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Discussion with Students at Warwick University

In February 2021, I had the opportunity to talk about my life and activism to a class from Warwick University. While I always enjoy telling my story and imparting knowledge and my experiences to various groups, I find my interactions with student groups particularly rewarding. I learn so much interacting with students as they bring fresh, diverse perspectives to complex topics which often challenge my previously held assumptions. When I talk with students, I’m also reminded of my days as a student, when I started the Cultural Forum for Persons with Disabilities (PWD). I hope that our interaction inspired them to create positive change in the world.

In this case, two students’ questions stood out. The first was about my experience in the Syrian Civil War while the second concerned my intersectional identity, two topics that have shaped my life. The first question was about my political decisions when the Syrian uprising broke out a decade ago, specifically what the Assad regime and the opposition expected from ‘everyday’ Syrians like myself.

At that time, loyalty for the Assad regime meant absolute fealty, a willingness to vociferously support the regime and even to bleed and die for it. In response to this extreme position, I knew I couldn’t lie and say I supported the regime. For example, I had planned to host a workshop on PWD but we had to cancel it due to the war happening all around us. When the secret police asked why we had canceled, I couldn’t lie so I told them I couldn’t be a hypocrite and hold a workshop on PWD when bombs are creating more PWD only three blocks away. On the other hand, in order to be considered loyal in the opposition’s eyes, one needed to advocate in favor of violence against the regime and towards its Alawi supporters, something I couldn’t do.

My position at that time and today are one of political neutrality in order to have clean hands, as I simply wanted to help improve the lives of PWD, and once the war started, be part of a postwar peace and reconciliation process. In my opinion, this strategy is justified. I do understand those people who devote their energy to defending one side or the other, but in my opinion, only an engagement from a position of neutrality has a chance of breaking the deadlock. This is crucial if we wish to pave the way for a decent future for all the people and communities in the country. The alternative is continuing to waste available resources in the conflict, adding to countless broken lives and shattered hopes, with no prospects of resolution.

The second question concerned my intersectional identity and the difficulties I faced in Syria as a woman, a Kurd, and a PWD.

As a woman, I faced numerous physical and mental challenges, including the need to be vigilant when asking for physical assistance from men as they could take advantage of such a situation to harass or assault me. After I founded Cultural Forum, there were always people questioning my position as the chairwoman of a PWD organization in Syria and if it was appropriate for a woman to lead such an organization. There were also the ever-present sexist suggestions that once I married and had children, I should just give up my activism to become a housewife.

As a Kurd, the regime presumed that all Kurds were against the regime in pursuit of an independent Kurdistan. Therefore, they demanded that Kurds demonstrate their loyalty to the regime by constantly denouncing Kurdish movements. Again, I want to stress my political neutrality on this matter and that I have always sought to advocate on behalf of all the diverse communities in Syria.

Through my work at that time, and since I left Syria, I hope I can encourage students to aim high in hopes that could inspire them to follow their dreams. Interaction with students and discussions like the meeting at Warwick also inspire me in numerous ways. First of all, I gain insights into how people process information and I try to utilize these interactions to improve the way in which I present the lessons I have learned from my work as a human rights activist. When I tell my life story, it’s a chance to think about both positive and negative experiences. When I think about my advocacy work, I feel grateful for where I am in my life and proud of what I have accomplished. Through these interactions, I remind myself of my future goals, such as collaborating with others to advocate for the rights of PWD.

At the same time, I reflect upon some of the difficult decisions I have made. This allows me to assess and reevaluate them in light of subsequent developments. I find this reflection helpful practically, as I utilize it to improve future decision-making. Emotionally, it helps me process difficult decisions and move on to continue to reflect. In this way, these conversations serve as therapeutic experiences which have the added benefit of informing and inspiring others and maybe help them navigate the difficult situations in their lives.

Chavia Ali

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