Student group aims to educate about Syrian violations

 

Yisser Bittar, 23 and advocate of the Syrian American Council, speaks at an event hosted by Save Our Syrian Freedom. (Photo by Laura Davis)

Yisser Bittar, a 23-year-old advocate of the Syrian American Council, speaks at an event hosted by Save Our Syrian Freedom. (Photo by Laura Davis)

When pictures of starving and diseased children were shown on the projector, several members of the audience bowed their heads and averted their eyes.

The child in the picture stood over a bucket of boiled potatoes which would serve as dinner for the residents of the internally displaced camps. Each tent, regardless of the number of residents within, received one boiled potato. The girl in the picture stared at the camera blankly, her pink dress smeared with dirt.

 

The pictures scrolled across the projector as Yisser Bittar, the Syrian American Council’s government relations and advocacy assistant, spoke about human rights violations in Syria and why they should be a major concern for U.S. citizens.

 

“It comes down to your responsibility as a human being to others, especially when you share the same goals,” Bittar said.

 

Bittar spoke Thursday at Coor Hall at the Tempe campus for Syria Unfolded, an event put on by the ASU student group, Save Our Syrian Freedom.

Bittar visited Syria in January to see the current state of Syrian human rights firsthand.

She and her team visited three internally displaced camps and ventured into the city of Aleppo. A Syrian Army plane dropped a barrel filled with TNT and nails 500 meters from her and her group, killing 18 people.

 

“If it was us, if we had been killed, the world would have caught on,” Bittar said. “But because it was 18 Syrians, no one cares.”

 

Anti-government protests broke out in Syria in March 2011 as part of the string of uprisings known as the Arab Spring. The protests came in response to political and social oppression under the rule of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Syria had been under emergency rule since 1963, which allowed citizens to be imprisoned without due process.

 

Assad’s brutal tactics earned him international recognition and the label of a war criminal. The protesters armed themselves and became a revolutionary fighting force: the Free Syrian Army.

 

Since the revolution broke out in Syria nearly two years ago, 70,000 people have been killed and more than four million people are in desperate need of aid, according to the U.N.

More than $500 million in international aid has been sent to assist Syria, but many regions not under control of the Assad regime do not receive the aid.

 

“These people don’t have the tools,” Bittar said. “They lack everything. We need to end the conflict and strengthen the civilians.”

 

Bittar said the first step in making a difference is educating the American public about Syria and what is occurring there.

 

The Syrian American Council has 28 chapters around the U.S. and focuses on making American citizens aware of Syria’s turmoil.

 

“One less coffee a week can make a difference in a child’s life,” Bittar said. “It costs a dollar a day to help a child in a camp.”

 

Save Our Syrian Freedom pursues three goals in its effort to assist Syrians in need. It shares information about the issues in Syria, hosts fundraisers and works to build a free Syrian country.

On Feb. 13, the group held a freeze flash mob, putting duct tape over their mouths to symbolize women’s inability to speak out about rape in Syria.

 

Zana Alattar, founder and president of Save Our Syrian Freedom, said Bittar is an inspiration to the club.

 

“This is a struggle for humanity,” Alattar said. “It’s not a cause for one country. It’s not a cause for one people group. Their simple demand is freedom.”

 

Alattar, a biochemistry freshman, said the Syrian revolution resembles the American Revolution as the people are fighting for the same inalienable rights that Americans enjoy.

 

“It’s the same struggle America went through,” Alattar said. “Every human life is equal. The value of their life is equal to every other human life.”

 

Rana Dbeis, vice president of Save Our Syrian Freedom and business sophomore, said it is important for Syrians to feel they have an international community of support.

 

“These people feel abandoned,” Dbeis said. “If they feel they have moral support then they know it’s a cause of humanity. We want to show them that we support them.”

 

Most of Dbeis’s family still lives in Syria, including her uncle who was once imprisoned for a year by the Assad regime for growing out a mustache.

 

Diana Rayas, a member of Save Our Syrian Freedom, said she feels an obligation to her friends and family to fight for human rights in Syria.

When Rayas, a psychology sophomore, mentioned Bashar al Assad during a call with her cousin in Syria, her cousin immediately hung up on her. Her cousin later told her she can never talk about the president over the phone.

 

“How am I supposed to tell her how I live?” Rayas said. “What is this life they’re living? What have they done to deserve this?”

 

The members of Save Our Syrian Freedom said the conflict in Syria is not a civil war, but a revolution against a dictator. Syrians who stand with the Free Syrian Army still deserve aid, they said.

 

“It’s one thing if the country is at civil war, but women and children are being killed,” Rayas said. “This is a humanitarian issue. The U.N. should have handled this.”

 

The parents of Rayas, Dbeis and Alattar fled Syria together following a failed uprising in 1982.

Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed the uprising after he killed approximately 50,000 people in two weeks in the city of Hama in what became known as the “Hama Massacre.”

 

Rayas’s father has not returned to Syria since and is barred from entering the country for his association with the revolt.

 

Save Our Syrian Freedom will host Syria Awareness Week following spring break, which will commemorate the second anniversary of the Syrian revolution. The group will host a variety of events during the week to raise funds for relief of Syrian citizens.

 

“It’s not like me posting an article is going to change the world,” Rayas said. “We have to raise awareness, because this is the next generation that will vote for leaders and make decisions.”

 

Reach the reporter at jwthrall@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @jtrhall1