Syria & Google, The Forbidden Relationship

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Being a Syrian with dreams and passions can be dangerous.

It causes depression when you realize all the added obstacles to your already challenging life. It can also put you in complicated situations that you can’t simply explain, but one thing for sure is that when you get to fulfill a dream, it is definitely worth it.

I had a “crush” on Google (who hadn’t?) when they started shining. As a Software Engineer that understands what it is like to provide a clean and to the point service and as a consumer who benefits from it, I always admired their way of thinking. I feel proud that I am from the generation who got to witness Google’s evolvement in the Tech industry. From a brilliant search box to an email server that amazingly filters spam that Microsoft couldn’t back then (I am not sure if they still couldn’t as I switched since then to Gmail and never looked back!) to more and more products till recently a smart home device; Google Home. I even owe it to Google Talk (before it was called hangouts) for the thousands of messages between me and my -now- husband when everyone else was using Hotmail Messenger and Yahoo Chat. I remember their withdrawn products as well. Google buzz? Google Wave? These were products that didn’t make it but Google always managed to gracefully announce their failure, learn from it and think of something else to improve. They will not try to cover it and build on top of a failed product, and I appreciated that.

I always dreamed of working with Google in any way, get to interact with their experts or even try their products. There was always one thing that made my relation with Google difficult; The United States Sanctions Laws.

How is that?

Well, long story short, US has sanctions laws and embargo that prevent US companies from dealing with specific countries in trading or spreading their technology. Syria is one of those countries. [You can read more about it here: http://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/syria/]

Why would the US do that?

These countries are considered on the terrorism list for several reasons that differ from one country to another. The Sanctions laws are kind of a punishment and a protection act that the US does in order to prevent these countries regimes from getting advanced technology that could be used in a technical war. Unfortunately, it is citizens who suffer the consequences.

What does this mean for Syrians?

In Syria, we don’t get Google offices and most of Google services are blocked (Google Play Store for example). If you try to access any of them, you will get hit by this message:

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Google’s message for users from forbidden countries, e.g: Syria

Even internships like Google summer of code is not allowed for Syrian Citizens.

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Students residents of a United States embargoed country are not allowed to apply for internship at Google

 

I also mentioned previously my struggle to acquire an Oracle certificate and how I wasn’t allowed to undertake the required exam because of my Syrian nationality. We also don’t get Microsoft products, Windows official system distributions, nor famous software like Adobe.

What does Google say about it?

Google believes in Open Source Technology and knowledge for everyone, but Google in the end is an American company that has to follow the American law. However, they try every now and then to find a middle point in between the two conditions as they say here:

As a U.S. company, we remain committed to full compliance with U.S. export controls and sanctions. We remain equally committed to continue exploring how we can help more people around the globe use technology to communicate, find and create information. [Source: https://googleblog.blogspot.ie/2012/05/software-downloads-in-syria.html%5D

So, what do we Syrians do?

If you are raised as a Syrian, you get to learn an important skill, that is never to give up. We have a lot of rules and laws, most of them don’t make sense. So we developed a skill to get around them without harming anyone, we discover creative ways to solve this kind of problems. We go up and down to make things work for us. There is always a backdoor for any law.

Sanctions laws never stopped Syrians from being involved in Technology.
It just made it more challenging for them.  

Back in Damascus, Syrians have a full market of “illegal” copies of any prohibited software. It is proudly displayed in front of many computer shops in that market called “Al Bahsa

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Al Bahsa Computer market in the heart of Damascus, Syria

Syrians from all ages go there to buy their Tech passion on a CD. There were also a lot of learning materials for different programming and network courses. It is important to clear out that Syrians were not copying these products because they didn’t want to pay the high price of the official products, they were not given the right to purchase the official ones. It was not an option. It was a survival strategy.

Syrians also understood the power of proxy servers to manage to access Google websites. They all became hackers by instinct. Even a young boy would know how to access the browser settings and add a new proxy that changes the location of access. We needed this skill also for accessing websites blocked by the Syrian regime, which were for political reasons. Wikipedia.com was blocked in Syria for a long time because of one anti-regime paragraph. Facebook and Blogspot websites were also blocked for similar reasons. (UPDATE: when I sent this article to my friend in Syria to read it, he notified me that WordPress is also blocked!)

One day, I heard from a Google fan friend about Google Days. Google was doing a big series of events in the middle east. It was free of charge, with talks, and workshops about Google products, with a dedicated session for Android! I was over the moon. The closest event location to Syria was Jordan, which was about a 2 to 3 hours ride from Damascus (depending on border control). My googly friends and I arranged a road trip to meet our crush and it was like magic land for us.

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Me, G|Jordan, Amman, 2011

 

We met Googlers, we attended talks and workshops, we took pictures of Google logo on anything! My friends and I still feel lucky for this opportunity and we never stopped talking about how cool it would be to have this back home, Syria.

