Alaa Basatneh: #ChicagoGirl for Freedom in Syria

Alaa Basatneh, a Muslim American of Syrian heritage, is the main character in the award-winning documentary film #ChicagoGirl, which has aired in over 40 countries, including Al Jazeera and Fusion Network, and is currently on Netflix. Amnesty International named her one of the Human Rights Heroes of 2014. She currently works as an ELL, ESL and Special Education Assistant in the Chicago Public Schools.

It would not be wrong to say that all of us are centered around a purpose that – though it may sometimes be hidden from us – inevitably pulls us in.

While I was busy attending Wilbur Wright College and living a social life typically associated with any other American young adult – going to the movies and meeting friends at the mall – something caught my eye. In the year 2011, I first heard that children in my native Syria were tortured, imprisoned, and humiliated. For any young adult to experience a population of his/her own background being put under the sword for the mere crime of resistance against dictatorship and misery is a hard pill to swallow. Every person has a different reaction to this kind of situation, stemming from his or her own understanding and triggers associated with the environment. I reacted in a way that is typical of my upbringing of family and belonging.

Since 2011, more than 6.5 million people have been displaced and over 200,000 have been killed in clashes with the Syrian dictatorship. I believe that the damage would have been far greater and in a way, irreversible, had it not been for the vast global network working around the clock to overthrow Assad. The astounding secrecy and bigotry with which Baathists have destroyed much of the land and people around the Mesopotamian river has been an ever-impending danger since the early 1980s. The recent attention towards and the outcry over the abuses of Middle Eastern dictatorships can perhaps be attributed to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the increasing use of social media worldwide.

I firmly believe that while what one individual does isn’t of much substance, it still matters. I wanted to stand up for what I believed in. Universal human rights are important to me, and that stems from my upbringing. I hope to inspire many more people to ask for their birth right of dignity and self-respect.

The social network that has been at the forefront of resistance against Assad’s regime and is now the subject of a documentary, “#ChicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes On A Dictator.” The film tells the parallel stories of my own advocacy in Chicago and a few protest leaders in Syria to illustrate how the Internet and social media have enabled people to band together to facilitate change. When the cries of change come from common folk on social media, their originality cannot be disputed.

While the documentary may make my initiative look impressive and inspiring, my beginnings were humble. I was born in Damascus and immigrated to the U.S. with my family when I was six months old. Although, I lived a life as a typical American, my family and I always kept up with events in Syria. When a group of ten children, all under 15, were arrested and tortured by the Assad dictatorship, the atrocity sparked my activism. A simple and beautiful expression of free speech by these children led to torture, sexual abuse, and death of one of the boys. Here in America I was enjoying both freedom and opportunity, but also the right to express myself even if it goes against established entities. But these children were tortured simply for writing on their school wall, “Down with the regime.”

The initial reaction to the events in Deraa was the coordination of a protest in Chicago in March 2011. I knew I couldn’t be in Syria to help these kids, but I opened my laptop and on Facebook I had less than 60 friends, none of whom were Syrian. I didn’t know many people in the Syrian community, so I started going to YouTube and looking for activists that were uploading things, and I started adding them on Facebook and talking to them on Skype. That’s how my network grew. The Syrian community in Chicago wanted to do something but didn’t know how, so I created an event page on Facebook and it grew organically. Not long after, I began coordinating protests in Syria.

Not all was simple and easy. The protests and outrage over the Syrian crisis grew and grabbed attention, but when one of the organizers was arrested in Syria it led to death threats towards me. I was scared and didn’t know what to do as more members of the community started receiving threats. We tracked the IP addresses to a computer belong to the Syrian regime, as I decided to keep a low profile. Then, someone from Amnesty International reached out to me by email and asked if I knew anyone in the expatriate community who was threatened by the regime. I thought it was a sign from God, and my secret now had to be revealed.

After I emailed her back the screen shots and the details of the Facebook threat I received, that’s when I had to tell my parents. My dad called the FBI right away and just talking to them made me feel safe. Two weeks into the security that I was assigned at school, I stopped it. I felt compelled to do this in solidarity with all the brave Syrian men, women, and children that were tortured and humiliated daily without having any security to fall back on. I knew that I was safe and in a country that would serve justice in case anything happened. I finally felt that the United States represented a country that I can proudly call home.

Film director Joe Piscatella heard of my activism and contacted me by via Facebook. Piscatella offered to make a documentary on the struggle of everyday Syrians towards freedom and individual rights. Initially I was very hesitant because I didn’t want the death threats that I faced become a real issue, but I said yes. I wanted the younger generation of Syrians after us to find inspiration in our struggle and value the freedom that they will have. The making of the film required incredible hard work, legislative conundrums, and social media activism. Over 18 months of secretive reporting and recording resulted in three hard drives of material, which completed the documentary and gave it a real sense of identity. Security of the social activism was the most vital task that was handed to me. I kept social media logins and passwords of the protest leaders and would delete their accounts in the event that they were arrested by the Assad regime.

In addition to protecting the protesters, I would disseminate videos from protesters who are citizen journalists on the ground in Syria, letting the rest of the world know what is going on. This is also vital because foreign journalists are banned in Syria and often correspondents don’t go because of the extreme dangers they face. In addition to open media ban and reporting restrictions in Syria, the torturous regime has openly killed and humiliated hundreds of thousands of civilians and destroyed the infrastructure. Work in Syria is far from done. I remain committed to non-violence, and I feel that while discouragement can set in, we must keep faith. Democracy in Syria must come from within Syria.

The situation in Syria seems to deteriorate from one day to the next. Every power hungry group, whether motivated by Baathists fascism or religious extremism, is destroying the fabric of the Syrian society. The steady rise of ISIS was in large part created as a result of Assad in 2011 releasing from his jails those who would become ISIS leaders, inspired by evil barbarism. I feel that ISIS was picked to take care of the moderate opposition. On the face of it, ISIS seems to be anti-regime but it has killed more members of the opposition than the regime has. They are truly despised within the country, as is the Assad regime. Still, one must remain on the side of principles of democracy and human rights and go forward. Accepting anything less than democracy and equal voice for the Syrian people would be a disaster.

I faced challenges within my own community in terms of support and resistance. Quite often, I was told that as a Muslim woman, I must remain quiet and these issues were not for me to take on. This left me frustrated, in the sense that I know that I can and am making a difference. My activism is just the start of my journey to make our world a better place. I’m determined and motivated to do so. My current work focuses on human rights violations in Syria, but I eventually want to turn my focus and attention on children’s rights all over the world after completing my Masters in International Human Rights.

My family and I have had the privilege of living in the United States and enjoying utmost security, absolute freedom, and the opportunity to pursue our dreams together and build a future. The same should be afforded for the people of Syria, as well as people all over the world.

We’re in a very dark and long tunnel but our vision should remain focused on the light at the end. The light of freedom and pursuit of happiness should be our guide towards a prosperous, peaceful, and secure Syria. We all must move on and become vigilantes for human rights all over the world.

Every Arab and every Muslim in the U.S. is living the American dream. The privilege of living in this country makes it our responsibility to help ensure that people in the Middle East and all over the world will one day be able to live with dignity and peace.

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