty displaced families,” said Leila Mardali, who fled with her family from Aleppo to Qamishli eight months ago. “They give us monthly food supplies and distributed mattresses and blankets. They also gave us health insurance cards for free medical services and we only pay 10 per cent of the cost of drugs.”
Fatima Saleh, who fled with her family from Jisr Al-Shughour in the province of Idlib to Qamishli six months ago, said she and her family receive monthly rations including bulgur wheat, rice, oil, lentils and some canned goods, but not infant formula.
“The things we need most are baby formula, diapers and bread,” she said. “No one gives us the money to buy what we need. More often than not my children go to sleep hungry.”
Mala Gel is also active in resolving disputes between residents of different neighbourhoods in Qamishli, although they do not get involved in resolving a dispute “unless both parties accepted our judgment,” said Moussa Abu Akid, head of the reconciliation committee at Mala Gel’s centre in the Western Quarter.
Shukri Abu Idris, head of the reconciliation committee at the Mala Gel centre based in the Qaddour Beik district, said his committee has had a hand in resolving some 1,000 disputes city-wide.
“We solve conflicts between people according to the moral laws of society, our conscience, customs, traditions, and the principles of human justice,” he added.
But based on Barsoum Butrous’ experience with the reconciliations committee’s tactics, customs and traditions seem to take precedence over other values.
Barsoum Butrous is a Christian of Qamishli whose daughter eloped with a young Muslim Kurd, in violation of local religious traditions, which prohibit intermarriage between people of different faiths. Her brother, succumbing to family and societal pressure, killed his sister and spent two years in prison.
“The court took five years to settle my case,” said Butrous. “In the end, I was sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of incitement to murder. I decided to leave Syria before that happened, but some of my friends advised me to resort to Mala Gel.”
Butrous brought his case to Mala Gel, and after just two months they were able to convince his daughter’s widower, the Muslim Kurd, to drop the charges. After this incident, Butrous donated 50,000 Syrian Pounds (around $250) to the organization.
Other conflicts proved too much for Mala Gel to resolve. Such was the case with Hazar Habash, an elderly woman who gave 1 million Syrian pounds (around $5,000) to a man to invest in agriculture, but the man later denied that he received any money.
“A year and a half ago I put my case before the Mala Gel centre in the Corniche neighbourhood and till now it has not been resolved,” she said, adding that the man refuses to even come to the centre to give testimony.