A crowd of about 500 gathered in a downtown Chicago parking lot this afternoon to support anti-government protesters in Syria, just as worldwide media reported that military action in a western city stoked fears of more violence.
Leaders from Syrian and Islamic organizations in Chicago urged people to continue their stance against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has been widely criticized for brutally quashing anti-government movements throughout the country.
“Bashar Assad is at war with his own people. He is at war with Syria. He is at war with Syrians,” said Yaser Tabbara, executive director of the Syrian American Council. “We are here to tell the world that we stand behind our brothers and sisters on the ground in Syria.”
Protesters lined the sidewalk holding signs that read “Stop Genocide” and “Assad = Hitler.” Young children stood alongside parents and friends, proudly waving the Syrian flag and chanting in Arabic.
“It’s not just a Syrian cause, it’s a cause for everyone who seeks freedom and equality,” said Kifah Mustapha, associate director of the Mosque Foundation. “It’s an Arab Spring, but it’s a righteous cause.”
The Syrian revolution follows in the footsteps of other popular uprisings in northern Africa and the Middle East. Thousands in Syria have been killed or wounded since protests began in March, according to the Syrian American Council.
In the past several weeks, dozens of people were reportedly killed in various cities as military forces opened fire on crowds. On Sunday, troops and tanks were reportedly surrounding the western city of Hama, the site of another violent crackdown when President Assad’s late father spearheaded an attack to crush an uprising in 1982.
“There’s always sacrifice for freedom. It’s not easy,” said Ahmad Jajeh, 53, of Lincoln Park who hails from Hama. “It’s time for us to live like the other free countries in the world.”
“We’re living in a world now where there is no room for totalitarianism, dictatorships and oppression,” said Christina Abraham, civil rights director for the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. “When we see these movements happening, we need to support them. We don’t give leeway to governments that violate human rights, like the Assad government is doing right now.”
While most protesters were focused on ousting Assad, Sherry Alhayek, 23, of Schaumburg said that getting new leadership was only half the battle.
“For me, the point is to get Syria to a higher point and not just getting rid of the regime,” she said. “I want a better future.”
Tabbara also took the time to imagine a post-Assad future as a CTA Brown Line train passed above.
“One day, we’re going to have a train like that in Syria, in Damascus. We’ll call it the Freedom Train,” he said to the crowd’s roaring approval.
“Once we get rid of this regime, we’re going to develop this country like we should.”
Copyright, Chicago Tribune 2011