Why people don’t care about Syria.

It needs to be said that the pain that Syrians/Diaspora experience from the violence and separation from our families is real. There is an ocean of tears to prove this, formed between two mountains of solid jade. And the lack of compassion towards Syrians from other Levantines and other MENA (so proclaimed) human rights activists is also real: The Syrian narrative doesn’t fit neatly within the context of anti-US imperialism, and out of annoyance at having to update their human rights standards many people chose to pull up a chair in the shadows of Silence, or even in the shadows of Bashar al Assad himself.

It is true that the Syrian revolution was orphaned by MENA/Diaspora activists and MENA-Phile researchers. And because Syria is largely “muslim on muslim crime”, there wasn’t so much compassion from Western Muslim activists, a group who is preoccupied with combatting the Islamophobia generated in their locales by terrorist groups that spring up in brutally violent geographies like… Syria.

However, all this means is that the Syrian cause won’t passively permeate into the world. We will not see massive worldwide vigils spontaneously organize on their own to commemorate Syrian massacres. If things don’t change, we will continue to see the same small group of people celebrating the accomplishments and mourning the deaths of Syrian civil society activists. We need to actively permeate through communication channels: we live in a world where human rights causes must be marketed in an unwilling attention economy.

There has always been an attention economy, but with the emergence of new technologies and competing products, the attention economy has become a harsh market to navigate. In the attention economy, human rights is a product that has to be sold via storytelling and new media channels. Human rights advocacy is about marketing, and marketing is an actual full-time job in consumer-based societies.

For the past two years, I have been searching for Syria jobs. Syria jobs are found at the Syrian border, with groups like Save the Children or International Rescue Committee. Syria jobs also exist in Lebanon or Turkey or Jordan with new Syrian-run NGOS. My brilliant Syrian American peers, for lack of job opportunities here, have been drawn to the borders to do Syria work. All these jobs have one thing in common: they’re virtually all humanitarian.

Syria jobs in America largely don’t exist. At my estimate, there may be 20 actual paid Syria jobs in America. Some are humanitarian, and all others are based in DC. There is one group that focuses on communicating the Syrian story to Western audiences, and they’re an underfunded group of 5 people. There was one field organizer working in the West Coast, but she had to quit due to emotional and physical abuse from another person in that organization. (Expect another post analyzing the structure and strength of our institutions).

Human rights advocacy is not our Facebook statuses. Our Facebook statuses are for connecting with other Syrians — no one else uses Facebook like we do (and I personally think it’s a special thing). Other people are more interested in telling the story of their own lives on Facebook and getting feedback from their friends who are also living the same story.

Why don’t people care about Syria? Because we haven’t created jobs to make people care about Syria. There literally are no marketing, communications, and event planning jobs available.

I’ve been bringing this up for at least a year now to other Syrian Americans.

It started off as:
“Hey, shouldn’t we be creating jobs?”
Answer: “Yeah I guess we’re ineffective as volunteers for Syria” or “No, we should all pull double duty as doctors/engineers and activists”

Then it became:
“How do we create jobs?”
Answer: (Crickets)

And now its:
“Okay guys, no more volunteer run events, let’s figure out a project proposal so we can get this work funded.”

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What happened when I started asking about Racism.

Last August when media attention spiked around the protests that Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson ignited, I noticed Syrian Americans on social media were largely ignorant of black history and the current struggle in America. Some of them were Syrian Americans who quote MLK and participate in the aesthetics of black culture. More disturbingly, these were all Syrian Americans who support the Syrian Revolution for human rights.

Pro Free Syria people in America were:
1. Framing Mike Brown as a thug
2. Perceiving a majority non-violent movement as riots
3. Not recognizing the power dynamics between the police system and the black community.

This is concerning because:
1. The Assad regime labelled protestors as “terrorists”
2. The Assad regime framed a majority non-violent movement as violent
3. Oppressors and those who support them rarely recognize power dynamics.

