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Right to Thrive

Ahmad Yazan Miri: "It needs to be collective engagement to build a social contract with the river"

Activist Yazan talks about the role and importance of history, culture and community in rebuilding our relationship with nature.

In collaboration with River Dôn Project logo

Right to Thrive explores local people's connections to the River Don through a collection of generative interviews. In this series we encourage people to question extractive, human-centred views of nature in favour of recognising and celebrating its right to thrive.

Ahmad Yazan Miri is an activist, nature enthusiast and former Youth4Nature Global Ambassador. He grew up in Aleppo in Syria, where he spent a significant part of his life living in a war zone, before moving to the UK and settling in Sheffield.

Yazan is passionate about advocating for the voices of future generations in nature and climate related matters, particularly young people from the most marginalised communities.

Why was it important for you to have a conversation about the River Don?

I'm interested in nature and climate in general, and also interested in youth participation, specifically in nature.

Most of all, I became really interested recently in connecting different aspects of human life with natural life, establishing the narrative or supporting the narrative that humans are a crucial part of nature, that we all have a collective interest in thriving together.

This perspective especially comes to me after after living about half of my life in a war zone [in Syria], where nature got destroyed, and also in an area that is called the Fertile Crescent that had millennia of thriving with nature and collaborating and building stories around food, around culture, establishing our heritage that is built and connected with nature.

It became for me a tool to strengthen the existence and protect the heritage and culture of my people. I ordered today a book which is one of the oldest recipe books in the world, from my city [Aleppo]. It's from the 13th century.

Oh wow. What kind of recipes does it have?

It has about 600 recipes, actually. And it's not only food – it's drinks, it's colognes, sweets. So all kinds of things.

In the past, I participated in many political negotiations and processes around nature. The latest one was in Kenya, where I went to attend a United Nations meeting to establish a science policy panel on chemicals and waste, and preventing pollution. That was in December last year. So yeah, that's in general why I'm interested in this.

So you talk a little bit about how important history and culture is, and the history of our relationship with nature, and how maybe we've lost that connection. Clearly that needs to involve a really significant readjustment with how we relate to the world, doesn't it, and how we see ourselves as part of that. And actually the idea of thriving is that we all thrive together.

Human culture and civilisation always depends on the support of nature elements, including water and rivers. There is no civilisation without the capacity to get drinking water and usable water for a civilisation to thrive and be able to grow and support its people. So it's crucial that we understand the boundaries of other elements of nature – other than us. Because we as humans have boundaries, but also wetlands, mountains, dryland deserts and rivers all have boundaries that we should acknowledge and understand so that we don't cross them, because affecting their own boundaries might affect our sustainability, and our ability to thrive and grow and sustain our lives.

I'm not sure if we want to also give pronouns to rivers at this point…

Maybe we should think about that! I mean, certainly, we believe that we should be all trying to understand what the river wants and needs from us. For me, we can't go back to this pre-industrial relationship [with the river], or this pre-industrial way of living. We need to find a new way of relating to nature, which is considerate of what it needs from us and what boundaries it needs for us not to cross.

Yeah, so we want a new social contract with nature elements.

In this specific context, of Sheffield and South Yorkshire, in general rivers are really overexploited – in the last few decades, and in the last century, maybe a few centuries.

As humans, we like to help others. So I suppose that nature would also like to help us. We find this in indigenous knowledge all over the globe. When people go foraging and go chopping trees, they plant or they leave something left in that area, so that it grows again, so that they will ensure the sustainability of it, and they will ensure also intergenerational sustainability for the community that they live in.

So I don't think that we should be completely isolated from any elements of nature and just completely deal with it as another entity. That's part of my perspective on conservation work in general in the UK, which is fencing areas and fencing nature away from humans, which I don't particularly agree with.

So for me, [what] the river wants from us is a friendly interaction and a supportive relationship, not an exploitative relationship. So that the river can give to us and we can give to the river, and we can both take care of each other mutually, in a mutual relationship, not an exploitative, poisonous one.

What do you think the River Don would say about us? If it could speak, what would the river say about us humans?

Well, I think that rivers are generally nice and they wouldn't swear! Because they are blue and calm and easy, and they flow. They’re not rocks.

So I think they would be wise to us and give us wise advice on our relationship with ourselves, and give us a perspective. They would be a coach for us, teaching us the meaning of change. Because our bodies, and humans in general, are in a constant flow of life. We are not an existing entity – we are changing continuously.

The river would say that they are interested in continuous living and they will tell us that they are sick and we can measure that in their own data, but the data don't reflect the feeling of the river itself. So when we ask the river to speak, the river will reply with pain and with emotions and that will give us the perspective of pain, of losing some of our organs or our main elements in our bodies.

They will sit with us for a cup of tea and share stories of who went through them, and also who crossed their width, all the armies that crossed and all the people who have been fishing on their water.

That’s a good answer!

You’ve found out that I love poetry! You can sense that, I guess...

What would you like to see happen next with the River Don? What action or actions would you like to see us taking?

Build community action based on scientific knowledge, facilitated using local and national policy.

Participation with the river to change the social contract. We should have a discussion – a local discussion mainly, and also a very inclusive discussion – on how we build a new social contract with the river and establish new community-driven action to help the river and also get help from it. And establish this kind of cohesion between us and nature in general, and specifically with the river [Don]. And also try to build our knowledge of what systems the river connects with. Other-than-humans, for example, wetlands and the Peak District.

But also understand the nature of communities that the River Don goes through. Understanding the differences sometimes between Sheffield and and other communities in South Yorkshire that are suffering from post-industrial challenges. There are existing challenges and differences between communities and we need every community engaging, but we also need to understand that different communities have different experiences with the river, based on their existing socio-economic circumstances. So recognising that as well – not forcing our own understanding here in Sheffield on other communities in South Yorkshire. It needs to be collective engagement to build a social contract with the river.

Engaging young people and children would be great – build an engagement plan and also a learning plan about its history, its connection with different people around communities, and also sustainable interaction activities with it. So that people can recognise it, go alongside the river and actually visualise its impact and its existence. And speak with it, and speak with its neighbours as well, to hear its stories.

Thanks for your time, Yazan. I really appreciate it.

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