Alumna and Activist Returns from Capitol Hill

Ala'a Basatneh recognized for her powerful use of social media

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Photo by Rut Ortiz

Basatneh's campaign for human rights has taken her across three continents and to Washington D.C.

Rut Ortiz, News Editor

Shortly after receiving her bachelor’s in political science at NEIU’s 2015 winter commencement, Chicago based Syrian activist Ala’a Basatneh was bound for Washington DC — personally invited by Congressman Mike Quigley to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

“I was speechless,” she said, recalling her conversation with the congressman. “My mom started crying.”

Basatneh spoke about how she was excited because there would be media attention on the suffering children in Syria.

The events leading up to this point began when she became the protagonist in the documentary, “#chicagoGirl.” The documentary shows how she used social media to help coordinate protests in Syria against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. She helps activists get connected with journalists and other activists abroad while translating back and forth, breaking down invisible but potent language barriers. She assists in creating “safe-havens” and helping civilians escape bombardment on Syrian grounds.

“Whenever you hear, ‘Syria,’ you think about ISIS,” she said. “And I get it. It’s sexier for CNN and NBC to cover ISIS rather than cover children and women that are eating cardboard and grass because they are under siege and cannot leave their cities due to the fact that the Syrian regime is using starvation as a tool.”

The documentary made it across 40 countries within the film festival circuit, which soon caught attention from Washington, D.C.

“Congressman Quigley’s staff member got to see the documentary and they contacted us,” Basatneh said. “They hosted a screening in Congress.”

After the screening Basatneh said a panel was held on the positive uses of social media and what Americans are using in order to build bridges between Syria and the United States.

That was her first time at Capitol Hill for her role in “#chicagoGirl.”

Fast forward two and half months, on a day like any other Basatneh was back home in Chicago when she missed two calls from Washington. She said immediately following the missed phone calls was an email from one of Quigley’s staff members urging her to call the congressman on his cell phone.

“I’m thinking in the back of my head, ‘What’s going on in Syria that the congressman has to talk to me that urgently?’” she said. “I freaked out for a bit.”

She recalled her emotions upon walking into the gallery at the U.S. House of Representatives that proved everything she was experiencing was very real.

“I felt honored,” Basatneh said. “I felt someone saw past my headscarf, my religion, my name and where my family comes from but rather saw me as a human, a female doing good for society.”

Not all of society sees it that way. Basatneh received negative backlash for her work, including death threats. But she is using the attention to further her cause.

“To be recognized is motivating and it makes me think to forget all of the negativities,” she said. “What I am doing is for the children over there, for the women.

Basatneh said her motivation also comes from hearing from the citizen journalists overseas.

“They say that they feel that not a lot of people care about them out there,” she said. “I’m taking a very negative comment and I am trying to turn it into action. I’m trying to keep at it to double up my work because of how hopeless and helpless they feel over there.”

She witnessed the devastation in Syria first-hand when she traveled thousands of miles, even crossing a minefield, to deliver insulin to children and elderly in a northern city.

“I contacted doctors in the Midwest and, within four days, I had four luggage bags filled with medication,” she said. “I met with Syrian activists and citizen journalists on the (Turkish) border and…for 35 minutes, I’m walking on a minefield, carrying luggage bags and thinking, ‘OK, now I’m going to lose a limb, now something is going to explode.’”

Basatneh not only crossed a minefield but also survived a bombing raid. “I experienced what it means for an airplane to fly above me and to drop TNT barrel bombs,” she said.

Barrel bombs are metal barrels filled with TNT explosives and metal shrapnel.

“It hits where it hits and when it hits, because it is so pressurized it creates ‘cluster bombs,’ so it’s hitting several targets at once,” she explained. “It’s civilians that are dying.”

When asked what advice she would give to current students and soon-to-be alumni of NEIU, Basatneh said, “My advice would be to utilize all the help that you have around you.

“It’s a second family. NEIU is my family. That’s how the atmosphere is over here.”

Although she did not get to meet President Obama or Michelle, her memories are of her very close proximity within the gallery and experience overall. Basatneh explained how she sat in her assigned seat after entering the gallery, made polite conversation with fellow guests to her right and left and witnessed the first lady walk in and sit 15 seats away from her.

“I’m going to tell my children about this” she said. “I’m going to tell them I was sitting there during Obama’s last State of the Union.”

Basatneh, now an alumna, is not over her time spent at NEIU.

“I still miss class,” she said, settling into a chair within the Ronald Williams Library. “I love NEIU. All of a sudden it was like, ‘Bam, I’m done. Now what’s next?’”