The Books Not Bombs campaign boasts that students from 173 universities internationally support a movement for scholarships geared toward Syrian refugees including the University of Michigan. As of Wednesday, 883 University students signed a petition calling for 10 scholarships for Syrian students.
Syria is currently in an ongoing civil war which grew out of an uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. Since the war began, at least 470,000 Syrians have died and as many as 11 million refugees are displaced.
University students involved with the scholarship campaign presented a resolution to Central Student Government last Tuesday asking for their support. If approved, CSG will being work with University administrators on next steps in creating the scholarships.
LSA junior Haleemah Aqel, the head organizer of the University chapter of Books Not Bombs, wrote in an email CSG had originally planned to vote on the resolution Tuesday of this week but decided to table it until their meeting next week, on Nov. 7, to allow the campaign time to update the resolution.
If the University agrees to provide scholarships, it will join the Syrian Consortium, a group of institutions responding to the breakdown of higher education within Syria by providing scholarships. The consortium is facilitated by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that promotes education worldwide. Other universities in the consortium include the University of Southern California and Michigan State University, which joined last year, according to Chris Records, a Books Not Bombs campus coordinator.
Aqel wrote she feels education is a human right, and the Books Not Bombs campaign facilitates that right for victims of the political turbulence in Syria.
“We, with this privilege, need to find a way to make accessible those opportunities for students, and specifically Syrians and Syrian refugees, to come learn and hopefully after all of this ends, give back to Syrian civil society or even help our society,” she said.
She cited Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s attempt to suspend refugees’ entrance to Michigan last year as an example of this Islamophobic rhetoric.
As well, she pointed to the large number of Syrian refugees in the state of Michigan, specifically in the Ann Arbor area, as the reason national organizers recommended a campus campaign in addition to the petition.
Records said the University was a “priority campus” this year, meaning the group is working more closely with student organizers and providing strategic advice, in addition to Berkeley University, Yale University and Columbia University. However, Records also said the control of the campaign ultimately lies with the student organizers, adding that he appreciated Aqel’s progress.
“She’s doing great grassroots work and all the fundamentals are in place,” he said. “I’m encouraged to see where it goes.”
So far, these efforts led by Aqel and 10 other students include hosting a film screening and organizing informational tables in University buildings such as Angell Hall and the Chemistry building. Aqel said these efforts aim to both increase awareness of the educational crisis in Syria and find students willing to sign the petition, which in turn strengthens their proposal to CSG.
“If this campaign continues to gather signatures, all of that, and even support from various student organizations, that will only make this call for scholarships much stronger,” Aqel said. “And then it’ll show administrators that it’s not just me or my team that are interested in this, it’s this diverse network of students that are very interested in this campaign.”
Public Health student Lilah Khoja is another organizer of the efforts at the University who works with the Karam Foundation, another Syrian nonprofit organization co-sponsoring Books Not Bombs. Khoja said the campaign resonated with her view of education as a human right, especially through the lens of her identity as a Syrian-American and her experience working with Syrian refugees.
“To ask elementary schoolers, ‘what do you want to do?’ and for them to say ‘well, what can I do? There’s nothing for me’ — that’s really why I feel very passionately about Books Not Bombs and why I think it’s so important to give this opportunity to those who really need it,” she said.
She said she felt the University has the potential to set an example for other public universities around the country.
“I think if (Books Not Bombs) is a success at the University of Michigan, that will just galvanize other students at other universities to push for the same thing on their campuses,” Khoja said.
Khoja also emphasized the importance of the apolitical nature of the campaign.
“Education is a human right, and so in a context of war where numerous crimes against humanity and war crimes are being carried out, education is really oftentimes the first thing to be attacked,” she said. “Because education is all about empowering people in communities, it’s important for a campaign like this to remain apolitical, so all communities in Syria can benefit from something like this, regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of their religion, of their sexual orientation.”