Students Organize for Syria holds silent protest for Syrian scholarships

Brooke Whitney/Staff

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Students Organize for Syria, or SOS, held a silent demonstration in front of Sproul Hall over the course of several hours Wednesday to show support for Syrian refugees and impacted students.

Chairs were set up in rows on the Savio Steps, each with an empty backpack at its base, representing the students whose education has been disrupted by the ongoing Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Members of SOS held a red board that read “Aleppo is Burning” and asked students to stand in solidarity with Aleppo civilians by adding their thumbprint to the board.

Students were encouraged to converse with SOS members to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis and its impact on education. Salaam Sbini, president of SOS, called the demonstration “an opportunity to do something tangible and something long-term” for Syrian students.

“It’s really supposed to be a metaphorical expression,” Sbini said at the demonstration. “Students aren’t in school where they’re supposed to be. Education is a right and not a privilege.”

The demonstration was part of Books Not Bombs, a campaign run by SOS to push administration to create scholarships for Syrian refugee students. The campaign began last spring, after the  University of Southern California joined the Institute of International Education, or IIE, a non-profit organization which works to advance international access to education through scholarships.

As a result, USC announced plans to provide as many as six scholarships for Syrian refugee students that would be awarded in spring 2017.

“Various people have discouraged us, saying it’s admirable but it’s not going to happen,” Sbini said on Sproul Plaza. “If USC can do it, why can’t we?”

During the demonstration, SOS fielded a petition advocating for UC Berkeley to take similar action with scholarships. UC Berkeley is a participating campus in the IIE, but not in the organization’s Syria Consortium which focuses more specifically on Syrian students, according to Hajar Larbah, vice president of SOS.

“Our university has a mission to advance generations,” Larbah said at the demonstration. “We want them to honor that by supporting Books Not Bombs and providing students with scholarships.”

California currently has the highest number of resettled Syrian refugees, many of them in San Diego and Sacramento. While the U.S. has resettled the most refugees of any country this year, it has accepted far fewer refugees than countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, as well as Germany.

Currently, UC Berkeley does not offer scholarships specifically for Syrian refugee students. According to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff, a meeting is planned Friday between members of Books Not Bombs and staff from UC Berkeley’s financial aid and scholarships office.

Ramzi Massad, a first-year UC Berkeley student who stopped in to watch the demonstration, said he believed such protests were important on campus as they shed light on otherwise unknown issues.

“This conflict in Syria is coming closer and closer to home,” said Sarah Alsamman, SOS external affairs officer at the demonstration. “It’s our responsibility to be aware.”

Contact Revati Thatte at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @revati_thatte.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that UC Berkeley student Sarah Alsamman was from Syria. In fact, she was born in the United States.