Karam CEO’s speech on Syria at the Islamic Society of North America’s 52nd Conference in Chicago

On the need for a no fly zone to protect civilians and reverse the Syrian exodus

I’m very honored to be here today speaking to you — the Islamic Society of North America — about my home country, Syria.

My name is Lina Sergie Attar and I am the co-founder of a non profit organization called Karam Foundation which is dedicated to building a better future for Syria.

I stand in front of you today not only with these Syrian voices of leadership next to me, but also with the book of the names of the first 100,000 Syrian martyrs. We have lost over 200,000 people since 2011. This is what 200,000 thousand names look like. How many more people need to die before the world takes action?

Syrians have become a spectacle of suffering and loss — shared in real time.

Last Wednesday, another horrific image went viral. A toddler boy, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up facedown on a sandy beach in Bodrum, Turkey. His mother had dressed him in a bright red t-shirt, navy shorts, and sturdy shoes — dressed for a journey to a better future. But little Aylan, his 5-year-old brother Galip and his mother Rehan, along with 9 other people on the same boat were not granted safe passage.

Today, almost half of the Syrian population has been displaced as a result of the brutality of the Assad regime and the violence of ISIS and Al Qaida. 11 million people no longer live in their homes. 4 million of them are refugees in neighboring countries. Thousands of refugees have embarked on harrowing “death routes” across sea and land.

The world’s attention is now focused on the growing “migrant” crisis that confronts Europe. The media narratives often omit an honest answer to the question: “Why ARE there so many Syrian refugees?” Instead, they use ambiguous phrases, like “raging civil war,” “it’s so complicated,” “there are no good guys left in Syria,” “they are fleeing the ‘violence,’” and worse, blaming the entire crisis on ISIS.

Syrian refugees are not the result of a natural disaster! You cannot abstract them into a purely humanitarian package. Every Syrian refugee is a refugee because of the international, political and military decisions and failures that empowered and chose the Assad regime over the Syrian people’s will.

When I was a little girl, living in upstate New York, my father told me about a land far away, Syria’s neighbor, where a people had been kicked out of their homes and forced to leave their country. Palestine, he said, Palestine, holding my finger on a spot the map with another name on it. He told me the Palestinians left their homes with nothing but their keys — small pieces of metal — proof that they would someday return home.

I never imagined that one day, we, would be the ones holding the keys to our home in Aleppo that we may never see again. And we are the lucky ones. Last month, I followed the journey of our relatives walking, yes, walking, from Greece to Germany — a scroll of photos on whatsapp of their blistered feet. And they were lucky ones. They survived.

Our organization, Karam Foundation, travels to the Syrian-Turkish border twice a year to work with refugee children and youth. On our missions, we see that every Syrian refugee has a harrowing story of survival and soaring dreams for the future.

Last April, I met Maryam, a young English teacher, a Syrian refugee. She watched closely as I gave my architecture workshop to her class of fifth graders. Afterwards, she wanted to know so many details about my life. After almost every sentence, Maryam interrupted me: I always wanted to be an architect. I wanted to study in America. I wanted to run a charity. Each sentence, broke my heart. Because all I could think of, is that I could have been her and she could have been me. Nothing separates me from Maryam, from my relatives who walked across a continent, from the people in Hungary today trapped in a cage, from Abdallah, Aylan’s mourning father — I could have been any of them. Like most of you here, nothing separates us from them except our American passports.

At Karam Foundation we are focused on the future. We are determined to give Syrian children and youth the tools to become productive and successful citizens. We develop sustainable businesses inside Syria: like an urban farm in Aleppo, and a soap project run by 50 women in Damascus who support their families. They create beauty under the bombs. These products are miracles from Syria.

Deep impact, sustainable programs like ours help children regain their childhood, stabilize families, and perhaps keep them from making the devastating choice to get on a leaky boat.

But one of the most difficult jobs we have as a humanitarian organization is to continue working on providing aid to thousands of Syrian families while these same people are being indiscriminately attacked. Why invest in sustainable businesses if crowds are bombed while shopping at the market? And why fund a school if children’s lives are tragically ended in a moment by a barrel bomb? We cannot ask these questions as humanitarians or human beings. Our job is to continue fighting for the lives we can impact — but what should everyone else do?


I’d like you all to close your eyes.

Think about what it would feel like for a moment to look up at the sky not to gaze at the stars or watch the clouds, but to watch for shadow of a plane or helicopter, knowing that it brings barrel bombs, missiles, and canisters of chlorine. Think about how you would watch that little speck with dread as it grows bigger and louder until the bombs drop and you hear the boom. It didn’t hit you or your family, this time, but you know it hit someone else — a neighbor, a friend, a stranger’s home. You are safe for now.

But for how long? This is life in Syria, every single day.

From the very first day of the Syrian uprising, we were all faced with a simple choice: to stand with liberty or oppression? Justice or brutality? Dignity or humiliation? Are these even choices to consider?

Isn’t it time to stand together and force the people in power, here and around the world, to make the right and just choice for Syria?

Barrel bombs must stop falling from Assad’s planes.

ISIS and Al Qaeda must be uprooted from Syria.

Syrian civilians must be granted protected zones inside Syria so they can rebuild their lives on their own homeland.

We thank all the non-Syrians both Muslim and non-Muslim who stood with us during protests, donated to our causes, and advocated for Syria. But we need everyone’s support.

ISNA has made historic choices in the past. 20 years ago ISNA created a Bosnia Task Force to advocate for a no fly zone to protect civilians. Why is there no ISNA task force for a no fly zone to protect Syrian civilians?

As Muslims and humans, we don’t really have a choice between standing with the oppressed or the oppressor. It is our duty to stand with the Syrian people — to support those in need now until they return to their homes and live in freedom, dignity, and peace.

Today, with these names of the dead bearing witness, I ask you all to make a choice for Syria.

Mr. Azhar Aziz, will you support a no fly zone for Syria?

Today every one of you can do something positive for Syria:

Advocate with us to bring justice and peace to the Syrian people.

Donate to one of our causes to help Syrians and Syrian refugees.

Spread the truth about Syria to everyone you know.

It’s time to make for new choices for Syria. Choices that finally break the cycle of violence and end genocide. The time to act is NOW.

I don’t want to be back here next year with a third book.

I want to come back next year to tell you how you helped save Syria.

Thank you.

In light of the recent, tragic drownings of Syrian refugee children, we have been asked by people from around the world what they can do to help. Karam Foundation’s “Learn Not Earn” program that takes a Syrian refugee out of child labor and sends them back to school by supporting the displaced families. This is a great way to stablize families and invest in the future: http://www.karamfoundation.org/sponsor

Lina Sergie Attar is a Syrian American writer and co-founder/CEO of Karam Foundation. She tweets at @AmalHanano.