Interview by Hana Alasry from Detroit
Interviewee Nora Nashawaty
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
Nora Nashawaty is a Syrian-American graduate student at Northwestern University in Chicago. She has been actively working to raise awareness of Assad’s oppression of Syrians since the revolution began in 2011. Nora has also been engaged in political activism and fundraising to both address the root of the problem – the Assad dictatorship – and ameliorate its symptoms. She currently serves on the national executive boards of Students Organize for Syria (SOS) and the Youth Department of the Muslim American Society.
Since Thursday, April 6th, social media frenzy has erupted in reaction to Trump-ordered airstrike in Syria. What some may have noticed is the stark contrast between the reflections of those heavily involved in the fight for Syrian liberation and those who are not. Why is that? This interview aims to provide clarity and insight into the mind of a Syrian American activist for the larger population.
It’s obvious that Syrian activists are frustrated with the general public’s response to the air strikes. Can you explain where the frustration is coming from?
As with any movement, something I learned the hard way is you [as a supporter] need to be able to say “I respect your narrative and I will offer my service on your terms.” Non-Syrians are setting the narrative a certain way based on experiences from other countries. Then there are people who may be anti-war and anti-imperialist but they’re insulting the views of Syrians who hold a positive view of the airstrike. It is implying that our narrative does not belong to us [the Syrian people]. It’s like I’m being told my experience as a Syrian doesn’t matter. For example, a student organization for Palestinian rights is hosting a protest against the strike despite being told by the same university’s SOS chapter that they’re ignoring the views of Syrians.
It’s really controversial on so many levels. We can say that this one particular strike was positive because it destroyed 10% of the air-force and saved thousands of civilian lives but we can also say we don’t trust Trump’s motivation to do this and that we don’t know what the coming consequences are. But we can say this one move benefited Syria.
Another aspect of this conflict is that Syrians have been asking for a no-fly zone and asking for heavy military weaponry to be disabled since the bombing started, and this is long before the chemical weapon attacks. We’re conflicted as Syrian activists on so many levels because we’ve finally been granted a strike but under unclear circumstances. People outside of our circles are taking pieces of these circumstances and denouncing all of it without giving thought to the complexities.
There was actually a protest in Khan Sheikhun, the city where last week’s chemical attack happened, asking for Trump to strike even more. You have to realize Syrians have been living under oppression for a long time. We understand the nuances and complexities of the conflict. (For more details on the history of the conflict, click here.)
There is severe mistrust in Trump’s intentions. Given his track record, the mistrust is understandable. What are your reflections on Trump’s intentions? Do you have concern regarding his intentions?
Trump was clearly against Syrian intervention during Obama’s administration. He’s insulted Syrian refugees and the executive ban affecting Syrian refugees, among others, shows us an insincerity in his work. While we accept the fact that this move happened, we don’t trust it based on a single speech he gave about how he was moved by seeing children affected by the chemical attacks. His actions speak louder than his words.
What are the range of opinions from Syrian activists on the strikes?
I think a lot of people are on the same page as I am that this one move might have been helpful but that we don’t know what the true intentions behind it are. I have even seen some Syrian activists that have thanked Trump, though that makes me uncomfortable. I’ve also seen Syrian Americans who can’t justify a strike under Trump’s administration, though the minority. The Syrian American Council, which is a political organization, sent out a statement supporting the strike (you can read it here).
What are non-Syrians not seeing that we should be more conscious of?
They are not seeing the nuances and the complexities of this. They’re not seeing how much we [Syrian activists] know about the conflict and how much we work to bring change. And more than anyone, we will suffer the consequences if things go wrong. Dalia Mogahed said very eloquently “I’m not a Syrian expert and chances are… neither are you… I’m going to take the views of my Syrian friends who have worked and cried and rallied for six years very seriously. It’s not my default to trust any American intervention… But I do know that we all need to listen to those who have been largely unheard in our community for… six years… the voices of those most closely impacted must be centered right now.”
It’s also important to know that not all conflict is the same. I say this because I notice a lot of activists whose home countries have been devastated after American intervention being very vocal and that is sometimes erasing the voices of Syrian activists.
How can a non-Syrian offer their allyship? Which organizations would you suggest allies turn to offer their services to?
There are a lot of organizations you can turn to for treating the symptoms of the conflict. Those include The White Helmets who run the emergency response units, Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) for medical supplies and trained physicians, Islamic Relief USA and Rahma Foundation and so on for food and supplies. Syrian American Council does political work and they need donations too. It’ll be helpful to follow Kenan Rahmani to gain insight on the conflict through a Syrian activist’s perspective.
We especially need allies to show up. Show up to the protests and phone banks, don’t just do demonstrations on their behalf. Share things on Facebook to raise awareness. Take your cues from Syrian activists.
Would you like to add anything?
You need to show up to even have a claim in what is going on. The more you learn through showing up, the more you are able to offer so be there when Syrian Americans ask you to be present. Check your privilege and give us back the narrative. More than any of you, we [Syrian Americans] are struggling with this development. And more than any of you, we’ll struggle harder if this goes wrong.
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