The Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles presented an outstanding event on Syria and the Syrian refugee crisis this past week. Featured speakers were immigration attorney, Reem Salahi, and UCLA filmmaker, Faisal Attrache. This was not Ms Salahiâ€™s first presentation at the Center. In 2009, after returning from a trip to Palestine, she told of her experiences in witnessing first hand the destruction left by Israelâ€™s Operation Cast Lead (The Muslim Observer, April 13, 2009).
The presentations were accompanied by pictures.
Ms Salahi began by saying that she was born in the United States of Syrian extraction. She visited the Northwest portion of Syria during the last two weeks of this past June. She also spent a week in Turkey and Jordan. In villages she met with activists, Syrian refugees in camps, and local groups.She gave a brief history of recent events as they unfolded in Syria.
On March 6, 2011 a group of 12 young boys spray painted a decidedly anti-Assad message on the wall of a mosque, the boys were arrested, and, in the aftermath. a Facebook page was set up in their honor calling for days of rage.
One of the boys, 13 year old Hamza Al Khateeb, was brutally tortured and castrated, his body left to be discovered. He became a symbol of the revolution and the fight against the Assad regime. Crowds assembled with Hamza as the focal point and called for the ouster of the Assad regime.
Ms Salahi also told of the brutal murder of poet, Abrahim Qashoush, known as the nightingale of the revolution. He was kidnapped and killed, and when his body was found, it was discovered that his vocal cords had been slashed.
Ali Farzap was a well known and respected blogger whose opposition to the Assad regime took the form of cartoons. He was kidnapped by car and was later found with both hands broken.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed in September 2011. Ms Salahi said that she had met many of the members. In July the FSA existed as a hodge podge of groups, a sizeable number of its members made up of defectors from the Syrian Army. At first they were in place to protect the protestors, but later they formed part of the protest.
Ms Salahi showed a brief excerpt from an interview between Bashar Assad and Barbara Walters. In it Assad denied the atrocities attributed to his regime even in the face of proof supplied by United Nations investigators. She pointed to this as a prime example of disconnect.
Her trip included a visit to the city of Saraqeb, largely destroyed by government forces. She continued by saying â€œhow amazing it was how people can copeâ€. She visited an underground hospital. In liberated areas there is no government per se, but people are trying to form a civil society.
Ms Salahi spoke of visiting refugee camps for internally displaced refugees (IDR). When the public hears the word refugee, they think in terms of people who have left their native land to flee to another. In a civil war, the phenomenon of the internally displaced person – a refugee in his own land, if you will – becomes a problem. There are 2.5 million IDRs in Syria. The people in these camps need everything. She visited the Kafranbel Center, the creative center of the revolution. There are drawings of freedom in the Center. It is run by the FSA. Every Friday there are protests.
The freedom fighters want anti aircraft missiles to protect them from the death dealing bombs dropped by the Assad regimeâ€™s helicopters.
Faisal Attrache was born in Syria and is currently a student at the UCLA film School. After a fundraiser Mr Attrache and his team visited the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. The result is a film titled: â€œWalk-Ins Welcome: Stories from Syrian Refugee Barbersâ€. When asked why his team focused on barbers, Mr Attrache will reply that at some point in everyoneâ€™s life he will need the services of a barber. People speak freely to barbers, and barbers are usually acutely aware of their environment.
The refugee camp is densely packed, having grown considerably from its original size. The refugees are not permitted to leave and the entrance to this camp is heavily patrolled. Jordan governs Zaatari with a heavy hand. There is a trench around the camp, and soldiers patrol the perimeter. It is truly an open air prison.
Many groups including NGOs work in the camp to help the inhabitants. For example, the Saudi government has opened a school in Zaatari. The Assad forces took what the refugees had, and the rebels helped the refugees to get to the camp.
The Jordanian authorities will take the ID of everyone in the camp, even multiple IDs. This would make it difficult, if not impossible, for a refugee who left the camp to get back into Syria as the latter demands a form of ID for entry.
Kitchens in the camp are communal. As is invariably the case, the situation in Syria has impacted most heavily on the children. They have a serious nutrition problem.
A lively question and answer session followed the two presentations.
The Levantine Cultural Center in West Los Angeles seeks to promote a greater understanding of the Middle East and North Africa. It goals are educational and cultural enrichment.