Chicago Now: Chicago's Muslim Community Stands with the People of Syria

Reeling from one of the darkest tragedies in human history, an adage emerged after World War II: “Never Again!”

And yet, only a few short decades later, and on the same continent that the Nazi Holocaust took place, Europe’s only indigenous Muslim community was subjected to systematic genocide as the world sat by idly and watched. Just one year before that, the world also did little as an estimated 1 million people were killed in a period of 100 days in Rwanda.

These two tragedies were brought to bear for me in a whole new way as I recently watched two foreign films, both playing at a local theater: Kinyarwanda dealing with the Rwandan genocide and Angelina Jolie’s The Land of Blood and Honey dealing with the Bosnian one.

Both films were powerful and profound in that they focused on presenting the human side and the personal toll such suffering takes on its victims, rather than simply the what/when/where/who of events as the evening news would have it. As I watched, I could not help but ask myself, “How could this have happened yet again? In the 90’s! What was the world telling itself at the time? Were we aware then of what we know now?”

The answer is yes. The world knew and the world saw. I remember enough of the 90’s to remember these stories getting regular circulation on TV and in the newspapers. But while the world saw what was happening, it did not seem to hit home for many until it was too late. I suspect it is because impersonal news reports of faceless numbers and political analysis do little to convey the true depth of a human tragedy.

But if you think that’s bad, here’s an even starker realization. Today as I write and as you read, it’s happening again!

Another tragedy is unfolding, this time in Syria, this time in 2012, this time in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Citizen Journalism where audio-visual first-hand accounts of the extent of the suffering need not wait years later to come to fruition for the distant public but are brought to us in real-time and on a daily basis.

And yet the world is slow to act – again.

The Syrian ruling regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad is shelling whole neighborhoods of civilians with heavy artillery. Homes are being destroyed, hospitals and schools are targeted, government doctors are instructed to harm rather than heal the wounded, and thousands are dying with many more facing severe injuries.

“Danny” an eye witness to the death and destruction told CNN that “for many of us, as bad as death is, it comes as a favor compared to the horrific maiming, dis-figuration, and injuries many of us are going to have to spend the rest of our lives with.”

All this, because after decades of oppression by the governments of Bashar and his father, the people of Syria finally decided they had had enough and took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations demanding change.

The winds of the Arab Spring were spreading fast, from Tunisia to Egypt, and then from Egypt to much of the Arab world. But whereas the Tunisian and Egyptian armies refused to take arms against their people, and while Libya’s army, which did take arms, was composed mostly of foreign mercenaries fighting against the brave Libyan people, the unique circumstances in Syria meant that the Syrian people would be facing a uniquely prolonged and catastrophic situation.

A much more ruthless and competent autocrat than Qaddafi, Bashar’s regime is far more hegemonic, his military power far stronger, with the country of Syria far more politically isolated and much less amenable to international military aid given its sensitive strategic position.

And yet, the Syrian people have refused to back down. Completely isolated and facing a brutal military machine that feels it can act with impunity and with little concern for international public opinion, hundreds of thousands continue to pay the ultimate price for their cry for freedom. From Homs to Hama to Daraa to Baba Amr where 80% of the neighborhoods are reported to have been leveled, the shelling is indiscriminate. Arrests, torture as well as the intentional targeting of civilians, including women and children, are no longer rumors but confirmed reports.

But it does not have to be this way, not in 2012.

We do not have to wait until after thousands more are killed and maimed to act conclusively. There have been attempts, including at the UN Security Council, but they have been met by vetoes from Russia and China. The international community clearly sides with the Syrian people against Bashar, but this sentiment has yet to translate into decisive action.

“The world must move from lip service to concrete action if we are to put a stop to the unfolding death and destruction,” says Dr. Talal Sunbulli, a Chicago-based Syrian-American leader and pro-democracy activist. “Three things must happen: a humanitarian corridor, a safe zone, and direct US and international pressure on Russia and China in order to further isolate a regime that is one step away from its inevitable demise.”

