In below freezing temperatures in Washington, D.C., a young Syrian woman grasps a microphone with frost-bitten fingers. It is the middle of the night, and thousands of names have already been read. There are thousands more to go, so she and her friends, her colleagues, and her countrymen carry on reading into a portable speaker system as the White House glows behind them. For more than 72 straight hours, supporters of the Syrian uprising read aloud the names of the over 100,000 Syrians killed since the beginning of the uprising, in a commemorative event marking the third anniversary of the uprising’s beginning on March 15, 2011.
The youth-led commemoration, which kicked off on Thursday with a candlelight vigil, saw hundreds of supporters streaming into the nation’s capital on buses, planes, and trains. The reading of the 100,000 names emotionally ended on Saturday morning, with the last Syrian’s name read by activist Raed Fares, of Kafranbel fame. Those gathered then joined hands in an interfaith prayer for peace in Syria and headed to the weekend’s main event: a rally outside of the White House. The jam-packed weekend featured dinners, a joint protest with Ukrainian opposition outside DC’s Russian embassy, and a women’s conference – drawing in many more attendants than last year’s events.
Organizers had been promoting the commemoration for weeks on social media through the hashtag #TheRevolutionContinues, posting promotional videos and working with local Syrian figures to get the maximum turnout possible. Mobilizing the Syrian community this time around had been harder than in years past, said Kenan Rahmani, Director of Operations and Development at the Syrian American Council and one of the anniversary’s organizers.
“We knew in the beginning the stakes would be high,” Rahmani told NOW. “We all agreed that the health and activity level of the Syrian-American community in 2014 is going to depend on March 15. If we do it well, we can have an active community.”
But a lot had changed in Syria in the past year. As “revolutionary activity” like protests and civil disobedience increasingly turned into news of gas attacks, inter-rebel fighting, and barrel bombs, Syrian-Americans had become heavily discouraged and less likely to turn up to protests in the US. The “nail in the coffin” of mobilization, according to Rahmani, was the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs last August, which killed over 1,400 people.
“People really thought Assad could get away with just about anything – but not this red line,” Rahmani told NOW. He said the US government’s policy fumbles following the sarin attack shocked Syrian-Americans and produced “a very significant loss of momentum” in advocacy efforts in the US.
To revitalize the Syrian-American community, Rahmani and his colleagues knew they had to produce an exceptional commemorative weekend. They started, as many organizers do today, with the hashtag. “We came up with #TheRevolutionContinues because we really want people to feel guilty for saying the revolution is over,” Rahmani told NOW. “We want people to realize that the revolution continues until there’s peace and democracy and Syria.”
While #TheRevolutionContinues is geared to be a rejuvenating message for Syrians around the world, the anniversary’s official theme – “Life, liberty, and dignity for all” – is aimed for both Syrian and non-Syrian audiences. “We wanted to take a couple steps back and highlight what it is that we actually want,” Rahmani said. Organizers included “life” and “liberty” to appeal to American audiences and “dignity” to evoke one of the values often repeated during the uprising’s early protests. As for “for all,” Rahmani told NOW that organizers wanted to be as inclusive as possible, letting neutral or pro-regime Syrians know that they, too, would have life, liberty, and dignity in a future Syria.
The weekend’s events were inclusive in another way, too: the largest coalition of Syrian organizations thus far, operating under the umbrella group Coalition for a Democratic Syria, has been sponsoring the commemoration. Syrian advocacy organizations, especially those operating in Washington, D.C., had butted heads in the past – but not so this year. “I think the most notable thing about this year is that everyone’s getting together in terms of solidarity, whereas in past years, people were more focused on sides,” said Maram Alikaj, a Syrian-American living in DC who attended the weekend’s candlelight vigil and White House rally.
Asked whether she felt the protests would spark a change in US policy towards the Syria crisis, Alikaj said she doubted it. “I think the events are more symbolic to mark the anniversary, that we haven’t forgotten, and that we’re still rooting for a peaceful end to this issue,” she told NOW.
“At the end of the day, it’s not events like this that will change US policy,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian professor at DC’s National Defense University. “We need miracles.”
Sporting an “I love Halab [Aleppo]” t-shirt at the White House rally, Alikaj told NOW that the mood at this year’s commemorative events were a mix of hope and exasperation.
“We hope it’s the last anniversary that we’ll be celebrating,” she said. “We hope this time next year, we won’t have to be doing this again.”