Upper Grades Students Host Symposium on Syria

Upper Grades Students Host Symposium on Syria
Student Voices

Editor’s note: Occasionally on OPEN, we like to share contributions from students at Avenues. Today’s article comes from Maddalena Rona, class of 2017.

Since September, my 11th and 12th grade Economics of Violence and Peace class at Avenues: The World School had been examining the economic dimensions of violence and peace. For months, we had been studying the economic causes of the conflict in Syria, and we all wrote research papers on topics ranging from Bashar al-Assad’s economic policies and the proxy wars taking place in Syria to the use of chemical weapons and sexual violence as tools of war.

The Syrian Conflict started in 2011, when Syrians peacefully took to the streets to protest the tyrannical Assad government, and it has continued to this day, only getting worse. Assad inherited his power from his father. His father ruled Syria with an iron fist. When he died, Syrians looked to the well-educated Assad for more humane treatment and to liberalize the country. However, Assad did not liberalize Syria sufficiently and continued committing human rights violations, spurring the protests for democracy during the Arab Spring. Following in the footsteps of his father, Assad’s army reacted violently to the protest in 2011. This violent response of the government has led to a complicated, multi-actor, civil war that has continued for six years. The conflict has resulted in the death and displacement of millions of Syrians.

What truly motivated us to research and dig into the Syrian conflict were conversations we had with both Syrian resistant members and with a very special UN worker. We had the opportunity to speak via Skype with members of the Syrian resistance working for a USAID funded NGO in Turkey. The first question the Syrians asked us was what we thought of when we thought of Syria. Many of us responded, “war, refugees, dictatorship.” The Syrian individuals we spoke with said when they think of Syria they think of home. They went on to explain how it felt for their country to be destroyed. Despite this destruction, and the fact that some of them were tortured by Assad’s regime, they remained hopeful. Hearing these stories changed the trajectory of the class. In addition, Tonderai Chikuhwa, Senior Program Officer at the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on Sexual Violence in Conflict, came to talk to our class and told us how both the Assad regime and ISIS used sexual violence as a tool to war. Similarly to the resistance members, the Special Representative’s stories touched our hearts and we knew that we had a lot more to learn, and that we wanted to educate the rest of our classmates and the Avenues community.

The Syria Symposium was held at Avenues: The World School on Wednesday, May 3, from 5:30 to7:30 p.m. in the Black Box Theater and was open to students, parents and the general public. The symposium was centered around the question: “What factors have prolonged the Syrian conflict?” We explored how the fields of media, foreign involvement and tools of war perpetuate the conflict. Four speakers came to speak at the symposium. Tonderai Chikuhwa; Loubna Mrie, Syrian Civil Rights Activist; Kieran Dwyer, Senior Advisor on Humanitarian Advocacy (UNICEF); and Rachel Ziemba, Managing Director at Roubini Global Economics.

After the speakers introduced themselves and their work, we asked the speakers to answer five main questions:

  • What are misconceptions of the conflict? How can we combat these misconceptions and educate the public?
  • The Syrian conflict has brought debates on immigration policy to the forefront of political discourse in many different countries. What direction should immigration policies move towards to ensure everyone’s safety and prosperity at the same time?
  • Do you think the involvement of the United States and Russia is hurting or helping the Syrian people? Do you think allowing Assad to remain in power will help bring the conflict to an end? What are the best next steps for leaders such as Assad, Trump, and Putin?
  • Can Syria be rebuilt? Will it ever be rebuilt? When? How much time and money is necessary for this to happen? (such as infrastructure, communities, leadership)
  • How can the international community cooperate to achieve a real solution to the Syrian conflict amid difficulties in passing resolutions in the UN Security Council?

One of my favorite questions asked to the panelists was, “What are misconceptions of the conflict? And how can we combat these misconceptions and educate the public?”

Here are some of their responses:

  • Tonderai Chikuhwa: ”A difficult issue and subject, a misconception is that sexual violence as a tool of war is about sex, when it is really about power and violence. It is a security issue and there are myths saying it is a lesser crime or might speak to rebel commanders and sometimes there is shock that we speak about sex when they could have killed these civilians, but once you understand what this does to the individual and the community, you understand the impossible reconcilability after such an act. We have to approach this issue in a strategic and considerate way to stop this. Also, there are good guys and bad guys – no one has clean hands.”
  • Kieran Dwyer: “One misconception is that Syria is hopeless. There is hope. There is lots of trauma but there are many amazing civilians in this country. Syrians have a lot in common between one another. We cannot say and do nothing until it is all fixed. Invest in children, youth, education, making sure we don’t get a lost generation of children and youth. Syrians love their country; they have lots of pride. There is enormous energy among Syrian people to find ways to solve the conflict, but there is a war. Don’t just think of guys with power and bad people, think of the children and the peaceful civilians who want the same things ordinary people want in life. To put the Syrian people in a category can negatively impact this country and our comprehension of this conflict. More can be done, and all of you can do something, one misconception is that we cannot do anything.”
  • Loubna Mrie: “Regime change conspiracy: not understanding how the conflict started. There was an uprising in the country which was repressed by the Syrian government. The current president, Bashar Al-Assad became president after his father as inheritance, after a military coup. The country for 50 years had been ruled by same family. You cannot be against the government or you will suffer detention. This is how the uprising started, after kids graffitied on these walls. They were detained and tortured. The city went crazy and had peaceful demonstrations and then government and police got violent. First it was not a regime change but rather for justice for these children and civilians. There are many misconceptions of how the conflict started, especially in a free country such as this one.”
  • Rachel Ziemba: “In economics and finance, people tend to focus on oil price and regional stability. The misconceptions might also be dynamics on refugee flows and the impact on that.”

Kieran Dwyer spoke about the resilience of the Syrian people. He mentioned that there are around six million children in Syria, and four million are in need of serious aid. These children are not receiving an education, and he spoke about the importance of educating these young people. These contributions from Mr. Dwyer were truly heartening, necessary to hear and changed the dynamic in the room in such a positive way. I appreciated hearing Loubna Mrie’s comments about “hearing from the source” and the extreme importance of having Syrians on panels where this conflict is discussed. I was also moved by Ms. Mrie’s comments on how trust and unity among communities in Syria has been damaged and that in her mind unity is the first thing that must be rebuilt, as opposed to infrastructure. Tonderai Chikuhwa’s contributions about the complexity of fighting terrorist groups, and battling their tactics and use of tools of war that break apart communities were fascinating to listen to and understand.

After the panel, presentations and a question and answer session in the Black Box, everyone moved to Food for some snacks and to chat with the panelists on-on-one. A raffle also took place upstairs, where one of the speakers, Kieran Dwyer, won two tickets to a John Legend concert! The event was also used as a fundraiser for the White Helmets, an incredible volunteer organization in Syria for which we raised more than $1,500. This event was a great success, and we had many people from not only the Avenues community join, but the Chelsea and New York City community join us as well.

I hope Avenues students and teachers will continue to organize such rewarding events in the future.


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