Memphis may be 6,000 miles from Syria, but the members of the newly formed chapter of the Syrian-American Council are hoping to get more Memphians involved in helping citizens of the war-torn country.
Emanne Knefati, the vice president of the Memphis chapter, said the alignment with the national organization grew from the outpouring of support from Memphians for the Syrian revolution in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, a massive movement of protests for more democratic governments that spread throughout the Middle East.
"It's not just Syrians who care," Knefati said. "We want to reach out to more Memphians."
The Arab Spring activists sought to oust Bashar al-Assad, who appointed himself president in 1971, and the Ba'ath political party, which has held power since 1963. Since 2011, the United Nations has estimated over 100,000 people have died in the continuing conflict, suggesting the number could be higher. More than two million refugees have fled Syria to neighboring countries since 2011.
On August 30th of this year, U.S. assessments of the conflict concluded that Assad killed nearly 1,500 of Syria's citizens — almost one-third of them children — with chemical weapons in the Damascene suburbs on August 21st. U.N. inspectors confirmed that rockets were used to expose residents to sarin, a colorless and odorless nerve agent that can cause death within seconds.
"When Rwanda happened, everyone said, 'Never again,'" Knefati said. "Syria is happening. This is a president killing his people."
The United States condemned the actions, but Knefati said she didn't think it was enough. President Barack Obama claimed Assad had "crossed a red line."
"We want the [U.S.] government to take a stronger stance," Knefati said.
Knefati and her friends first got involved by organizing bake sales to raise money for Syrian aid and sending clothes to Syria for the extreme winter and summer seasons. One of her friends, who moved to Memphis from Damascus, motivated her to take it further.
The Memphis chapter of the Syrian-American Council aims to have a multicultural organization that not only provides a political platform but also can quickly coordinate to set up humanitarian aid if needed.
"[Syrians inside the country] are getting support, but it's getting out of control," Knefati said. "They're running out of water."
At the Memphis chapter's first meeting last week at the Memphis Islamic Center, Sharif Kayali, president of the chapter, said members should expect to be asked to do more than protesting or talking about the issues within the chapter.
"Doing something about Syria isn't just something to get involved in as community service," he said. "It should call to you as a human that these people are dying, whether they're dying by a chemical attack or by a bullet. There's really no difference."
Kayali also stressed the importance of getting everyone involved, no matter the race or religion.
"When we have a diverse group of people, this shows that this problem is not just a national problem, only for Syrians or the countries around it. It's a problem for Americans who live here," he said.
The next meeting has yet to be scheduled, but updates are posted to the chapter's Facebook page at facebook.com/SyrianAmericanCouncilMemphis.