Syria's First Lady Wants New Conversation With West

Educated Assad Works With Charities, Takes Children to School

Feb. 6, 2007 — - Her husband, the president of Syria, is crazy about her. Asma Akhras Al-Assad is the first lady of Syria. 

Her Syrian title is "al akilatu al rais" -- simply translated to "the president's wife." But make no mistake, this beautiful, athletic woman is a force for her country's future. 

"Good Morning America" anchor Diane Sawyer first saw her at one of her charity projects called Basma, which means "smile" in Arabic. The charity supports a cancer center. 

She sent word she was not ready to give on-camera interviews, but greeted the crew warmly and in her perfect British English ventured a statement about the cause. 

"A real example of the way that Syrians from all walks of life have come together and taken responsibility and making a real difference in their communities," Assad said. 

Later, Sawyer met her at one of her private offices overlooking Damascus at sunset, where the pair sat for two hours, talking about Assad's country in the new century and her life. 

She grew up very much part of two worlds. Born in Britain, she is the daughter of a Syrian cardiologist and speaks perfect Arabic, French and Spanish. 

After college she says she loved working on Wall Street in New York and in Paris and London as a banker with J.P. Morgan. She was contemplating an MBA at Harvard. 

In 2000, she decided to marry a family acquaintance -- a tall quiet man who happened to be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

After the private wedding, she spent three months out of view, traveling quietly, sometimes anonymously in jeans and a T-shirt, to meet the people of her country, take note of hopes and needs, sit among the farmers to ask about their crops and devise plans for microloans she passionately tries to promote today. 

Her official introduction to the world came when she and her husband returned to England to meet the queen. 

The couple famously lives in a modest home with three children that they drive to school themselves. They still protect family dinners and even bike through villages. She has already begun programs to excite Syria's children about business and challenge them to compete in a global world. 

"She's an amazing woman. Ever since she got here she got deep into things in every single sector," said Thala Khair, founder of a Syrian private school. "As much as she's working for women's rights, she's working on children's rights and culture." 

The cancer center where we first met her is breaking ground in Syria -- the private and public sector working together. The children show her pictures they drew in therapy -- drawings with names like "magic." 

So while the world debates the intentions of her husband on the world's stage, the two of them remain symbols of a new generation in the Middle East. The former doctor and the former banker were schooled in England, are steeped in Syria and, she might say, are asking the West for a new conversation about a new day.

Copyright © 2007 ABC News Internet Ventures





The Syrian First Lady, Mrs. Asma Al-Assad inaugurates a Syrian Youth Project, Aleppo, Northern Syria, July 24, 2007. “ The Project, code-named “YOUTH” is one of the promising projects availing the Syrian Youth the opportunity as benefit from the experience and experts of the  would-be comers into business world,  enabling for the creation of job opportunities in different fields, conducive to the youth vocational desires.” said Mrs. Al-Assad.

 Mrs. Al-Assad the chairperson of the Syrian General Secretariat of Development, the founder of FIRDOS, the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria




Excerpts from Her Excellency Interview with the Spanish News Agency EFE , February 1st 2008:

" Once we talk about Syria, we do talk about history itself. Damascus is perhaps the only City in world in which the history of all nations came together, where many of our history start; Damascus, therefore, is a unique palace. The history of Damascus, past and present, teaches us that varied cultures and religions could coexist and prosper, exchange richness, enabling societies themselves to be richer, rather than to exchange threats. This is the message of Damascus for the year 2008- as the capital for Arab Culture- " 

" During the 8th Century , scientists and researchers from all of Europe flocked to Andalusia, interacted with Islam, which provided them with a new vision, rich prospects for the future; henceforth, science, arts, culture and agriculture flourished. This is a unique message. For Syria and Spain, we have the same ancestors , which makes us members in the one family. I think that Syria and Spain could play a pivotal role on the international arena, especially amid the ongoing talks about the so-called clash among civilizations. Spain has played a leading role in ‘ Civilizations Alliance’ sponsored by the UN; Syria strongly supports this. Our history and modern experience continue to demonstrate different realities of tolerance and coexistence, which should be disseminated to the world. Dialogue should not only aim at convincing others with certain viewpoints, but should, further, aim to cooperate with them as to create new visions." 

