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To give a human face to the conflict’

CHRISTIAN MYERS | Friday, December 6, 2013

The ongoing conflict in Syria spurred the creation of the Student Syrian Solidarity Coalition earlier this year, and the group’s latest event was a panel discussion titled “Syria: Why it Matters to Us” held in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium on Thursday.

Senior Manuel Rocha provided background information on the conflict for attendees of the discussion. Thus far, he said the conflict has resulted in over 100,000 deaths, over four million internally-displaced Syrians and over two million Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere.

The event featured discussion from Kenan Rahmani and Fr. Dan Groody. concering the humanitarian efforts in Syria and in nearby countries with Syrian refugees Rahmani, a Syrian-American law student currently on a leave of absence, has served on the board of the Syrian American Council and as a humanitarian aid worker in Syria. Rahmani said the true problem in Syria is that the conflict has taken away the dignity of many Syrians.

“You have half the population living like natural disaster victims,” Rahmani said. “It’s not just about a civil war, it’s not just about a humanitarian crisis, it’s about people who want to live in dignity.”

Rahmani said this truth was driven home for him by his conversation with a woman while distributing food baskets in the liberated half of Aleppo. He said he and others distributed some 1,700 food baskets, but still had to turn people away.

Rahmani said the woman was begging for a food basket after the supply had run out when a jet dropped a barrel of Trinitrolouene, an explosive chemical, nearby which killed 10 people. The woman said she wished the barrel had hit her so she could escape the humiliating life into which she and so many Syrians had been forced.

The crisis persists due to the international community not putting enough pressure on Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and allowing Iran, Russia and the Hezbollah to help Assad fight the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, Rahmani said.

“It isn’t that the U.S. and U.N. aren’t meddling enough, it’s that Iran and Russia are meddling too much in favor of the Assad regime,” he said.

An example of the difference in outside support for each side is the fact that, despite calls from Secretary of State John Kerry and others, the “starve until submission” campaign of the Syrian government has continued, Rahmani said.
“Everyone has been talking about this starvation until submission campaign, yet we aren’t able to deliver aid to the besieged areas,” he said.
Rahmani said he sees two possibilities for the end of the conflict and expects a diplomatic resolution.

“It can only end one of two ways,” he said. “It can end in a brutal military victory for either side or it can end in a negotiated settlement, which is how many of these things end. I think it will end in a negotiated settlement, but I think we’re two or three years away from that.”

Despite the tragedy of the current situation, Rahmani said he remains optimistic about Syria’s future.”We should all have hope that Syria will be a lot better than it was before this revolution,” he said.

Groody, an associate professor of theology, participated in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ delegation to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to investigate the situation of Syrian refugees.

During his time working with refugees, Groody visited Mt. Nebo, the mountain from the biblical account in which Moses briefly sees the Promised Land, and reflected on how that vision is still important today as people in the region seek peace and prosperity. He said the mountain sits amidst a “land of refugees” now just as it did in biblical times.

Groody said once he began directly interacting with Syrian refugees, it became an emotional experience.

“I had no words for what they were going through, by the end I was weeping,” Groody said. “You could see a deep human vulnerability. We can see the human face coming through in the children, in the people fleeing to other countries.”

Groody said he was moved by the generosity of Jordan and other countries neighboring Syria, but the refugees there continue to struggle and many still in Syria are internally displaced.

“[The refugees] say the hardest part is the search for a place to call home,” Groody said.

The concerted efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various governments, churches, mosques and other groups are admirable, but “barely making a dent” in the needs of those suffering as a result of the crisis in Syria, Groody said.

Sophomore Kelly McGee, secretary of the Arabic Club, was one of the student organizers for the event. McGee said the goal of the event was to show the Notre Dame community the human side of the conflict from both a humanitarian and a theological perspective.

“We wanted to give a human face to the conflict,” McGee said. “When you read the news stories you are inundated with atrocities and people can become numbers.”

McGee said students worked for two months to organize the discussion and sophomore Claire Kouatli, a student ambassador with Catholic Relief Services brought in the two main speakers. McGee said she considered the panel a success for the group’s solidarity efforts.

“The turnout was great,” McGee said. “The message we wanted to convey came out in both speakers’ remarks. I would definitely consider it a success.”

The group plans to continue their efforts in the spring with a poster campaign, a model refugee camp event and writing letters to high school and college age Syrians among other initiatives, McGee said.

The event was sponsored by the Center for Civil & Human Rights, the Center for Social Concerns, Arabic Club, Red Cross ND, Peace Fellowship ND, Student Government and Human Rights ND.

McGee said anyone interested in helping the student Syrian solidarity coalition can join them on Facebook to learn more at www.facebook.com/groups/489258737855621/.  

Contact Christian Myers at cmyers8@nd.edu