Friday, July 12, 2024
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Friday, July 12, 2024

The 2024 Annual For Syria Conference held in Washington DC

A portion of the diverse group of participants at the Annual For Syria Conference in Washington DC, March 8, 2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

This year’s commemoration of the beginning of the Syrian revolution that was held in Washington DC began on Thursday, March 7, with a Day of Advocacy on Capitol Hill. This exceptionally well-organized event was coordinated by the American Coalition for Syria (ACS) and included prearranged visits to the Capitol Hill offices of elected officials from 17 different states, as well as Washington DC. 

 Drew Martineau (left), Farouk Belal, Reem Connor, and Mohammad Alaa Ghanem at the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) Ohio, March 07, 2024; Photo credit: ACS

During the visits, Syrian and non-Syrian advocates for Syria spent time thanking their state representatives who helped to pass the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act through the House in February with an overwhelming vote of 389 to 32. With approval by the Senate being the next step needed in order for the Act to be sent to the president, those advocates who visited the offices of their Senators were tasked with encouraging them to vote yes when it comes to the Senate floor as well.

Ghada Naji (left), Hisham Naji, Tori Travers, Tarek Abou Ghazala, and Fadi Hilani at the office of Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) Virginia, March 07, 2014; Photo credit: ACS

When asked the next day if the trip to Capitol Hill on Thursday was fruitful, Mahmoud Barazi, President of the American Coalition for Syria as well as the Free Syria PAC, told Syriawise:

“we could build on this by having our staff here in DC continue to reinforce the talking points”

Mahmoud Barazi, ACS President

“I believe it was fruitful because we established a community/staff relationship, and the staff heard first hand from the Syrian community within the constituents of their own elected figures. 

I believe right now we could build on this by having our staff here in DC continue to reinforce the talking points that we brought to those staffers yesterday so when this bill reaches the Senate we have already established that relationship so all the feedback they need to process the bill within the Senate is already at their disposal.”

Secretary (left), Yasser Ashkar, Ghassan Hitto, Hunayda Asbahi, Ben Donovan at the office of Sen. Gary Peters (D) Michigan March 07, 2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

“This level of professionalism that we brought to our work for the Syrian cause is unprecedented,” Barazi continued. “And the most striking, or most unique thing about it, is it’s from Syrians within our own community. We don’t hire people from outside. We invest heavily in our Syrian talent. We give them the time to nourish, and at the same time give them positive feedback. And we wish for them to want to continue working with us. That’s absolutely a dream for us! At the same time, if they were prepared to step into the real world to do other things, this is also something we thrive on. This has been our focus since day one. These young talents keep growing and the more funding we have from our beloved community, the more talent we will hopefully have as their own kids become a part of this process.”

Raed Saleh (left), Head of Syrian White Helmets, Mohammad Alaa Ghanem SAC’s Head of Policy March 08, 2024;
 Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

Ambassador Schaak pointed out that it is impossible to achieve justice and accountability in Syria under the Assad regime as it has transformed the courts in Syria into tools of oppression themselves

Day two of the Annual For Syria Conference included a day full of panel discussions that opened with welcoming remarks by Barazi and keynote remarks by Raed Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defense aka The White Helmets. The first panel discussion titled “13 Years On: What’s next for US Engagement in Syria” was moderated by Wa’el Alzayat, National Coordinator for ACS, and included Ethan Goldrich from the US Department of State  Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and Ambassador Beth Van Schaak from the US Department of State Office of Global Criminal Justice. 

Ambassador Beth Van Schaak (left), and Ethan Goldrich from the US Department of State, Wa’el Alzayat, March 08, 2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

Ambassador Schaak pointed out that it is impossible to achieve justice and accountability in Syria under the Assad regime as it has transformed the courts in Syria into tools of oppression themselves. When presenting the current avenues available for attaining justice and accountability outside of the country, she spoke about the challenges they pose for acquiring the documentation needed to proceed. “It’s a huge documentation challenge considering the lack of access imposed on the country by the Assad regime,“ she said. “Consequently it’s been up to the Syrian people to document their own abuse.” A challenge she added,  that Syrians have been overcoming with their bravery and creativity since the revolution began 13 years ago. 

