Posted by on April 07, 2015 in Blog
By Maha Elsamahi
Winter Intern, 2015
When speaking with Alaa Basatneh, you immediately get a sense of her quiet tenacity and unrelenting hope. At only 22, she has become an essential player in organizing peaceful protests against the Syrian regime from her home in Chicago. Her remarkable accomplishments and her extensive connections with activists on the ground in Syria captured the interest of director Joe Piscatella, a documentary filmmaker, who was initially a bit skeptical of Basatneh’s talk of aiding revolutionaries in Syria. What resulted was the feature length documentary, “#chicagoGirl”—a direct reference to a threatening Facebook message from an Assad regime operative who referred to her as “Chicago girl”.
Before the uprisings, Basatneh was a self-described typical teenager, one who went to school and spent time with friends. It was the arrest, torture, and the death of a Syrian child who had dared to write “the people want to topple the regime” on a wall in the southwestern city of Daraa drove her to become involved. Since the beginning of the uprisings in 2011, she has borne the responsibility for hundreds of activists on the ground, planning protest and escape routes, and deleting the social media accounts of activists should they be captured by the regime. In spite of the long hours and nights spent on her laptop, this sense of responsibility for her is a given. She sees it as her role being lucky enough to live within the safety and security of the U.S.
The 6,000 mile gap between Alaa and Syria has not made her immune to the loss and bereavement that have enshrouded the country and its diaspora these past four years. Prior to the uprisings, Basatneh had not yet experienced the true meaning and impact of death. In the four years since the conflict began, she has lost friends and activists at the hands of the regime. The first was Omar, whose dedication to using peaceful means as a tool for creating change in Syria had served as a source of inspiration for her. A bright, 20-year old engineering student who spoke four languages, Omar had played an essential role in helping Syrian women from religious and ethnic minority groups organize protests. While the initial news of his death was devastating, it was word that several other friends had been killed as well, that forced her to pause and reflect. She wanted to channel the loss and sadness into something greater. It became, she says, her “duty to continue their legacy and uplift their voices.”
Although Syria rarely seems to make the headlines these days unless it’s the release of staggering new statistics or the shocking brutality by ISIL fighters, activists in Syria continue to protest weekly against the regime and extremists who have exploited the country’s vulnerability. When asked what the average person can do to support Syria, Basatneh encourages people to use social media to share vital information about the plight of the Syrian people. She says activists haven’t yet lost hope but seeing the messages of support and encouragement from people in the far corners of the world provides them the motivation they need to push forward. This is the core of her belief that we should “never give up hope, no matter the struggle.”
In a 2012 visit to the liberated areas of Syria, Basatneh was able to witness the extent of destruction of the war on the daily lives of Syrians. It was during a visit to Aleppo that she first witnessed the destructive nature of the regime's TNT barrel bombs. She observed the dismal conditions of refugees in camps along both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border and the absolute poverty and uncertainty in which they live. While Alaa is still dedicated to fighting for a democratic, peaceful Syria, a natural extension of her work has been to highlight the suffering of Syria’s most vulnerable.
Education, for Basatneh, is the foundation upon which the future of Syria will be built. The refugee children’s desperate desire to return to school and continue their education is critical for Alaa. She feels the transformative power of education will be able to nurture generations of open-minded, tolerant individuals. That, she says, would be the best way to honor her friends and all those who have been lost in the fight for dignity and democracy.
Although her connections with Syria run deep, Basatneh is a proud Arab American, dedicated to building bridges between the rich cultures and traditions of the Middle East and U.S. It was at AAI’s 2011 National Leadership Conference, which aims to bring Arab Americans together to work in a cohesive voice, that Basatneh was able to make the connections that she describes as having been essential to what has happened in her life so far. When asked in the past if it’s even possible to reconcile the two identities she has always insisted that she can be and is both. To her, “every Arab living in the U.S. is living the American dream”. It’s this privilege of living within the confines of this country that makes it our responsibility to ensure that people in the Middle East and all over the world will one day be able to live with dignity and peace.