Everything I’ve pointed out is not exclusive to the Syrian American community by any means; in fact these observations are the norm for about half of America. Public education in America fails to teach students anything substantial about oppression — it’s why the overwhelming majority of Americans use the word “racism” wrong (racism is not about being mean to black people; conversely anti-racism is not about having a black friend). But because the Syrians started a revolution for human dignity and have sacrificed a lot to keep it going, its imperative that Syrians in diaspora uphold the principles of this revolution in our locales.

Confronting Anti Black Racism in the Syrian American Community

While scrolling through my twitter feed last August, one tweet from a prominent Free Syria activist in America stuck out. He’s a lawyer and clearly labels himself as a pro-democracy activist.

Hamdi_IDontCare_BLURHamdiShiyamTwitter_BLUR

Above is a screenshot of our brief exchange, after which he promptly unfollowed me on twitter. The problem with his tweet is that it ignores 300+ years of oppression against Blacks and equates protesting with rioting. A few months later, when his Pro-Free Syria Facebook page started pushing the #SyrianLivesMatter meme, I commented saying that there were better ways to raise awareness for Syria while supporting Black Americans at the same time. I didn’t get to screenshot of that comment because it was promptly deleted and I was banned from commenting. Just like when Syrian activists don’t like it when others jump in and use our campaigns for their purposes, we shouldn’t do the same to #BlackLivesMatter.

There are dozens more instances of pro-Free Syrian Americans across the country showing similar ignorance, from people arguing in defense of the police to arguing that our justice system works fine (while showing they really have no idea how the justice system works).

Another person I interviewed, a teenage Syrian American from an upper class family, told me she feels that her whole family is racist. This becomes apparent when news coverage involving black people spikes, and people start offering their opinions at the dinner table. Her family cant understand the power dynamics between police officers and black america, and fails to empathize with black americans organizing against police brutality.

When I would casually mention to MENA Americans that I thought we could do a better job of supporting Black America, people would invariably say “Oh my Gosh YES our community is SO racist! We need that!”

Overall, I interviewed 4 Syrian Americans in depth from across the country, and they largely acknowledged that the Syrian American community upholds racist ideas. Two of my interviewees were already well versed on black history and anti-racism. The other two were not used to talking about racism, and we spent time building up their understanding of American power dynamics and how to conceptualize oppression.

A paraphrase of one such conversation:

Male Subject 1: “But what I don’t like is when black people commit a crime, people don’t say that is racist too. It’s like not a serious thing when a black person kills someone than when a white person kills someone, and that’s not fair.”

Me: “If a Palestinian murdered an Israeli, that would be wrong and that person should go to trial. But that Israeli didn’t die from the oppression of Apartheid. When as Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian in his village, it’s a murder within the context of Apartheid. So yes, if a black person murders a white person, the murderer should go to trial. But that white person didn’t die within the context of racism because black people do not perpetuate racism in America.

Male Subject 1: “So you’re saying that black people can never be racist? That seems like a stretch to me.”

Me: “Black people can be prejudiced and bigoted, but they can’t be racist. Racism is a system of oppression when one group economically disenfranchises another group. Black people never economically disenfranchised an entire society of white people.”

Male Subject 1: “I still don’t get it”

Me: “Palestinians can never commit ‘reverse Apartheid’ on Israelis”

Male Subject 1: “Oh yeah..I see that”

One Black American I interviewed expressed frustration at Arab American lack of empathy, understanding and reciprocity for justice. A Lebanese American anti-racist activist implored me to broaden my scope to all of Arab America, as these observations are not limited to Syrian Americans.

In the end, these conversations led me to two conclusions:

1) It’s absolutely critical for pro-democracy Syrian American institutions to provide public social justice educational programs for their communities.

