More than 100 students and community members gathered in the Diag Thursday night, despite temperatures nearing zero degrees, to participate in a vigil commemorating the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo — a city that has been the center of fighting between Syrian rebel forces and President Bashar al-Assad’s army over the past five years.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, almost 500,000 Syrians have been killed, with millions more forced out of their homes. Though a tentative ceasefire deal was first reached on Dec. 13, the evacuation of city residents was delayed until Dec. 15 due to continued fighting. According to Al Jazeera, the citizens remaining in the city at the time of the vigil were being evacuated by bus and ambulance. However, on Friday, the ceasefire agreement, which would have evacuated thousands of civilians, was suspended, leaving those who were slated to leave in danger.
The vigil began with a moment of silence, during which participants mourned the devastation. Some vigil participants, such as Rackham student Nessma Bashi, had first-hand experience with the effects of the civil war in Syria. Bashi said she spent time working with Syrian refugees while previously living in Jordan.
“I think the entire world should do more to acknowledge what’s happening in Syria,” she said. “There’s zero education on the plight of these people, and oftentimes there are people who are talking about it now, but weren’t listening to those of us who were saying there were issues on the ground for the past five years now, going on six years.”
Multiple speakers at the vigil noted the role of social media in exposing the rest of the world to the horrors occurring in Aleppo. Syrians trapped in buildings due to the siege have communicated messages with the public over platforms like Twitter. LSA junior Nuzhat Choudhury said she first heard about the conflict in Aleppo from watching these videos on her social media timelines.
“I knew from Twitter,” Choudhury said. “A lot of people had just been tweeting about it, like the people I follow and stuff, they were showing the videos and obviously that’s a humanitarian issue, you’re going to come and support them.”
At the event, many of the speakers were Syrian-American students who reflected on stories of their youth in Syria, and their experiences hearing about the violence from abroad. They urged students to take action and raise awareness about the violence occurring there.
LSA junior Reema Kaakarli, one of the students with Syrian heritage, shared her memories of her grandfather’s home in Damascus. According to Kaakarli, she felt compelled to share these stories because she believes that when remembering Syria, it is important to be mindful of the people who still remain there.
As a Kurdish Syrian-American, Kaakarli also discussed the importance of viewing all individuals as human, rather than with a specific racial identity. To Kaakarli, this holds a particular importance because of the experiences she has faced with personal prejudices directed toward her.
“It’s hard for me to say I’m Kurdish to some people, because I know that they’re going to judge me, because people view each other through geo-political lines and illegitimate things like that,” she said. “Please just remember your humanity, when you try to remember Syria.”
Following the speeches, people of all religious backgrounds stood in unity as a prayer was recited in Arabic, the official language of Syria.
LSA junior Hafsa Tout, one of the organizers of the event, said she was grateful for all the students who came out to the Diag and stood in the cold to participate in the vigil. She explained that though they plan to work toward addressing the needs of Syrians overseas, it is important to begin with awareness and support on campus.
“Every person standing at the vigil made a statement with us tonight, and that is that we refuse to be silent to the genocide of the Syrian people,” Tout said. “We will do everything in our power as UM students to honor those lost to senseless violence and to protect the men, women and families still fighting for their lives in Syria.”