By Karam Alhamad
Eleven years ago last month, war broke out in my home country of Syria. I was 21 years old.
To promote a freer, brighter future for my country, I did what I could, picking up my camera to document Assad’s atrocities against his own people. My hopes of peacefully graduating from the university in my hometown of Deir ez-Zor, Syria were quickly dashed. And in the span of just a few short days, I was transformed from a typical petroleum engineering student to a pro-democracy war protester.
I decided that if I could no longer be a student, I would be a teacher. I began educating the world about the horrors unfolding in my country. From 2011 to 2016, I used my photography and storytelling skills to shed light on the situation in Syria. By documenting the bombings, destruction and slices of everyday civilian life for the world to see, I deepened the world’s understanding of our situation. I worked with reporters and editors at Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Washington Post, and Foreign Affairs to spread awareness of the devastation Assad’s regime was causing.
My family taught me that education is the bridge to a brighter future, and I was busy laying the path to a Democratic Syria, story by story alongside my fellow activists.
This work was more than reporting. It was education in its purest and most important form. I was actively creating a window for the outside world to look in and learn about Syria, its people and its crisis. Knowledge is power, and Assad knows this. That is why I was detained and tortured by the Syrian government not once, but four times, for my efforts to showcase its abuses for the world.
Despite its best efforts, the regime failed to quieten my voice. And once again, education proved to be the key to redemption and a brighter future. At the age of 24, I was accepted to Syracuse University’s Leaders for Democracy Fellowship, which guaranteed my safety – albeit temporarily – in the United States. This experience was pivotal, and it ultimately led to future opportunities to pursue my education at esteemed institutions such as Bard College Berlin and, today, Yale University.
For me, these educational opportunities have never been knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Education is the catalyst for action, and this is what has always driven my efforts to tell Syria’s story.
Today, as the war rages on in Syria 11 years later, I urge you all – as members of the Fulbright community committed to building mutual understanding between nations and advancing knowledge across communities – to take the first step by learning more about the situation in Syria. The bombings, needless civilian casualties, inhumane detentions, chemical warfare and undue foreign influence are ongoing, and we need young people everywhere to educate themselves on the situation to make concerted efforts to end the violence.
This is why earlier this month I launched Zendetta, a first-of-its-kind animated graphic novel aimed at illuminating the crisis in Syria in a humanistic manner. I believe that in the hands of dedicated, passionate people like you, Zendetta has the power to spark the sort of learning that drives meaningful dialogue and, consequently, change. Concurrently, I have also launched the Zendetta Grant program, which will help more Syrians tell the world their stories by surpassing barriers to education, such as entrance examination and application fees.
Take five minutes to explore Zendetta. It’s easy to ignore headlines about another bombing in a far-off region of the world. But it’s harder to ignore a human story pouring forth from the heart. So please, visit Zendetta and learn how you can take action to help Syria today.