During the fifth week of winter quarter, UC Riverside’s Middle Eastern Student Center (MESC) hosted the weeklong event, “The Spirit of Syria.” The week was intended to “showcase the side (of Syria) that many have forgotten,” per campus advertisements. The events that took place from Monday, Feb. 6 to Thursday, Feb. 9 included a film screening, spoken word, a seminar on how to aid Syrian refugees and a cooking workshop.
MESC Program Coordinator Natalie Haddad described her motivation for helping to plan the events. “I never wanted to stray away from the conflict (…) we wanted to delve more into it (…) humanising refugees, showing the culture of Syria, show the music of Syria, the sounds of Syria, the food of Syria and all of those different things.”
On Monday, Feb. 6 from 6-9 p.m. in HUB 355, MESC held a film screening of the documentary, “Salam Neighbor,” which followed film directors Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci’s experience living in the Syrian refugee camp, Za’atari, which is managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in Northern Jordan. After the screening was over, the producer of the film, Salam Darwaza, engaged in a short interview with Haddad afront the room. The two discussed Darwaza’s family, as she is a descendant of Palestinian refugees, as well as the experience filming this documentary when foreigners were not being allowed into Za’atari. For Darwaza, this film served as a way to humanize the Syrian refugees fleeing their home country and create a more personal narrative.
Tuesday’s event took place at 6 p.m. in the UCR Alumni and Visitors Center and featured two keynote performers, Mariela Shaker, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria, and Omar Offendum, a Los Angeles-based Syrian-American rapper and poet who was named a “Champion of Change” by former President Barack Obama in 2015. Second-year political science major Rafika Alami and second-year undeclared Dania Azzawi also made an appearance, performing a spoken word piece in both Arabic and English. While talking about Alami’s and Azzawi’s performance, Haddad stated, “People were saying that their performance was better than the keynotes. Their performances were so strong because they were so real.”
The third event was held on Wednesday, from 6-8 p.m. in HUB 265 and featured UCR doctorate candidate in ethnic studies Loubna Qutami. During this event Qutami discussed her time working at Moria Refugee Camp in Greece and what students can do to better help refugees coming from the Middle East. She described the camps as extremely bureaucratic which caused numerous issues and stressed the importance of donating and volunteering for smaller, lesser known organizations, such as SWANAconnect, an organization that focuses on refugees from Greece, and HeadHealth, a group that helps children in refugee camps with their mental health. Haddad commented on the diversity of those in attendance by noting, “Over half of the students there were not even Middle Eastern and they were really involved in the discussion.”
Thursday saw the end of “The Spirit of Syria” week with a cooking demonstration in the SRC South kitchen beginning at 5:30 p.m. This event was headed by Dietician Anita AbdulKarim and SRC Chef Valerie Battle in which they taught students how to make traditional Syrian cuisine, such as a vegetarian dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with brown rice, garbanzo beans and lemon juice, fattoush, a salad containing a mix of herbs and vegetables, and fatteh, a dish with pita bread on top of garbanzo beans covered with yogurt, almond slices and parsley. During the event, Valerie described how to cook the food, Haddad described the history behind it and AbdulKarim described the health benefits of the dishes.
Alami, who is of Syrian descent, emphasized the importance of this week, stating, “I feel like they are highlighting Syria, like actually Syria before the war, it means a lot to me because a lot of people didn’t even know that Syria even existed before the war as anything but this war-torn country.”
Azzawi, who is half Syrian and half Egyptian, added, “I was just so happy because I feel like Syria is the center of everything that is happening in the world (…) I feel like that it is important to talk about Syria even if it is just the fact that it was a beautiful country before (the Syrian Civil War).”
The next event that MESC will host is Middle Eastern Week, taking place from Monday, April 17 to Thursday, April 20.