Since a photo of a Syrian refugee boy lying dead on a Turkish seashore went viral in September, world powers have finally turned their attention to the long-escalating humanitarian crisis of Syria’s civil war. Students across America’s college campuses have been active on the issue for years.
Student activism is nothing new
Student activism has been alive and well on college campuses since the 1960’s and before. Some of the most famous student protests of the late 1960’s occurred at your author’s alma mater, Columbia University. In April 1968 the group Students for a Democratic Society led protests against the university’s affiliation with a powerful weapons research think-tank in the shadow of the Vietnam War, and closely afterwards Columbia’s Student Afro Society led protests against the construction of a segregatory gymnasium in Harlem’s adjacent Morningside Park. The Columbia protests raised two sets of issues that remain contentious on campus to this day – university investment in morally dubious institutions, and the complexity of race relations between the university and adjacent communities.
In 2012, Zana Alattar, a student at Arizona State University, founded Save Our Syrian Freedom, a student club “dedicated to raising awareness of the Syrian Revolution and providing humanitarian relief.” Building off that work, Zana and others founded Students Organize for Syria (SOS) in September 2014 as a network of university chapters that work towards a critical mission. According to their website they are,
“Students working together to shed light on the current situation in Syria and to provide necessary humanitarian relief for and stand in solidarity with the people of Syria.”
Spreading awareness and fundraising for Syrian families
The Columbia University SOS chapter, started in December 2014, has been active by organizing campus events, fundraising, and raising the issue of Columbia’s response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. As their first major event, in April 2015 the group organized a benefit concert that raised over $2,000 for Jusoor, an NGO founded by Syrian expatriates that provides refugee children educational opportunities in Lebanon camps. This past November they held another benefit concert featuring distinguished Syrian musician and composer Malek Jandali, and raised $8,500 for Save the Children’s Syria fund. The Columbia chapter has also held panel discussions about the economics of the Syrian refugee crisis, and art and representation in the Syrian context.
Besides successful events open to all New Yorkers, Columbia’s SOS members have been active voices in the campus dialogue regarding the Syrian war and humanitarian crisis. Columbia’s institutional efforts to address various aspects of the crisis include interdisciplinary efforts at policy building, a new course in which students build crisis response proposals for the United Nations, a single-subject digital media news outlet called Syria Deeply, and active research by global centers in Amman, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey on the situations of refugees in the region. However, students and campus activists argue that such international presence is meaningless without institutional support for current and incoming refugee students and recognition of the “collective grief” experienced by the Arab community on campus. Just as in the 1968 protests, student communities have directly confronted conflict on a global scale and are organizing themselves to make a difference.
#Staches4Syria and recent developments
In Students Organize for Syria’s latest national campaign, student groups across the U.S. joined forces with the Karam Foundation to raise money through November’s Mustache. #Staches4Syria raised money to be donated in the form of winter clothing and supplies, or educational support, all delivered through the Karam Foundation. Last year a similar campaign raised $150,000 that was used to deliver winter clothes to 15,000 families, heat 17 schools, deliver 1,000 wood-burning heaters and distribute 5,000 tons of wood and 25,000 liters of heating fuel in Aleppo, Damascus, Zabadani, Daraa, Rif Idlib, and Rif Homs.
There’s more to come
Student activists have always had powerful voices, and today more than ever they are in the position to make positive change in the world. By highlighting a student organization doing great work every month, we hope to draw attention to that change and to the students who are making it happen. As Students Organize for Syria shows, committed, active student leaders have been shaping history and impacting the world for decades. They won’t stop anytime soon.
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