|Extending a hand: a Greco-Roman mosaic at the Syrian National Museum (Damascus, 2005)|
When you stop to reflect on the Syrian crisis, it can be easy to reach this conclusion. What hope exists for a place that seems to have generated nothing but bad news for five straight years? For a people whose desperation grows exponentially month after month?
Fatigue with the seemingly intractable sectarian conflicts of the Middle East has pushed many people outside Syria to simply tune out. Many ordinary Syrians feel the international community has abandoned them. (Sadly, it's largely true.) In
February 2014, as yet another round of Syrian peace talks ended in failure, veteran NPR Middle East correspondent Deborah Amos was asked about this feeling of abandonment, and whether Syrians she had met had also given up hope for outside assistance. Her response was insightful:
"I think they've been saying this for some time. You know, 'How can the world watch?' We all said 'Never again.' We said it over Rwanda. And now we are back to this wholesale humanitarian crisis in the region that is destabilizing most of the Middle East, and Syrians feel that there is no one who is standing up for them. But there's been no bumper sticker for Syria. There was for Darfur, and people in this country understood what was happening, in a place that was really far away that maybe they didn't even understand. But that has not happened with Syria. It's a complicated conflict. People understand that Syrians are dying, but it has not captured the imagination—certainly not in this country."Sadly, her words remain largely true today, and apply not just to Americans. Sadder still, several advocacy and aid groups have produced creative, moving ads—like this one—to raise international consciousness of the Syrian conflict, but widespread concern for the Syrian people has not followed. (A recent Atlantic piece attempting to identify "the best charitable cause in the world" didn't even consider refugee relief or peacemaking efforts in Syria.) Why not? How can people sit safe at home around the world and not feel some compassion for the suffering of innocent Syrian men, women, and children?
Beyond general fatigue with conflict in the Middle East, my best guess is that fear of Daesh—the so-called "Islamic State"—has eclipsed much of the humanitarian concerns for Syria in the global public consciousness, mirroring the shift in foreign governments' priorities the moment Daesh entered the scene. Giving importance to the fight against Daesh is understandable—they are a reprehensible bunch who must be contained and combated—but it's sad to see the world slip back into the familiar "Global War on Terror" approach to a conflict that has so many other facets worthy of our concern and efforts. Amid the cries of "Daesh, Daesh, Daesh", when was the last time we heard a serious discussion about the need for regime change in Syria? About the humanitarian crisis in refugee camps across the region? About the thousands of civilians still being killed in the daily crossfire?
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The narratives that have come to dominate the Syrian conflict have distracted or discouraged many around the world. But for various reasons, some of us still have not tuned out. In my case, it was those brief but formative few months I spent in Syria ten years ago that have kept me emotionally engaged. Others have Syrian friends or relatives. Perhaps some have heard a story of the suffering in Syria that tapped some deep humanistic nerve.
But for those who care and want to help, the question becomes: How? What are the options?
In my search for an answer to that question, I have found numerous noble initiatives, from major humanitarian efforts by international organizations to small-scale campaigns by Syrian expats to raise awareness in their adoptive communities. Last year, I also came across 7 For Syria, a tiny website launched in 2013 by a pair of fellow Syria-philes back at Georgetown seeking to connect concerned members of the public to resources that could help them make a difference. Seizing on the opportunity to translate my concern into action, I volunteered to help retool and expand the site, whose resources were organized around seven categories of action (learn, connect, advocate, organize, donate, share, give feedback).
After several weeks of tinkering with the content and design, I felt I had made some visible improvements, but 7 For Syria was still far from a professional effort, and its reach had grown only negligibly. I stepped away—just briefly, I told myself—to focus on other responsibilities, but later I found it hard to return. Though brief, the experience had been enough to show me that an independent, part-time, online-only organizing effort can only achieve so much. I have a greater appreciation for just how much sweat and time effective organizing requires, and a greater recognition of my own limitations.
There are many ways we can contribute to those efforts, even if we can't all dedicate ourselves to them fully. I, like many, am still searching for new ways to help. If you are too, 7 For Syria is one possible starting point, and I would welcome suggestions for others.