White House vigil marks deaths of Syrians since uprising

by Heather Khalifa

At midnight, the street in front of the White House was empty except for three Syrians, a Syrian flag, and the occasional late-night stragglers. The only source of light came from the yellowish glare of lit up rooms inside the White House windows. Outside, the last of the 100,000 names were being rattled off at a slow and steady pace, puncturing the otherwise still air.

“Raed al-Hilu, Aisha Ali Othman, Unidentified 11, Mustafa Abu-Fareed …”

It was nearing the end of the 72-hour oral vigil, organized by 12 different Syrian-American humanitarian organizations around the country. For three days straight, Syrian activists stood in front of the White House to read off the names of the 100,000 documented deaths of the Syrian people since the start of the uprising on March 15, 2011.
“By reading everybody’s names out loud, we’re commemorating them and giving them more honor than just being a casualty or a number, so that’s the whole point of the event,” said Aya Samman, director of Karam Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Chicago.“We’re also trying to make a statement in front of the White House,” said Samman.

While the Karam Foundation prides itself on being strictly humanitarian, their message to the White House is a call for more U.S. and world intervention to stop the continuous onslaught of the Syrian people by regime forces since the start of the revolution three years ago.

“It’s like ‘what are you guys doing?’ You’re just letting these people die, and I really believe that as human beings, we all have responsibilities to look after each other, and we can’t let this kind of stuff happen,” said Samman.

The 100,000 names campaign was also aimed to raise awareness for those still unaware of the crisis in Syria. Overall, the participants found that it was effective. Some passerby paused casually to listen, but did not ask any questions. Others took bolder steps to understand the campaign, and the conflict in general.

“Some people asked ‘what does this mean, where are you from?’ So we started to give them what is going on, how many martyrs we have,” said Ranim al-Bittar, 19, and a participant of the campaign. “One of the tourists told me he wanted to read the names, so I gave him the iPad and he read the names, and he was very thankful about what we were doing.”

Bittar just recently fled Syria alongside her brothers after protests in their Damascus neighborhood of Midan began escalating violently. Her family was representative of one of the few families at the event that were not Syrian-American, but were from Syria.

“Here, when I participate in the rallies, I think about the days I was demonstrating in Damascus,” said Bittar.

Evan Barrett, Media and Policy Manager of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, saw the name reading as not only a powerful symbol, but also an effective way to reach out to the American public.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is to captivate the American public so that they are more plugged in to this issue, and I think the name reading is very moving, especially if you stay there for over an hour or so,” said Barrett.

Despite plummeting temperatures in the middle of the night, participants of the 100,000 name vigil did not let the weather deter them, adding to the impact of the campaign.

“You get overwhelmed by how long it takes to even get through 1,000 names, and to know there’s over 100,000 and it takes over 70 hours, I think it’s another way for people to experience how bad the conflict is.”

The reading of the names campaign ended with a rally on Saturday, March 15, where over 500 people rallied at President’s Park in front of the White House. The crowd was a sea of green, black, and white as the Free Syrian Flag was brandished at all corners of the park, with chants such as “Syria wants freedom,” that could be heard within a few miles radius.

“It’s sending a message to the people inside Syria, and around who have been displaced, that don’t lose hope, we’re here thinking of you, we’re using our freedom of speech wisely and responsibly and sending that message to them,” said Kinda Hibrawi, also a director for the Karam Foundation. Hibrawi and the Karam Foundation focus primarily on humanitarian relief efforts, particularly for refugees on the Syrian-Turkish border. On their most recent trip to the border, a team of 30 people organized creative workshops such as art, photography, and soccer, in order to help relieve the trauma of refugee children.

But the event was not solely intended to send a message to the Obama administration, or even to raise awareness. It was also focused around bringing Syrian-Americans together for a central cause, and to boost their falling morale.

“A big core of this entire event wasn’t necessarily one to raise awareness, it was about getting all the Syrians together and recharging everyone’s energy,” said Jana al-Nahhas, 22, an organizer of the event.

Yet with the lack of response from the international community, not losing hope has proven to be increasingly difficult, especially at a time where things are at a standstill. The profound disappointments came back in September, when the Obama administration considered military strikes against the Assad regime, but then decided against it.
“I think it recharged me personally, I had taken a step back from everything, now I really do want to get back into it, not necessarily because I’m recharged, but because it’s our responsibility.”

Any talk of intervention from the international community following the decision of non-intervention has since remained off the table.

“I think what part of our job is to do, those of us that work for the advocacy organizations in DC, is we have to help people know that no matter how depressed they are, how tired they are, that the process works,” said Barrett. “When you go to the Hill, you make relationships that are not instantaneous, they are long term. I think there’s a slow momentum building, relationships building, and I hope that can be exploited into better U.S. policy.”
While Syrian-Americans admit that they do not have the pep that they once had three years ago, many are still fighting to keep the optimism alive, if not for themselves, then at least for the people inside Syria.

“I certainly understand why the community is discouraged, and I believe that they are discouraged,” said Barrett. “But we have to keep trying, because the people in Syria are still trying, and we have no right to give up before they give up.”