By: Denny Cristales
The horrors of civil war have been crippling the lives of Syrians for about six years– a time span in which the blaze of weapons and the overwhelming force of airstrikes have become a norm for the people who inhabit the once peaceful area.
Case in point: the 5-year-old boy who went viral last summer– Omran Daqneesh, who was rescued from a destroyed building after yet another airstrike on the city of Aleppo.
The image of the bloodied boy– his body chalk-white from the debris– and the blank expression he wore served as a painful visual of the internal struggle that has ravaged Syria for years.
However, locals are currently attempting their best efforts to fight the fight on a more peaceful front, one in which Syrians can escape their ravaged land and find opportunity elsewhere.
Opportunities in activism, Syria in the modern age and the global refugee crisis were among the items discussed at a local symposium Saturday, Feb. 11 entitled “Syria: 6 Years Later” at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB).
The Syrian-American Council, Los Angeles (SAC-LA) and the CSULB Muslim Student Association, in collaboration with the CSULB Department of Political Science, hosted the event to spread awareness and encourage individuals to be involved in aiding those involved in the crisis.
The event featured a screening of the Netflix documentary The White Helmets, a look at volunteer rescue workers in their attempt to save civilians in violent war areas in Syria and Turkey.
A few programs to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis were also listed. Organizations include the Voice of Refugees, Tiyya Foundation and World Relief, all of which can be found locally.
Hannah Ghazal, who has a BA in international studies and Middle Eastern studies, presented “Syrians: The Struggle of Integration,” which detailed the challenge refugees face in their attempt to integrate to other countries and start a new life.
“[They] give up all their studies to start all over from scratch,” Ghazal said of some refugees who venture to other countries and can’t apply their education to the workforce when they immigrate.
Ghazal detailed the story of Om Moustafa, a refugee woman whose real name was withheld for her protection. She and her boys moved to Sweden in search of a better life, but acclimating to a foreign land has its challenges.
Ghazal said it’s almost like a loss of identity.
“No matter how much they integrate or assimilate into a country,” she said, “they will always feel that sense of alienation.”
Some countries have refugee-housing units to shelter people, such as the case in Sweden with Moustafa’s family, Ghazal said. Syrians obtain residency in Sweden by applying for asylum, a type of protection status for refugees, at asylum-seeking centers located throughout the southern region of the country. After they apply, refugees are placed in camps or housing units, per the Swedish Migration Policy, according to Ghazal.
The length of stay in housing units varies depending on when refugees are granted asylum status. Ghazal added that refugees who learn their host country’s language usually integrate more efficiently.
Ghazal said the war in Syria has resulted in more than seven million refugees who are displaced in countries around the world.
Saher Alkhattib, a Syrian-American filmmaker who is founder of the art program the Artist Mission– a video series that provides aid and art-therapy workshops to refugee children traumatized by war around the world– discussed the program at the event. Currently, the Artist Mission is raising money to fund flights to Greece in order for volunteers to aid children in the area.
Alkhattib said he is trying to spread the message of peace and love.
“They’re just like everyone else,” he said of Syrians. “They just want peace. They don’t care who’s taking over. They just want to live in peace.”
The idea for the program is to create a safe place for adolescents to express themselves through art. Funding for the Artist Mission will provide art equipment for children in need.
“I look at Syrian children, and I don’t know how they do it,” said Alkhattib, who refused to call Syrian children afflicted by the war ‘refugees,’ because of their innocence. “They’re truly superheroes to me.”
Those interested can visit the program’s page at patreon.com/TheArtistMission.
Keri Hughes, who has an MA in religious studies, presented a study on 250 Syrian children who lived in the host country of Jordan.
She said of those children, 30 percent suffered from poor dental hygiene, 50 percent suffered with headaches, 25 percent suffered from loneliness, 24 percent were depressed, 26 percent secluded themselves socially and 20 percent suffered from social anxiety.
Hughes even presented a few drawings Syrian children created. One of them answered an inquiry through his art of what he would want if he had three wishes. The kid responded– “my home, my school, my friends.”
Hughes asked herself how people could spread the word about the Syrian crisis.
“How can we, through people like you, convey to people that this Syrian issue is a humanitarian issue?” Hughes asked.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the greater Los Angeles area (CAIR-LA), claimed that Syrians live in fear.
He recounted an experience he had when he visited Syria, where he was told not to discuss politics. He said he could literally feel the tension. Teachers were instructed to tell students to report if their parents ever said anything negative about the president, Bashar al-Assad.
Ayloush said the first time people are caught criticizing the government, they are given a warning. The second time, they would disappear.
He said the cause of the war all boils down to one man– al-Assad– while also adding that dictators would do anything to consolidate power.
Ayloush simply added that, in the last six years, Syrians have felt alone.
He criticized former President Barack Obama and said that his “wimpiness” and “lack of backbone” on his stance on foreign affairs ultimately failed the people of Syria. He said America is hesitant to get involved, also adding that he believes President Donald Trump is not the person who will push that “moral presence” into the country either.
“If we had someone who had some moral standing on their own,” Ayloush added, “[…] and said, ‘We’re not going to support intervention. We’re not going to invade another country. But we’re going to work with the world community and say this is not acceptable […] ‘That’s what we need.’”
He urged the public to be active.
“Don’t underestimate how you can be part of the solution,” Ayloush said.
Deric Mendes, a journalist and Syria expert, discussed the current state of the country in the modern age.
During his presentation, he displayed a graph that showed that the war in Syria, since 2011, caused 470,000 casualties, dwarfing the numbers of those lost in the Sept. 11 attacks and the Vietnam War.
Moreover, he also detailed America’s history in welcoming refugees. For instance, Mendes reports that, in World War II, 82 percent of people disapproved of the integration of Jewish refugees. In 1980, 71 percent of people disapproved of Cuban refugees.
Mendes said that, in the modern day, 55 percent of people disapprove of Syrian refugees, 34 percent have no opinion and 11 percent approve of their integration.
The cost of the war is high, he said, and he encouraged, just like all the speakers before him that afternoon, for people to not ignore the crisis and to get involved with programs and organizations who are aiding Syrians during the period of civil war.
“We have fake news, we have beliefs, we have these ideas that we support in this free country, and we are allowed to say and express those things,” Mendes said, “but we also need to show sympathy and compassion for those who do not. We need to open our doors to that. We need to accept the challenge.”