Chicago college students urge compassion and action for Syria

Students at Syria vigil

By Maryam Saleh

Dana Zakieh gazed at the room full of students and gave them an order.

“Sit down if you have ever been forced to leave your country by consequence of a violent occurrence in that country,” said the 20-year-old Syrian-American psychology student.

Not a single person took a seat.

“This is it. All of you guys are standing. I want you to recognize how incredibly blessed we are,” she said at the student gathering about the Syrian crisis.

The Loyola University Chicago students gathered last Thursday evening in an effort to stir empathy for Syrian refugees and to raise awareness about the causes of the refugees’  flight.

Four Loyola student groups – Student Advocates for Medicine in Politics (SAMP), Students Organize for Syria (SOS), Loyola Refugee Outreach and UNICEF – launched a three-part Blossoming Hope campaign last week to bring attention to Chicago’s growing Syrian refugee population.

The meeting was followed by a candlelight vigil to shed light on a recent escalation of violence in Aleppo, Syria, and to mourn the lives lost there.

While Americans are deeply divided on the issues of refugee resettlement and the nation’s involvement in the Syrian crisis, the students appeared eager to take on the challenge.

A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed that only 36 percent of Americans support taking in refugees from Syria. Half of those polled said they support the enforcement of a no-fly zone over parts of the country, including bombing Syrian air defenses.

The Syrian government is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in Syria, according to human rights monitors.

Local support for Syrian refugees

The Blossoming Hope campaign was spearheaded by SAMP to stir compassion for Syrian children and to bring light to a humanitarian crisis of disastrous proportions that is too often ignored because Syria is “too complicated to understand,” said Mohammedi Khan, who is president of the student group.

“When thinking about Syria, you see videos of just rubble, dust, destruction, death [and] atrocities,” she added. “But you can’t get out of that mentality until you start to see positivity, you start to see hope.”

Khan, 21, and Melissa Vazquez, talked at the meeting about vulnerable populations and especially refugee children who suffer from workplace exploitation, educational deprivation and psychological trauma.

They showed a video produced by the British charity Save the Children which makes the plight of Syrians relatable by imagining a British child refugee fleeing the UK in search of safety.

The student groups will set up a table on Loyola’s campus on Friday in order to talk to passersby about the five-year-old conflict in Syria, Khan said. On Oct. 12 Loyola students and young Syrian refugees in Chicago will paint and plant flowerpots, which the children will take home. The event will be co-sponsored by the Syrian Community Network, a grassroots group working to ease Syrian refugees’ transition into life in Chicago.

“Flowers are a symbol of positivity, growth and nurturing,” said Khan, who wants people to focus on hope, which she says is often overlooked.

Solidarity with Aleppo

To symbolize the need for peace in Syria, students joined by concerned community members later gathered at the university’s peace pole – a wooden pole with the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” inscribed in several languages – for a candlelight vigil, organized by SOS.

“These are dark times we’re living in,” said SOS President Mahdi Sahloul. “Over the last couple days, the largest city in Syria – one of the oldest cities in the world and the most dangerous city in the world – has been pounded by the Assad regime. Aleppo has seen hell.”

“As the world remains silent, we Loyola students, we, as a community, have gathered to pray and to organize, to stop the killing of civilians in Syria,” said the 20-year-old student.

He invoked the memories of Omran Daqneesh and Alan Kurdi, Syrian toddlers whose photos went viral, and lamented the global failure to protect civilians like them.

One of those who spoke is Chicago pediatrician John Kahler. In April, the 69-year-old doctor read that the last remaining pediatrician in rebel-held Aleppo was killed in a Syrian government or Russian airstrike, and his soul was “touched,” he wrote for CNN. He contacted the Syrian American Medical Society, a nation-wide organization, and asked if he “could go to Aleppo to witness and to testify to the city’s devastation.”

Initially the group that supports hospitals in Syria was reluctant, but two months later, Kahler travelled to the eastern part of the city with two other Chicago-area physicians, who had been there before.

“There’s no water. There’s no shelter. There’s only terror,” he said, describing what he saw.

As the crowd huddled around the three-starred green, white and black flag that represents the opposition to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, some of them carrying electric candles, Kahler urged them to take action.

“You need to contact your representatives about the Caesar bill,” he said.

He was referring to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016, bipartisan legislation that would impose new sanctions on the Assad regime and its allies, support investigations that could lead to war crimes prosecution and stir a negotiated solution to the conflict.

“Those are the things we need right now.”

Photo at top: Loyola University Chicago students gather at a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the people of Aleppo, Syria, sponsored by Students Organize for Syria, a national student-led Syrian solidarity group. Sept. 29, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)