The Chicago Muslim community, especially its flourishing Syrian community, has been resolute in its stance against the mass murder in Syria.

Dr. Sunbulli’s organization, the Syrian American Council (SAC), in partnership with the Syrian Sunrise Foundation (SSF), raised $620,000 in humanitarian aid a few weeks ago. “$150,000 is raised from Syrians and their friends across the US every single week,” Sunbulli says.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul heads a national organization called the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). His group raised $160,000 in Chicago, $100,000 in Salt Lake City, $150,000 in Charleston, and $500,000 at a national event in Orlando through the SAMS Foundation headed up by Chicago-based activist Nada Jabri. “We seek to provide humanitarian aid through medical supplies, medicines, and monetary donations,” Dr. Sahloul says. “The only operational hospitals in the most vulnerable parts under shelling right now are make-shift hospitals that must operate under the radar of the regime; they are underground hospitals or field hospitals that are short-staffed facing massive shortages in equipment and medicine.”

Last year, Dr. Sahloul and a group of 25 Syrian-American physicians volunteered at a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, with more delegations being sent. Currently, Turkey has 11,000 Syrian refugees, Lebanon has 6500, and Jordan has a whopping 80,000.

Some Syrian-Americans face somewhat of a conundrum wherein they so desperately wish to end the bloodshed that they are willing to accept a political loss in the form of a status quo; others accept the reality that while blood has to be shed to achieve freedom, the international community – including the Syrian diaspora – must do all that is within its power to end the saga as soon as humanly possible. But while the debate rages on in some quarters, all seem to agree on two things: that silence is not an option, and that every droplet of blood shed is one too many.

Chicago’s Syrian-American community is a great American success story. It comprises a large number of physicians, lawyers, business owners, and professionals. A highly-skilled and resourceful community, it is one of the city’s most philanthropic that is instrumental in the building of the city’s Muslim community infrastructure including schools, mosques, charities, and civil rights organizations. The tragic events back in their motherland have cast a dark cloud over the Syrian community in Chicago and around the United States where many have been quick to heed the call for action.

From rallies to creative flash mobs (organized by Syrian youth in cities around the world as in Chicago) to fundraisers to lobbying, the Chicago Syrian community has emerged as a key player worldwide in raising awareness and providing humanitarian aid.

CAIR-Chicago’s board member Yaser Tabbara, a Syrian-American human-rights attorney and a founding member of the Syrian National Council (the internationally-recognized political group representing the Syrian revolution in the diaspora) has spent the last year travelling the world, advocating for the Syrian people including the need for a safe zone.

The past year has seen Tabbara work from Chicago to New York, DC, London, Brussels, the Hague, Istanbul, Tunis, Dubai and Cape Town. From organizing the political opposition to raising awareness through international media, Tabbara and his SNC colleagues from the Syrian diaspora are playing a crucial role in advocating for an end to the killing in Syria and the ushering in of a people-led inclusive and representative democracy.

The Chicago Muslim community, as a whole, has joined its Syrian subset in springing to action. Halil Demir, the Kurdish-American founder of the Zakat Foundation, a US based charity, has run programs to raise funds and humanitarian aid for Syria, as has Islamic Relief. CIOGC, a Muslim federation of a few dozen organizations, chaired by Dr. Sahloul, has organized a city-wide prayer and fundraising day as well as a press conference to raise awareness. The Mosque Foundation, a Bridgeview-based faith institution that is ranked among the most philanthropic in the city, has held several fundraisers, as have other mosques around the city.

Patience, prayer, and charity have helped our communities deal with this tragedy – this must continue.

If you wish to help, please contact your local representative and let them know that ending the bloodshed in Syria should be a foreign policy priority. Help raise awareness about the human dimension of the tragedies through your blog, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. Back in Syria, the victims of the government’s media blackout are desperate to get their voice out. “Foreign journalists are not immune and are often targeted,” Dr. Sunbulli says. “Ten Syrian youth have been killed, helping successfully rescue a BBC journalist out of the country.”

To help contribute humanitarian aid to Syria, visit the Syrian American Medical Society at:

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