"I share Her Majesty Queen Sofia of Spain the same desire for peace and stability prevailing all over the world. For me, the search for peace and stability can not be separated from hope, opportunity as other synonyms for education and prosperity." 

" Many promising opportunities do exist in Syria. This motivates me every day. This is perhaps more clear when it comes to the Syrian Youth, where 60 percent of the Syrians are under 25 years old. They do not only have the key for our prosperity, but, are indeed an active part in our present."

 "For change and development to be a success , they should be carried out by and for the Syrians, rather than by or through others. Syria witnesses an accelerated social political and economic development expanding the horizons of business, handling of new challenges, developing new industries. At the political level, for example, Syria is the only Arab country where the woman holds the position of the Vice-President." 

"For development process to be successful and sustainable, the direct beneficiaries should be part an parcel of this process participating actively in it. Syria carries out a new form of change based on the linkage between what results from our self circumstances and others’ experience, as to get interacted making use of both success and failure points of such experience." 

" I have been grown up in two civilizations, which makes me having my own special vision in being able to see the two sides of the coin, enabling me to play my role as a mother and as a public figure." 

" We have to encourage our children to think beyond closed borders, supporting them as to discover their capabilities and learn by their experience. We do not have even to fear as not to teach our children to carry out calculated risks, even playing with fire; what matters is their ability to evade getting burnt ." 

" We lead a normal life like every Syrian family. Of my top priorities is to spend time with my husband, children, the big family- the Syrian Citizens- and friends. We enjoy spending some time outside the house. We are fortunate to have diverse climate in Syria enabling us to practice much of sport and activity outside the house. We are a family fond of bicycle riding ; even my three-year-old son rides a bicycle. We enjoy visiting archeology place in Syria, which has more than three thousand archaeological posts. It is so important for me spending rich time with my family providing my children the love and support which they need." 

Edited and Translated by

Mohamad Abdo Al-Ibrahim




Her Excellency, Mrs. Asma Al-Assad has been nominated, February 24th 2008,  by the Arab Woman Participation Studies Centre, in cooperation with the Arab League, as the First Arab Lady for the year 2008. Mrs. Al-Assad has been chosen for this prestigious title in recognition of her strenuous efforts in bolstering of the human development, especially as far as the bringing up, enabling and upgrading  the youth capacity as to deal with the 21st Century challenges.  

Dr. Karim Firman, the Centre Administrative Council President considered the nomination of Her Excellency, Mrs. Al-Assad, as a recognition of her persistent work, patronage and numerous initiatives for educational, rural development, culture and heritage projects, on top of which FIRDOS, the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria,  word links, and Masar. 

Dr. Shikour Al-Ghamari, member of the Centre Administration Council and of the State Council in the Sultanate of Oman, described the Award as a gesture of loyalty from Arab Civil Society Organization for Her Excellency, Mr. Al-Assad for all of what she has been offering of continued sacrifices at the service of the homeland causes and human development.




DAMASCUS - When Mohammad Ali al-Abid was elected first president of Syria in 1932, his wife, Zahra al-Yusuf, asked if she could attend the official function at the presidential palace. Her husband muttered, "You attending a state function, filled with men. It's impossible Zahra; what do you want people to say?" 

The 47-year-old first lady, born into Damascene aristocracy, refused to take no for an answer. She began to slowly push the red lines and play a greater role in public affairs - well into the 1940s, long after her husband's death in 1939. She headed several charity organizations, like the Goutte de Lait, the Red Crescent and Syrian branch of the International Red Cross, in addition to an intellectual forum, and obtained the Syrian Medal of Honor (Excellence Class) after her husband left office in 1936. Additionally, she obtained the Red Cross Medal of Honor in Gold - being the first Arab woman to win such an honor.

 For over 60 years, the role of Arab first ladies was confined to just that; charity organizations, intellectual forums, and official ceremonies. These duties were new, coming out of 400 years of the Ottoman Empire where women were completely absent from public life. Things changed dramatically, however, in recent years with the coming of three young first ladies to power in Doha, Amman, and Damascus.

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