Years passed by and I came to Ireland, one of the first things I searched for after I settled down was Google. I was disappointed to know that there was not an office in Galway, but what is a ride to Dublin? I looked up their events schedule and started attending regularly in Dublin. Google Developers Group & Women Techmakers were the easiest way to satisfy a Google crush. I always came back to Galway energised to do more. I was seriously thinking about moving to Dublin just to be closer to Google but I discovered that I love Galway more. So what did I do? I moved Google to Galway!

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GDG Galway, David Renton & I, The G Hotel, Galway, 2015


I started reaching out to these events organizers. I expressed my passion and interest. One day I got that invitation asking me to be part of Google Developers Group & Women Techmakers in Galway. And I said yes! I was introduced to Googlers who are in charge of community programs and I was paired with other passionate volunteers so we can together start building our first Google event in Galway. I never organized such a thing before. I had zero knowledge about what it takes but I knew I could do it. It was stressful, overwhelming, time-consuming but I never felt happier. We had to find local sponsors, tech speakers, interested attendees, appropriate venue and much more. Finally in September 2015, our Google baby was born. We hosted our first of more to come Google events. It was absolutely rewarding. We got over 125 attendees, 5 speakers, 2 sponsors, Google swag and a lot of excitement!

 

In a parallel universe in Syria earlier that year, my same-passion-Google-friends started GDG in Damascus with the blessing of Google. They had a huge launch event that had 350 attendees. 350 Syrians who faced the worse since the war started in Syria, 350 who tried to put that behind them and believed in a brighter future for Syria. I was thrilled to know they managed to finally do it. I knew Walid, my friend had tried before but had to cancel last-minute for security reasons. I was so happy to see it finally born in Syria, despite of all rules, regulations, war, and depression, he managed to do something positive and so much harder than what I did in Ireland.

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GDG Damascus, Walid Nasri and Sulaiman Shalati, Damascus, 2015

 

Unfortunately, this achievement was too good to be true. Google Developers Chapters were reviewed to make sure Google is in full compliance with US laws, and my friend was informed that sadly, GDG Damascus cannot be supported by Google, with a promise to be contacted in the future when circumstances change. A lot of organizers and Googlers tried to do something about it when the news was shared with GDG community, but law is law and US companies had to follow the US law if they wish to remain US companies.

It was depressing, I couldn’t imagine his feeling after everything he tried to build. He was basically doing a free advertisement for Google in Syria, sponsored locally by Syrian Tech communities and companies (Not by Google) and even that was not allowed. I thought of quitting my branch in Galway more than once. Many organizers in other countries in the middle-east wanted to do the same thing. I didn’t believe in Google anymore. It was not the superhero I cheered for anymore. They don’t care about us and it is just a big political game.

It took me a while to understand that it was out of their hands. That they tried to do their best but it is just not that simple. It never is with politics. Finally, I decided to stay in charge of GDG Galway hoping that one day I could raise this issue internally, I could represent Syria in a way or another, I could go back to Syria to organize tech events and share the knowledge I got from this experience. In addition, I was connected to the lovely community in Ireland. I loved getting engaged technically and socially with them. It was just a great responsibility that I could not easily walk away from. Even running Women Techmakers was an added value to something I truly believe in. I always believed in the importance of empowering women and creating paths for them to engage more in a male dominated field.

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Women Techmakers celebrating International Women Day, Galway, 2016

So, I stayed. I got more and more involved. I jumped from a Google event to the other. Every time I organised an event I got so busy and stressed out that I end up saying “ Why did I get myself into this!” but as soon the event comes to an end and all the attendees reach out to say how much they enjoyed it and got inspired, I forget all the chaos and am just a happy-satisfied-never quitting-nerd that can’t wait to organize the next tech event! I thought I reached the maximum of excitement with Google until one day I got that email. It was a different email than all usual ones:

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And that is another story!

 

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8 responses »

  1. My dear friend Suad, it was nice of you to talk about my experience with Google, and how they blocked me out of the GDG Program. I am really happy to read your story and glad that you made it to the I/O 😀
    Frankly speaking, technology is not limited to Google, although its large reputation, there are still lots and lots of things that Google is not even close to. Therefore, when I was kicked out of the GDG program, I decided to move to other open communities, Java programmers, and DEVOXX for example.
    Anyway, I hope someone will hear our voice and realize that it is a stupid action to put sanctions on people, rather than on government.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is so inspirational , I feel so motivated by this article. You are a rock star Suad, you look at impediments and point at them. At the same time you are achieving a great success at very fast pace . Tech Talks is one of the hardest thing someone can do, they take alot of courage. and you are just soaring with this.
    Good Luck Dear .

    Like

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