Syrian Community Network encourages civic engagement

Sahloul at refugee awareness panel
Sahloul at refugee awareness panel

By Misha Euceph

As most of Chicago was awaiting returns from the Illinois primary Tuesday night, Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, Founder and President of the Syrian Community Network, was encouraging students and faculty at Loyola University, Chicago to continue to engage civically on behalf of Syrian refugees around the world.

“We have the opportunity to go into a polling place and vote comfortably, with no one telling us, ‘vote this way or vote that way or you will be killed,’” said Sahloul.

Talking about her own involvement as an election judge, Sahloul said, “It’s very exciting to be a part of the election process. If you didn’t vote, I’ll be upset.”

“Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Syrian revolution,” explained Dana Zakieh, President of Students Organizing for Syria’s Loyola University chapter at the evening’s “Syrian Refugee Awareness” panel. “So a revolution that was thought to last only a few months has lasted four years. Twelve million people total have been displaced inside and outside Syria.”

Sahloul also discussed how learning to engage in the American civic process is an integral part of the resettlement support efforts by the Syrian Community Network. As part of advocacy efforts, the group flew to Washington D.C. with several refugees and arranged for them to stand outside the White House and speak with President Obama, lobbying to increase the number of refugees allowed into the United States.

“You don’t stand in front of the White House in Syria,” said Sahloul. “You get shot.”

In showing photos of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and several aldermen serving food to Syrian refugees at a Thanksgiving dinner, Sahloul drew a comparison between civic engagement in Syria and in the United States. “Our politicians back home kill us. Our politicians here serve us food.”

Sahloul also played a video of a young woman refugee who interviewed Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. “For her to sit in front of a US congresswoman and to ask questions is a big deal,” she said.

Stressing the goal of the Syrian Community Network to “resettle refugees with dignity,”  Sahloul repeatedly emphasized both the necessity of Syrian refugees to engage with politicians in the US and the value of Chicagoans to “perform their civic duty” in voting to welcome the refugees.

“I don’t know how much you appreciate being here in Chicago,” said Hadia Zarzour, Case Management Coordinator with the Syrian Community Network. “But it’s a great city to live in. People are reaching out to us all the time. People are saying, ‘please tell us, how can we help you?’”

Photo at top: Suzanne Sahloul speaking at Loyola University Chicago at a Syrian refugee awareness panel (Misha Euceph/MEDILL).