Over the course of the second annual national Students Organize for Syria conference, from Friday through Sunday at the University of Michigan, students and faculty from all over the country had the opportunity to listen to speakers, engage in discussions surrounding Syria and grapple with the primary question of the event: “Where do we go from here?”
In the course of the eight-year-long civil war — which most watchdog organizations estimate has claimed about 500,000 lives — Syrian students have struggled with news of chemical attacks by the Assad regime, political inaction by the U.S. and other international actors and the resulting refugee crisis.
With the last national conference hosted in Chicago, SOS National President Amal Rass, a senior at Wayne State University, was excited to have the 2018 conference at the University of Michigan.
“I’m just so happy to have this at U of M, for the conference to be hosted here,” Rass said. “I think it’s the perfect place to have it, the students seem to be very passionate about these things and want to learn about. I’m happy we get to have it here.”
The weekend’s event consisted of a series of talks and discussions from 13 speakers, many of whom represented various Syrian activist organizations. Activist Shiyam Galyon, former director of the Books Not Bombs campaign that captured campus attention in 2016, delievered the conference keynote Saturday morning— the rest of the speakers included representatives from the Syrian American Medican Society, Syrian Community Network, Syrian American Council and the Karam Foundation. Public Policy senior Zoha Qureshi, president of the University’s SOS chapter, said every speaker had an important message to share with the conference, but cited Loubna Mrie, a Syrian photojournalist, had an especially strong effect.
“Honestly, the lineup of speakers was incredible,” Qureshi said. “I’d say Loubna (Mrie) who spoke yesterday, she was a photographer on the front lines, her experiences were so raw and so personal and it just really struck a chord within me and I think she’s just phenomenal, but every other speaker had something really important to contribute. They’re just so phenomenal and I’m really glad they took the time this weekend to come and share their experiences and share their ideas on how we can make an impact.”
The event included 10 speaker sessions with topics ranging from policy, advocacy and lobbying to journalism in war zones, all of which addressed the future of the Syrian conflict. Many of the discussions began with presentations from each speaker before moving into a Q&A discussion with audience members. Qureshi said the Q&A allowed attendees to not only listen but actively participate with the speakers.
“I think it’s really important to have that engagement because if it’s just a bunch of lectures in a long span of time you kind of zone out and you lose track of what’s going on,” Qureshi said. “Just having that continuous conversation that’s really what makes things stick in people’s minds.”
Many attendees revealed they felt personal connections with the event speakers. LSA senior Ahmad Alabed, a member of the University’s SOS chapter, said the firsthand experiences of the activists allowed him to learn new information and see the Syrian conflict from a new point of view.
“I’m Syrian so I do have that firsthand experience from my family, but my family doesn’t live there,” Alabed said. “I hear from the people who live in the States, and I have my own opinion on what’s going on, but it’s very difficult to get an actual activist’s opinion who’s been there who’s been through things that these speakers have been through, and I think that’s really important. Just from the two speakers I’ve attended, it’s completely new information I’ve never had access to.”
Rackham student Hani Habra said he gained a new perspective from listening to the speakers, which provided him with a different way of learning about the Syrian situation.
“I do a lot of reading on the conflict, but actually meeting the people and hearing their perspective, it kind of gives a kind of different dimension to actually reading what they have to say. It feels a lot more real,” Habra said.
According to Rass, being surrounded by others who care about the conflict in Syria allows her to stay motivated and keep pushing to make an impact.
“This conference is important to me for two reasons,” Rass said. “One is that it helps me stay energized, passionate and also learning on how to keep organizing and moving forward and how we can keep doing work in these universities. The second part is being around people who share this passion is so important. Being around other Syrian Americans that care about this, even being around people who aren’t Syrian who are super passionate about this cause is an enriching experience that is super important to have.”
Through addressing solutions to the Syrian conflict, many speakers emphasized the importance of raising awareness for the Syrian cause. Qureshi maintainted people nationwide and around the world should learn about and advocate for solutions to the Syrian conflict to encourage tangible change.
“It’s important to know that you don’t have to be Syrian to care about these issues, you just have to be human and have a heart,” Qureshi said. “Honestly, there’s just so many ways to make an impact that can be as little or big as you want it to be, I just want people to leave feeling empowered. Like Amal said, this has been going on for seven years, there’s still a lot to be done.”