Syrian refugees panel (Photo)

Panelist Kianna Issa addressing the audience, Jan. 24, 2019

The United Nations estimates that since 2011, over 5 million Syrian refugees have been forced to leave their homes. The events occurring in Syria are not over — in fact, this trend is only increasing, further expressing the need for prompt action to be taken.

Western University’s Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East club hosted “An Event in Solidarity with Syrian Detainees” on Jan. 24, which discussed the current humanitarian implications of the war in Syria and the state of those detained. 

The panel consisted of three speakers, each possessing a distinct perspective on the matter, and each of whom had experienced firsthand the humanitarian crisis that is still on going in Syria. From a former detainee in a Syrian prison, to a Syrian coalition worker, to the founder of a Canadian-based organization that supports Syrian refugees settling in Canada, each of the three panelists had interesting stories to share.

“This is our call to action. We invite guests to learn about the conflict in Syria and what is actually happening,” says Asiya Barakzai, president of the CJPME, and fourth year Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies student . “Our attendees will hopefully learn more about the skills and necessary tools needed to take action and create tangible change.”

Barakzai explained that the CJPME conducts educational events to combat Islamophobia, religious intolerance and racism. This panel is a way to evoke these conversations and bring about change.

The evening started with the first panelist, Bayan Khatib, who is the co-founder of the Syrian Canadian Foundation and the Syrian Film Festival. She gave context into the events that led up to the Syrian Civil war and the eventual Syrian refugee crisis.

Khatib describes the 2011 arrests of Syrian schoolboys for writing anti-government graffiti as one of the factors that eventually culminated in 2011's Syrian uprising.

“The townspeople became furious and took to the streets to protest, facing bullets and more arrests, and soon the entire country was in uprising,” explains Khatib. “People in the streets were chanting for freedom, justice, dignity and democracy. And the Assad regime responded by shooting protesters and terrorizing the people into fear.”

Bayan also discussed the memoir, Just Five Minutes: Nine Years in the Prisons of Syria, by Heba Dabbagh.

The story is based on the experience of a university student whose life was drastically changed when she's falsely imprisoned for nine years in Syria. Her memoir gives insight into the dehumanizing conditions of the prisons and the stories of those who she comes across during her incarceration.

Bayan translated the memoir into English to broaden Dabbagh’s audience and to ensure the spread of her story and the tragedies that occur in Syrian prisons.

“As an activist, I have many times comes across people who tell me that the work we do is useless,” said Khatib. “And to them I say ‘I would rather fail than sit by and watch this kind of suffering.’ ”

The next panelist was humanitarian activist Kinana Issa, who is a survivor of a Syrian detention camp. She gave her candid, personal experience as a detainee in Syria and the dehumanizing conditions she endured.

“The cells had no sign of time passing, the detainees live with fluorescent light that is able to penetrate the brain and manipulate the neurological network to the point of exhaustion,” says Issa. “Guards were made sure to give the wrong time when asked, so that prisoners can dissociate from the outer reality, and only one reality exists — the reality of fear and lack of control of one’s environment.”

She also explains the importance of empowering the survivors of the detention camps in order to allow them to feel more active and involved in their well-being, rather than being viewed as victims of their circumstances.

The final panelist of the evening was Mariam Hamou, communications director for the Nazem Kadri Foundation and the chair of the London Public Library.

Hamou provided a myriad of resources and ways for the public to bring about change in Canadian foreign policy. Mechanisms such as “tweetstorms,” which utilize Twitter to share hashtags and convey informative infographics directly towards governmental handles. She even expressed the importance of starting with local change and talking to London MPs about the current situation in Syria and its humanitarian relevance.

“You could even start your own parliamentary petition; if you get 25 signatures on a sheet that is formatted in the right way, then you are able to get it into the House of Commons,” explains Hamou.

The refugee crisis is likely not an issue that can be resolved today, tomorrow or even in the near future. However, this panel showcases the importance of discussing these issues and educating the public as the first step in bringing about change.

“A wise person once said, ‘That just because we can’t do everything, it doesn’t mean that we should do nothing,' says Khatib. "Each of us has the power to touch someone’s life.”

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