More than 50 University of Michigan students and community members gathered Tuesday night in the Diag as part of a vigil commemorating the deaths of civilians due to a U.S-led coalition of airstrikes in Aleppo, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.
On March 16, an explosion in a Syrian mosque left 46 civilians dead, and between March 17 and March 23, more than 200 civilians were killed in Mosul, as the United States fought to clear members of the Islamic State from the city. As many speakers mentioned, human-rights group Amnesty International noted the high civilian toll in Mosul suggested U.S.-led coalition forces had failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths.
LSA sophomore Abbas Alhassan said he attended the vigil because he is of Iraqi descent and believes it is important to represent his heritage at the University.
“You know, I really feel like the Arabs here are very underrepresented, so whenever we have a chance to come out and show who we are, it’s very important,” he said. “You have to show up. Otherwise, things like this will go unnoticed.”
Surrounded by the glow of candles, speakers mourned those lost in the airstrikes, while also emphasizing the importance of remembering the humanity of those killed, rather than statistics portraying the immense number of lives lost. Speeches touched on highly personal topics, such as an Iraqi speaker’s mother loving purple but always wearing black because of constant mourning, or another student’s brother lamenting that to die in Syria means “to be forgotten.”
Alhassan further stressed coming together as a community to mourn the faces behind the death tolls.
“When we see things like this, 200 deaths in Iraq and Syria, when we hear about this very often, you know this many deaths, this many deaths, it just continuously adds up and at some point it all just becomes a number,” he said. “So if we’re not doing things like this, we’re just going to keep reading about it and seeing about it as a number. But when we all come out together we start to understand it, there’s a more realistic reason behind doing it.”
Engineering senior Nusayba Tabbah, whose family is from Syria, noted the proliferation of human deaths in the media has led people to become numb to the tragedy, even those personally affected.
“I feel like I’ve constantly been coming to these vigils — it’s kind of gotten to be pretty routine,” she said. “I feel like it’s actually kind of slowed down this semester, not because any of the tragedies have lessened but because it’s become so normal, which is really sad. Even as Syrian-Americans, whose families has been directly affected by the conflict, it’s easy for us to become numb to it.”
LSA sophomore Courtney Caulkins, an organizer with the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, said she attended the vigil to support her friend Alyiah Al-Bonijim, one of the event’s organizers, and to stay aware of U.S. military actions in countries overseas.
“I think that the conflict right now in Iraq and Syria is really connected with the refugee crisis, from both places right now, and we should be holding our government accountable for the actions that are taking place very far away and ensuring we aren’t being blinded by the distance,” Caulkins said.