Syrian Awareness Week: Raising Knowledge and Money

Last month Penn for Syrian Refugees and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture organized “Syria Awareness Week” on Penn’s campus (Sept 23-27) — and I, in my dual role as board member for PSR and Al-Bustan staff member, took a big part in organizing it. Our goal, which we conceived last spring before the many changes in the Arab world over the summer, was to increase awareness on campus about the sheer size of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. A lot of people get so caught up in the political debates–about things like arming the opposition and US intervention, among others–that they forget just how many Syrians have been killed and displaced in the 3 years since the conflict began and the many other humanitarian tragedies the war has wrought. It was our intention to bring this knowledge to people—as well as do a little fundraising along the way.

Flags on College Green at UPenn campus

On Tuesday, we held a Skype call with Dr. Monzer Yazji, a founding member of the Union for Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM). Dr. Yazji spoke to us about the systematic targeting of medical and humanitarian relief efforts by regime forces within Syria and about his work trying to get medical care to civilians there. He told us that the regime restricts medical care from reaching anyone who supports the opposition–or doesn’t explicitly support them–and therefore hundreds of people in opposition controlled areas find it nearly impossible to receive medical care. Dr. Yazji talked about seeing doctors he was working with targeted by military air strikes, including one talented young brain surgeon who had gone on a special mission to reach a child with a brain tumor and was killed. He himself was at risk numerous times. I was particularly struck by Dr. Yazji’s passion for and commitment to what he was doing, not only in such a dangerous situation in Syria but also with intense passion in America, recruiting doctors and Syrian-Americans to support his cause. Everyone in the audience on Tuesday was left with a new appreciation of the difficulties of providing assistance in Syria.

Qusai speaking at UPenn


On Wednesday morning we set up flags on College Green, in the center of Penn’s campus, to show the number of Syrians who had been killed in the conflict. There were 955, with each flag representing 200 deaths. From the morning when we started setting up the flags, there was a lot of interest in them, with several of the passerbys asking us what they were for and many more looking on with interest. By the end of the day, many people were stopping for pictures, and we got interviewed by a reporter for the campus newspaper. The memorial was a good way to raise awareness because it was a striking and public reminder of the humanitarian toll in Syria.

Thursday was perhaps the most moving of all events: a speech by Qusai Zakarya, a Syrian man who spent over a year under siege in Moadamiya, a small town outside of Damascus. During this year, Qusai talked about the starvation of the town and the chemical weapons attack it suffered at the hands of the regime in August 2013, including Qusai’s own near-death experience in which he had to be resuscitated in the morgue. He spoke also about his numerous interviews with Western news outlets and, more recently, since he has been in America, trips to government and international organizations to plead for intervention against Assad. The most meaningful thing he said, in my opinion, was his statement that “people in Syria cannot imagine having what American’s have…not just the jobs, the clothes, the food, but the freedom to say whatever you want to and to not be scared.” That is something that I and some many others take for granted, when we really need to appreciate it. Qusai’s speech had a huge impact on everyone in attendance and gave everyone an overwhelming urge to help.

My colleague Oscar and I presenting about Karam at the event

Saturday provided the opportunity to do just that. In conjunction with Al Bustan, we put on a fundraiser for Karam Foundation. Karam is an American-based non-profit that runs programs for displaced Syrians that incorporate art, exercise, and health; their motto is “Every Child Deserves to Play.” Our event featured a performance by the Al Bustan Takht Ensemble, art-making, Arab food, and a brief attempt at debke. We also screened some of Karam’s videos to highlight their programs with Syrian children. The gathering raised over $650 for Karam’s efforts to help displaced Syrians. It was great to see community members–students and adults, Arabs and non-Arabs–come together to support a cause. 

Overall, we were happy with the impact that the week had and hope it will inspire people to continue to follow and support the Syrian cause.

Amy T. Cass
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015
International Relations Major
Al-Bustan Program Assistant

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