Omar Offendum, March 08, 2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

The first panel discussion was followed by a performance by Omar Offendum, internationally acclaimed hip hop artist, poet, storyteller, designer, and peace activist. Omar was born in Saudi Arabia to Syrian parents who immigrated to the US when he was a child. In recent years he has been helping in the creation of several notable emotionally charged songs that focus on the popular democratic uprisings, not only in Syria, but throughout the Middle East & North Africa as well.

Haya Akbik (left), Youmun Alhlou, Diana Alrayes, Rima Zeitouneh March 08, 2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

The next discussion titled “Shaping Tomorrow: Professional Diversity and Collective Community Strength” consisted of a panel of amazing Syrian women who have been passionately working to uplift Syrian voices, build a more resilient Syrian American community, and create societal change. The panel was moderated by Haya Akbik, Executive Affairs Coordinator for the Center for American Progress and the speakers included Youmun Alhlou Horta, Program Manager for Meta, Diana Alrayes, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins, and  Rima Zeitouneh, Community Outreach Coordinator for the US State Dept.

Mahmoud Barazi (left) presenting award to Feras Alhlou March 08, 2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

Before the attendees broke for lunch, Syrian entrepreneur Firas Alhlou from California was given an award for his voluntary work as an Advisor to Entrepreneurs & Nonprofits after stepping away from his own job two years ago.

Sally Shobut (left), Rama Chakaki, Sinan Hatahet, Yaser Tabbara March 08,2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

The afternoon session began with “Investing in Syria: Visions, Experiences, and Future Pathways.” This session, moderated by Sally Shobut, Syria Forum Academic and Advocacy Officer, included Rama Chakaki, a venture capital investor, as well as Sinan Hatahet, Syria Forum Vice President for Investment & Social Impact, and Yaser Tabbara, Legal & Strategy Advisor and cofounder of Syria Forum. The goal of this panel was to provide insight into the economic environment in areas of north and NW Syria with a focus on opportunities for building resilience and livelihoods for Syrians living in these areas.

“We exist in order to speak up on behalf of a population that has been muzzled for a long time, A population that’s been slaughtered, and gassed, and turned into refugees.”

Mohammad Alaa Ghanem, SAC’s Head of Policy

When asked about the viability of investing in Syria before the country is stabilized, Chakaki told SYRIAWISE: “I’ve always been optimistic about investing in Syria, especially an impact investment in technology and traditional crafts unique to our culture and heritage. We have phenomenal raw talent. With the right nurture and support, that talent can create outlier financial returns for investors, an impact on the local community and continue propagating the tapestry of our rich culture and heritage globally. Investing in communities post conflict is key to their sustainability and long-term prosperity,” she added.

Mohammad Alaa Ghanem (left), Chad Brand, Alberto Hernandez, Mirna Barq March 08, 2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

“2024 ACS Priorities and Goals” included panelists Mohammad Alaa Ghanem, SAC’s Head of Policy, Chad Brand, Government Relations Officer for the Syrian American Council (SAC), Alberto Hernandez, SAC Government Relations Associate, and moderator Mirna Barq, President of the Syrian Christians Education Committee They discussed the ACS policy priorities for 2024 as well as how to tackle the obstacles and reach their objectives. White addressing the importance of the role that the Syrian American community plays in achieving their goals for Syria, Mohammad Ghanem said “We exist in order to speak up on behalf of a population that has been muzzled for a long time, a population that’s been slaughtered, and gassed, and turned into refugees. Syrians took to the streets in very large numbers asking for democracy, asking for dignity. Our job is to amplify their voices.”

Yisser Bitar (left) and Isra Chaker, March 08, 2024; Photo credit: SYRIAWISE

After a second performance by Omar Offendum, Yisser Bitar and activist speaker Isra Chaker engaged in a conversation on “Building Movements and Value-Based Coalitions on Syria and Palestine.” Although not a planned speaker, critical care physician Dr. Zaher Sahloul who is also president and cofounder of MedGlobal, was given the opportunity earlier to speak about the challenges of providing medical care in Syria and now in Gaza. He emphasized the importance of not segregating moral concerns and referred to Syrians and Palestinians as “brothers in pain.”

“Bridges to Suriya: Connecting to Roots After 2011” brought the 2024 For Syria Conference to a close as Legal Affairs Program Manager for SAC moderated Omar Offendum who poetically reflected on his personal journey to becoming a Syrian American and the importance of Syrians living in exile holding on to their identity and culture and maintaining a connection to their roots.

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