2) The Syrian American identity, one that is both uniquely Syrian and American, largely does not exist. Syrian Americans in America identify as Arab and/or Muslim before identifying as Syrian, or even if they don’t: Syrian Americans have largely participated in #BlackLivesMatter as individuals or through their Muslim and/or Arab identity. Creating a Syrian American identity will require, in part, being publicly present in for American and Syrian justice struggles as a group.  (This is also why I ultimately chose to limit this post to the Syrian American community).


kafranbel blacklivesmatter
(The first group display of Syrian solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter came from Syrians in Kafranbel rather than those living in America)

Understanding Racism in America and Current Social Justice Movements.

That is why SAC Houston decided to incorporate special programming into our general meetings by inviting local human and civil rights activists to speak on their area of expertise. We want to connect Houstonians to Syria and connect Houstonians to each other.

We taped our first program Saturday Feb. 21st at Kendall Library: Mustafaa Carroll of CAIR Houston gave us a tour of non-violent organizing in black american history.He spoke about Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He spoke about how in the time before social media, lower class folks were organizing marches, holding voter registration drives, and making sure desegregation laws were being upheld.

After Mustafaa, I gave an overview of what racism is, what anti-racism looks like, and touched on two key pillars in today’s civil rights movement. A brief summary below:

1. Race is a social construct and has no basis in DNA. Celebrate the fact that our bodies create the same proteins and enzymes and share a biorhythm.

2. Social constructs have real effects on people’s lives. Just because race has no genetic basis doesn’t mean that racism isn’t real. Money and political borders are also social constructs that have profound implications on human behavior.

3. Racism is a system of oppression that arises when one group economically disenfranchises another group. In other words, when Americans took people from West Africa and enslaved them, that gives rise to racism.

4. This is worth repeating: Economic disenfranchisement gives rise to racism. Enslaving people is an example of economic disenfranchisement. This leads to their perception as sub human and dangerous, which is why it took America till 1965 to allow blacks to get a mortgage to own a house.

5. Therefore, anti-racism requires, in part, that we support economic empowerment. Economic empowerment looks like, in part, setting a living wage as the minimum wage in America.

6.Because of the gross economic disparity between blacks and institutional white America, the dominant perception of blacks is heavily skewed towards negative and threatening images.

7. This is why black people largely report feeling uncomfortable around police officers, because police officers can perceive black people as threatening, even when a crime is not actively being committed.

8. #BlackLivesMatter is a movement in America demanding, in part, that police officers be held accountable when they kill civilians. The current system does not hold officers accountable; Grand Juries have never sent a police brutality case to trial in America. Cases like the one in Houston, where an off duty officer shot and killed Jordan Baker because he mistook him for a suspect on the loose, will not go to trial.

9. Another major pillar area of abuse against Black America is the Prison Industrial Complex. Though violence in America has been on the decline for decades, incarceration rates have more than tripled. There are public and private prisons in America: these institutions are a 74 billion dollar industry and employ 800,000 people. Black people and people of color receive harsher sentences for petty crime compared to white people.

I’ll share our program after it’s uploaded on Youtube. Mustafaa’s presentation was a humbling reminder on how long, difficult, and beautiful social justice organizing can be. Black Americans organized along all fronts: social, cultural, and political. Changing legislation and changing hearts are both necessary when striving for a more just society.

The significance for Syrian Americans can’t be understated: this is the civil rights legacy and current reality of the country we live in, the civil rights movement paved the way for the Immigration Act of 1965 that allowed many of us to come to America, and the current Syrian struggle for human dignity obligates us to fight for not only Syrian human rights but also American human rights. This is the highest and most powerful meaning of what it means to be Syrian American.

Active vs Passive Empathy

Humans share 99.9% of their DNA. This fact is profound: our bodies make the same enzymes, proteins, and hormones. We share a biorhythm: human births typically take 9 months, human physical maturation follows a general timeline, and our sleep cycles are regular.  Humans are a social species, meaning that we require other people for general well being, and we participate in group functions. Ants and prairie dogs are also social species, while other species like the scorpion (who eat their young) are definitely not a social species.

