Following the bombings in Eastern Ghouta last month which, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, have taken the lives of 654 civilians in the past two weeks, the war in Syria will reach its eighth year on March 15. With more than 465,000 Syrian lives lost in the conflict, University of Michigan and Ann Arbor activists are struggling to center the conflict at the local level while suffering unfolds overseas.
However, emergency responses like phone banks and informational rallies about large attacks such as the bombings in the eastern Ghouta region of Syria and various education events about the war have become a primary focus for activists working to make a difference. Despite the length and damage of the war, organizers say they use these channels to move past the perception of a static crisis.
LSA sophomore Ayah Kutmah, fundraising chair for the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, is the daughter of Syrian immigrants who immigrated to the United States over 20 years ago. Her parents used to take her back to Syria every summer to visit family. These visits ceased in 2011 when the area became too risky due to violent crackdowns by Bashar al-Assad's forces against protesters.
“After the summer of 2011, things had escalated to a point where it was no longer safe for anyone to really go there, particularly if you have a political opinion,” she said.
During his sophomore year, LSA senior Yusuf Ahmed saw how perceptions of safety and the Syrian crisis overall command a very large presence in the news. Since the conflict’s peaceful inception during the 2011 Arab Spring, more than a million Syrians have been injured and over 12 million have had to leave their homes because of conflict with the authoritarian al-Assad regime. The Syrian refugee crisis is now widely recognized as one of the worst humanitarian crises of the current age. While Ahmed had been thinking about the Syrian civil war — then in its fifth year — he decided it was time to take action after hearing the story of a local imam and Syrian refugee who fled from his home during the reign of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
“He put the entire audience in his shoes,” Ahmed said. “He made us understand how truly lonely it is and how scary it is to be a refugee, to leave everything behind, to have absolutely nothing besides the clothes on your back … I couldn’t sleep for a week because, to me, I was faced with a paradox — how could I go to school, take tests, go to Espresso, grab a coffee, knowing what atrocities are happening halfway across the world, knowing those atrocities aren’t in the history books but are happening as we speak?”
Inspired by that speech, Ahmed decided to start the Syrian Orphans Sponsorship Association on campus, which focused on orphaned children in the wake of the conflict. According to UNICEF, a total of 11 million Syrian children have been displaced because of the civil war. From that point, SOSA began to grow. During the first semester of the organization’s existence, SOSA raised $5,000; the following year, they raised $10,000.
As the scope of the organization changed, the name followed suit. Now as Students Organize for Syria, Ahmed said attempting to address the crisis is not an easy task. He said projects such as medical drives, which package medical supplies and ship them to areas in need of medical care, clothing drives, documentary screenings and more play a very large part in increasing personal participation and encouraging individual involvement. Though the crisis has been drawn out, Ahmed emphasized the push for public and government action. .
“It’s tough because it seems sometimes, no matter how much you try to do, nothing changes,” Ahmed said. “For us, it’s really about looking at the impact we can have as individuals and that’s why those engagement projects are so important … Longevity-wise, that’s how we hope to continue to inspire students and allow them to continue playing a part regardless of how long the crisis is going on.”
Public Policy junior Zoha Qureshi, public relations chair and incoming president of SOS, said the three main goals of SOS are advocacy, education and fundraising. She said the largest hurdle when organizing is continuing to keep a physical presence on campus.
“The biggest thing is reminding everyone this is a crisis that’s been going on for such a long time, and we just need to continue to push forward and do whatever we can in the capacity that we have as college students to make an impact and to really help out in any way we can,” Qureshi said.
LSA senior Zoe Proegler, co-president of the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, said MRAP, which was founded in September 2016 when many images of refugees from Syria were being shared online, focuses their efforts on volunteering with refugees in the area, and advocacy and education events such as teach-ins and documentary screenings. She said MRAP also grapples with staying relevant on campus given the extended time frame in Syria.
“That’s definitely a difficulty that we face and have to struggle with,” Proegler said. “How do we keep people engaged and informed when things have been so bad for so long?”
As a member of MRAP, Kutmah said the issues around organizing for victims in the Syrian conflict involve keeping Syria in the collective consciousness of the community and inspiring people to work to alleviate suffering. Still, she noted, she remains committed to activism because of the prospect of change in a conflict that is anything but static.
“In general, whenever you want to have a social movement or try to start any movement regarding an issue, the issue becomes an issue of memory and an issue of time,” she said. “When something big happens, it suddenly feels very pertinent. Everyone wants to organize and … the one thing social movements or any movements have against them is time because the longer that time lapses, the less people are interested and the less people are advocating.”
Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor and Vicinity, the local mosque near North Campus, has been recently responding to and promoting educational efforts on the war in Syria for its members and Ann Arbor residents, but faces similar issues as the campus organizations. MCA President Habib Hamidi said the war in Syria doesn’t have the convenience of organizing around a single issue. Hamidi cited rallies demanding the removal of troops during the Iraq War as a crisis that can call for one specific outcome, while the Syrian civil war does not have an easily digestible conclusion.
“There isn’t one particular action that you can sort of advocate for,” Hamidi said. “We just try to say ‘Hey, we just have to do our part’ and … As long as everybody does their part and raises their voice, then collectively we can have an effect.”
