Don’t Dismiss Syrian Diaspora Perspectives

Last Tuesday, my campus organization, Peaceful Passions, which serves to raise awareness and create opportunities for refugees, along with Fresh START and the Global Middle East Studies club, held an emergency awareness and solidarity event for Eastern Ghouta. Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held enclave near Damascus, has been besieged since 2013. It was the site of Assad’s use of chemical attacks in 2013 which crossed Obama’s “red line,” and has been recently gaining more news coverage as the Syrian regime, along with Russia and Iran, launched an offensive which has killed more than 1,000 people in just three weeks.

Our event featured Susan Baaj, a Syrian-American and chairwoman of the Syrian Institute for Progress (SIP), who spoke briefly about the Syrian revolution including its peaceful origins, its escalation to civil war exacerbated by foreign involvement and the current emergency situation in Eastern Ghouta. Her own project through SIP, the Burnt Children Relief Foundation, brings children under 18 with third and fourth degree burns from Syria to Galveston, Texas where they receive free medical treatment at the Shriners Hospital.

During the Q&A period, however, two men shifted the event from one of solidarity to one of divisiveness. The first man alleged that only the Syrian regime could bring stability to Syria. He stated that accounts by news organizations like CNN were false and instead called to follow an independent journalist, Eva Bartlett. The second man encouraged the audience to watch Reverend Lindsey Williams’ YouTube videos on the “so-called Arab Spring,” which, he claimed, was a pre-planned U.S. plot to divide the region.

Baaj explained that the Assad regime does not allow the airing of anti-government media coverage and that Syrian people of various religious and ethnic backgrounds had lived in peace before the Assad regime in 1970. She referenced the social media documentation of the revolution and civil war by Syrians on the ground, and questioned how the Arab Spring could merely be a U.S. plot when it began by a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who expressed his frustration with the Tunisian regime by setting himself on fire.

While everyone is entitled to their own perspectives, I was disturbed by these two audience members’ interactions with the speaker. Namely, they failed to realize the significance that they were speaking to a member of the Syrian diaspora. Susan repeatedly had to say, “I’m Syrian, I have family in Syria.” We should recognize that a member of the Syrian diaspora would naturally have a better understanding of Syria than the rest of us. She is entitled to have grievances about the regime, including decades of emergency law, under which she grew up. I found it ironic that the two men immediately dismissed the Syrian perspective in front of them.

The men expressed their concern about U.S. involvement in Syria given failed U.S. interventions in Libya and Iraq. While they might have believed that they were expressing anti-imperialist views by rejecting U.S. involvement and policies, they were doing exactly that by rejecting Baaj’s perspective and instead advancing their own vision about the future of Syria.

Baaj said it is unlikely for a regime change to happen soon. However, she repeatedly stated that the initial purpose of the revolution was to call on the regime to protect fundamental human rights, not for regime change. Later during the Q&A, a student attendee asked one of the older men to listen to the speaker to which he defensively responded, “I am allowed to speak, thank you.” However, self-reflection would help him realize that this fundamental right to free speech — which he proudly asserted — was among the rights the Syrian people were calling for.

In the spirit of self-reflection, it is important to ask why we are arguing about the future of Syria in the first place. Ideally this is because even though we have alternate visions for the security and stability of Syrians, we do not want more innocent lives to be lost. Even if we want to deny that the Assad regime is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, we should first ask ourselves what we are doing to make a difference in the lives of displaced Syrians. If we are so passionate about the future of the Syrian people, we should turn our passion into action and work to assist the hundreds of thousands who have been injured and the millions who have been displaced, numbers which cannot be denied regardless of which journalist we choose to believe.

Iman Siddiqi is a fourth-year political science and global Middle East studies double major. She can be reached at ihsiddiq@uci.edu.