Duke students, faculty discuss the Syrian conflict

Sep. 07, 2013 @ 10:39 PM

Duke students and faculty wrote down prayers on little index cards Saturday and placed them in a bag at the Duke Center for Muslim Life. At the end of the night, everyone took turns unfolding the cards and reading the well wishes aloud.

Let the Syrian people regain the justice and dignity they deserve. May Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down and make way for a new, peaceful government. May all mothers know that their children are safe.

As U.S. politicians argue intervention tactics and civil unrest in Syria peaks in a battle of gunfire, bombs and chemical weapons, Syrian rebels continue to wage a war against the unrelenting al-Assad regime. The bloodshed and unrest hits close to home for students and faculty with Syrian ties.

“We are here together for a very unpleasant topic,” said Imam Abdullah Antepli, Duke University’s Muslim chaplain. He added that the international conflict has been fueled by politics, and Syria has become a “chess board” for superpowers around the world.

Over the summer, Antepli spent time visiting refugee camps formed to distance Syrian families from the devastation. Three years ago, these people had a decent life, with “no element of a hurricane coming” as he traveled from Jordan and Turkey into Syria. Now, their lives have been turned upside-down, he said.

“One has to see the depth of destruction,” Antepli said. “What I was so moved and touched by was the pain and suffering these people are going through.”

One of the Duke freshmen among the crowd, Basil Chaballout, has family still living in Syria. He said it’s hard to touch base with them when the electricity goes out and they can’t be reached by phone.

His parents now live in the United States, but his mother’s side of the family still resides in Aleppo and his father’s side in Homs, both areas of the country caught up in the chaos. There are long lines for food. Gasoline is running out, so families facing winter will go without heat. Families aren’t sending their children to school for fear that if they do go, they’ll never return home.

“Sometimes I can tell my mom is keeping it in to not scare us,” Chaballout said.

On the political side of the conflict, he said a world coalition would serve a greater purpose than the United State’s unilateral intervention.

“To me, the red line was crossed when the first person died, the first person was tortured,” he said.

Antepli mentioned to the group that there are now 2.5 million refugees created from the Syrian conflict.

“It gives me a flashback about what happened in Iraq,” said Safa al-Saeedi, a Duke economics and political science junior.

al-Saeedi was born in Syria and grew up in Yemen. She said countries such as the U.S. talk about democracy and human rights, but political motivations make their arguments for intervention less innocent.

“Stay with peace or leave with peace,” she said. “… We’re living, but to the unknown.”

Some of the students fasted that day, to better connect with the struggles of the Syrian people. As alarm clocks signaled the start of Maghrib, the evening Muslim prayer, Antepli ended the group discussion to pray.

“We need to end our fasting,” he said. “Why don’t we just take two minutes in silence, in the language that we feel comfortable in, the tradition that we are the most comfortable, and pray as hard as we can.”

With eyes shut, palms raised or hands clasped, the room fell silent.