Kutmah said these specific points of protest allow for a very large presence on campus, but since the conflict ravaged the Syrian people for almost eight years, these rallying points are too far and few between for a continued activist effort.
“You’ll have rallying points like, for example, when chemical weapons were used or in Aleppo or right now you have eastern Ghouta but for the most part, there’s no continued activism by a large group of people,” she said.
In the past month, activism for Syria has become much more visible on campus and in Ann Arbor after bombings in eastern Ghouta, which began in late February. The last rebel-controlled area near Syria’s capital, the 104-square mile district, home to about 400,000 Syrian civilians, has been under heavy fire from al-Assad’s regime since 2013.
On Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for an investigation into the bombing campaign in eastern Ghouta, as well as a failed ceasefire two weeks ago. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said it was “high time to stop this hell on earth” at the HRC’s opening session.
SOS, MRAP and MCA ramped up organizing in response to the crisis. SOS held an emergency phone bank in the Michigan Union on Thursday, February 22, where students could contact their state and federal representatives, asking them to take a stand and pass legislation condemning the attacks in Ghouta.
“Our goal is really for (the representatives) to publicly recognize the fact that this is going on because that’s something that I didn’t really see in any US news outlets,” Qureshi said. “I woke up Thursday (February 22) … I get the New York Times and get newsletters emailed to me every morning and I didn’t see any word of that and it just felt kind of weird like it’s not even being talked about.”
Proegler said MRAP has worked with SOS on events in the past and supported the phone bank method, saying it not only allows students to get involved with the organization but also to contribute to the collective goal of bringing attention to the crisis.
“When you’re able to give members things to do like call your representatives and advocate for this specific change, it allows them to feel more involved and actually taking steps to mitigate the crisis and it does make a difference,” Proegler said.
MCA, on the other hand, concentrated their efforts on a physical educational presence, staging an “Interfaith Rally for Syria” in front of the Ann Arbor Post Office Friday, February 23. MCA member Dr. Mohammad AlAzem, who helped pass out flyers on the Ghouta bombings with information on how members of the public could contact their representatives, said he believes it is his job to spread the word about the crisis in Syria to those who may not know about it.
“I (have been) living in Ann Arbor now for the past 29 years and … My duty as originally Syrian (and) American is to educate the public,” AlAzem said in an interview after the event.
Hamidi said an element of MCA’s organizing efforts is getting members involved in the democratic process through rallies and educational demonstrations such as the one he and AlAzem organized and attended.
However, a large issue for these organizers comes when there are lulls between large events to rally behind. Qureshi said staying relevant on campus can be a struggle.
“(We’re) periodically having different kinds of events to show that we are active and we are continuously doing things,” Qureshi said. “We just want to continuously have events like bi-weekly just so (students) know that our presence is there on campus … One of our goals is spreading awareness about the campaign so we want to be able to make sure that as many University of Michigan students as possible know about what’s happening there and know that they can do something about it too.”
Another issue Ahmed and Proegler addressed with their respective organizations is reaching out to new students who aren’t already involved with the issue. When an issue such as Syria is addressed, Ahmed said a specific crowd of involved students is drawn to their events. While he said this base is good, there are more students at the University that might not know about the war. He said these are the populations SOS is working to interact with.
“Population penetration is something that we’ve been looking at pretty deeply,” Ahmed said. “We’ve actually implemented an expansion manager and an outreach manager, that’s on and off-campus communication so that we’re not just reaching out to more orgs on campus, whether that’s fraternities, sororities, different volunteer clubs, but also to the larger Ann Arbor population.”
MRAP has been working to create more cross-organizational communication as well to tackle the issue of the same people attending their events. Proegler said by collaborating with other organizations on campus, more students can get involved and a larger impact can be made.
“As we see broader coalitions forming sort of across a range of social and political issues, we’re definitely benefiting from some of that energy of people wanting to reach out and get involved with stuff that might be kind of outside of their realm of expertise or their focus as a service organization or as an affinity group but we’ve definitely been seeing people remain interested and engaged,” Proegler said. “As much as this isn’t something that has an end date in sight, I find a lot of hope in people who are still coming out to events (and) still taking action.”
In his own experience with organizing, Hamidi said MCA is working to stage more public events and reach out to members of all backgrounds in the community to increase education efforts and hopefully help the victims of this crisis.
“What I think is most effective is getting out in the streets and basically interacting with people one-on-one and trying to have a conversation with them,” Hamidi said. “Especially with a long conflict, when you do any type of rally or anything like that, people are desensitized to what you’re talking about, especially when they hear the word ‘Syria’ because it’s such a long conflict so I think one-on-one interactions and listening to people … is refreshing to me.”
Kutmah agreed with Hamidi’s emphasis on one-on-one dialogue and said even sharing articles and visual statements about the crisis encourage individual engagement with the issue. She firmly believes change, repair and action are not impossible.
“It’s hard to engage with a huge amount of people on an issue that is … much more protracted,” she said. “A lot of it is reminding people that it still exists … No one has found a solution for it yet, but I guess continuous reminders that is exists because a lot of people try to put it at the back at their forefront.”