Film Review: Chicago Activist Joins Syrian Struggle

Activist Ala’a Basatneh

Activist Ala’a Basatneh

By Hannah Kupsky

Photograph of Ala’a Basatneh courtesy of The Daily Dot

What’s the first the thing you do when you open your computer? Probably check Facebook; maybe answer some emails or scroll through Buzzfeed’s latest “Which food matches your personality quiz.” The Internet as we know it offers ways to de-stress, a source to catch up on news or help with homework and assignments. For Ala’a Basatneh, the subject of documentary #ChicagoGirl, the Internet is so much more. It is her personal revolution.

A Syrian immigrant to the Chicago suburbs, Ala’a is tackling the immense burden of the Syrian revolution at her fingertips. Before the revolution Ala’a was a regular teenager, spending her afternoons in the mall with her friends. Yet when the revolution began she felt she could not sit idly by as her country was engulfed in flames. Ala’a begins her day (and often never ends it; spending all night on her computer) by using Facebook and Skype to reach out with her friends on the ground in Syria. Ala’a operates Facebook pages for news outlets to gather information and video, links protesting groups to unite larger more effective protests and takes on the responsibility of executing a social media revolution. She feels responsible for the lives she communicates with on the ground. Each time a Skype call goes unanswered or Facebook message goes unread she is filled with the dread that maybe the regime has found one of her activists. Possibly her most important role is being the keeper of passwords for her friends on the ground. If an activist gets detained, Ala’a deactivates the Facebook account before the government can access the profile and activities of all of the activist’s connections. Eventually the familiar face of her friends Emad or Omar will appear on the screen and she will hear how the protest she organized yesterday had gone, or how the footage she helped upload to YouTube is being used by international news organizations.

Ala’a and her Syrian activist friends fear that the world and those who can attempt to affect change have started to lose interest in the Syrian revolution. The Media was captivated when protests raged in Tunisia in December 2010, and all eyes were on Tahrir Square come the fall of Mubarak in February 2011, but news anchors and their audiences have begun to lose faith in the promise of Syria achieving an Arab Spring. Ala’a asks the question that has preoccupied global policy makers for half a decade- why hasn’t Bashar Al-Assad fallen? While the uprising did begin in Syria on March 15th 2011 in the town of Dar’a, the repressive regime quelled attempts at an Egypt-like overthrow. What the regime fears most from a social network revolution is the information cascade, the idea that if people see their neighbors and friends on the street they will join them in collective action. However Assad’s government was quick to ban international journalists and was able to continue to deny the atrocities occurring inside his borders. Yet this obstacle of a silenced media just fuels Ala’a more as she understands that citizen journalists have to get the truth out to international news sources.

#ChicagoGirl not only brings the worlds attention back to the crisis in Syria but also reiterates the prevalence and importance technology can and has played in revolutions we have already seen occur. We can only imagine what the result of Egypt’s 2011 revolution would have been had groups not been able to organize through Facebook, had images of Tahrir Square protests not gone viral, or information not been shared through twitter. Ala’a has realized the consequences that a status update can have or the attention that a YouTube video can grab. In doing so Ala’a has taken the revolution out of Syria and brought it to the suburbs of Chicago so that we may now have the capacity to be involved. Ala’a’s strategy works because she is able to be the voice that the Syrian regime has tried to stifle. However, while Ala’a may seem safe from the grasp of Assad, her activism still risks repercussions. Ala’a details a shocking scene where she receives a death threat from the regime over Facebook message and following two weeks later an encounter at her local Starbucks with a pro-regime photographer. Ala’a realizes that while her United States community offers her a certain level of protection, the capacity of the opposition to her revolution knows no borders.

Ala’a represents a growing wave of activists who have utilized the Internet’s capacity to affect change in Syria’s revolution. In a recent New Yorker article journalist Nicholas Schmidle comments on how the Internet has proliferated information to Syrian refugees escaping the regime into Europe. The article details the plight of a refugee named Ghaith who learned of a Facebook page called ‘Asylum and Immigration without Smugglers’. Started in 2013 by a Syrian known as Abu Amar whose drive to create change through social media strongly resonate with the motivations of Ala’a “My heart was aching, so I started studying the history of immigration especially among Afghans and Iraqis, looking at maps to analyze what these smugglers were doing. I found routes that saved time and money, launched the Facebook group and began posting annotated maps” Abu Amar says. This page functions “like a Trip Advisor: members, many of them Syrian Refugees, shared candid information about refugee-friendly hostels, untrustworthy smugglers and the latest sea conditions” We are seeing more and more examples of stories like Ala’a and Ghaith of how social media is impacting human experiences in this revolution. Social media has not only allowed refugee family members to stay connected but it is a constant form of resistance against these regimes. Ala’a’s activism illustrates how the social network can take on a human rights crisis.

Next time you open your computer, you may think of the scene where Ala’a’s friend Bassel dodge sniper bullets and artillery shelling to capture images of the destroyed city of Homs to post to his Facebook in hope of gaining the worlds attention. In our fortunate circumstances, computers serve as relaxation and distraction from reality. Yet there are many who use these tools as a path of resistance and a journey towards freedom. The activists Ala’a has met have become her friends, and they hope to meet in person after the revolution. Whether in an ice cream shop in Homs or a Damascus café, she plans to unite with her compatriots and discuss how their social network took down a dictator.

If you would like to see #ChicagoGirl for yourself please join the International Studies program for a viewing and discussion of the film on November 5th 11:30am-2:00pm in the main library forum room. #Chicago Girl is also available to view on Netflix


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