In other words, humans have a lot of things in common and we need each other.

So why is it that some stories of social injustice elicit a strong emotional reaction within us while others don’t? One week in February saw a spike in violence in the news cycle: a massacre in Douma, Syria that left 200 civilians dead, the confirmed death of American Kayla Mueller in Syria, the triple murder of Americans Deah, Yusor, and Razan in Chapel Hill, and an arson of an Islamic Center in Southeast Houston.

Syrian death almost never elicits a massive public outcry — the Douma massacre barely made a blip on screens. Kayla Mueller’s death received coverage in the mainstream media and she is actively remembered in humanitarian and Syrian American activist spaces. The Chapel Hill murders evoked a strong outpouring of emotion and mobilization from the American muslim community: vigils were held across America, the White House was pressured to make a statement, international leaders sent letters of condolence, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated in the honor of Our Three Winners (as they affectionately came to be called). The arson at the Islamic Center received attention from Muslims and anti-Islamophobic Leftists, but not much concern showed up anywhere else.

We all know this attention inequality exists at the community level, but why does it exist? I will offer a theory and introduce two new concepts: passive and active empathy.

First, it’s important to distinguish between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is a strong emotional reaction that feels as if a person’s experience happened to you. Sympathy is a weaker emotional reaction based on pity. Both Empathy and Sympathy can exist on the individual and communal level (by the way, empathy is the complete opposite of psychopathy — the first is a strong emotional connection to another human while the latter is devoid of emotional connection whatsoever).

How we experience empathy is based upon how we identify ourselves. Our identities are social constructs we are born into and create ourselves. Like money and political borders, social constructs are technically man-made and not real in a certain sense, but they do have real effects on human behavior. Money dictates how we spend our time, political borders dictate how we move, and personal identity dictates (in part) how we empathize.

Empathy requires a knowledge of whom we are empathizing with. Knowledge comes in the form of knowing history, culture, lifestyle, quirks, details, etc. This knowledge builds up and is stored as emotional energy; it is this emotional energy that is tapped into when someone dies a public death.

In physics, energy that is built up and stored is called potential energy. When potential energy is used, it is converted to kinetic energy, the energy of motion. Muslim Americans saw this stored emotional energy for Our Three Winners in motion when it was converted into active energy and thousands of people were moved to organize and attend vigils in their honor.

I call this type of empathy “passive empathy”. I want to be clear that empathy is an amazing thing, and one of the more beautiful aspects of the human experience. “Passive empathy” is not a negative term. Because there are clear inequalities in social power, the way stories are told the the level of attention they receive is not equal. The outpouring of support for Our Three Winners is based off of passive empathy because no work was required to make people feel connected to them.

In contrast, I spend most of my time (read: all of my time) trying to imagine ways and figure out what I can do to make people empathize with Syrians. We are all human and share 99.9% of our DNA, but Syrians exist across different political boundaries. Their massacres don’t provoke communal mourning, and many times don’t provoke individual mourning. Usually, if Syria evokes any emotion, it is sympathy.

If we want to respond positively to rising levels of violence at the local, national, and international level, then active communal empathy will be required.

If passive empathy occurs because knowledge of the subject is passively acquired, then active empathy can happen when knowledge of the subject is actively acquired. This isn’t an abstract idea: active empathy means creating jobs for people to work on communications to organize within groups and between groups to connect communities together.

We need active empathy at the community level if we ever hope to build a kinder world for everyone. We need jobs not just for mainstream White america to organize mainstream social good campaigns, but jobs for minority and POC communities to organize within and outside their streams. There is no way around the necessity of active empathy: the technology age means we are connected to each other regardless of physical distance, and our connectivity is expected to increase in the coming decades. We’ll have access to violence happening in our cities and abroad in countries like Syria — and our communities will have to react.