Luke Rafferty | Staff PhotographerOn the Hill
Documenting a life: SU holds day of remembrance to honor film student killed in Syria
Bassel Al Shahade was a student of the world. A graduate film student looking to make an influence on the world through his craft. A man who died for his cause.
Al Shahade, a Fulbright scholar and student in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, was killed by government-led fire in Homs, Syria, in May, and was honored Wednesday through a day of remembrance. Originally from Damascus, Shahade returned to his homeland after just one semester at Syracuse University to document the violence in Syria.
A symposium was held Wednesday afternoon to discuss the current situation in Syria. The panel featured a discussion among Mohammed Alsiadi, a scholar and musician; Malek Jandali, a pianist, composer and human rights activist; Rami Khouri, an international journalist and James Steinberg, dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
“Currently in Syria, oppression is excused as necessary,” Laila Audi, the event moderator, said during the symposium. “The goal of the activists is to gain basic human rights, something that is taken for granted in the United States.”
Panelists said the United States needs to be more proactive in its approach to dealing with the Syrian conflict.
“It is clear that the United States needs to go beyond just wishing this movement well,” Steinberg said. “We need to work together in the interest of the United States and of the Syrian people.”
For 18 months there has been constant violence between the civilian population and the Syrian government controlled by the dictatorial regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The conservative estimate of the death toll is 30,000, with an additional 1.5 million people displaced by the violence, Audi said.
Everybody talked to him about the dangers. He was too determined to go; he felt like he had to.
Owen Shapiro, Al Shahade’s faculty adviser and a film professor in VPA
There were more people killed in Syria this past July than in the entire year of 2011, Audi said.
“How could a peaceful protest that began with civilians carrying roses down the streets lead up to this dark reality?” she said.
This reality fueled Al Shahade’s drive to return to Syria, said Daniel Aguilera, a friend and fellow graduate film student.
But Owen Shapiro, Al Shahade’s faculty adviser and a film professor in VPA, said Shahade was willing to take the risk.
“Everybody talked to him about the dangers,” Shapiro said. “He was too determined to go; he felt like he had to.”
During the symposium, some of the footage taken by Al Shahade on the ground was screened. It showed protesters crying out amid sniper fire.
The Assad regime is responsible for Al Shahade’s death, said Jandali, a Syrian native.
“For the last 18 months, the Assad regime has been bombing my homeland,” he said. “Can you imagine President Obama bombing your city? Or your home?”
Jandali said the conflict in Syria is not a real war because both sides are not armed with tanks and jets. He said he believes this conflict is an “act of terrorism” by the Assad regime against its own people.
“We all want to be happy, to be free — we were born free,” Jandali said. “We can learn courageous lessons from the Syrian people who truly believe in ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’”
The lack of freedoms in the region can be attributed to the destructive political systems and a lack of nationalism, Jandali said. He urged audience members to exercise the rights they have in America and support the Syrian people.
Standing up for those rights is exactly what Al Shahade was doing when he was killed.
Al Shahade represented the desires of the majority of Syrian people, as he too wanted to live a normal life free of oppression, violence and fear, said Khouri, a journalist noted for his work to bring peace to the Middle East.
Al Shahade died using his craft to share the stories and spirit of the Arab world. He was a living embodiment of the narrative he was documenting, Khouri said.
“The driving force behind uprisings is not some form of superhuman courage,” Khouri said. “It is an application of fundamental humanity.”
The panelists also discussed how Al Shahade’s story and the voices of thousands of others like him show the need for more immediate action in Syria.
“That spirit is still beating in the hearts of thousands here in America and across the world,” Khouri said.
Al Shahade’s influence on SU can also be seen within other film students.
“His story inspires everyone,” said Lana Hijazi, a graduate film student among the first people to notify the SU film community of Al Shahade’s death. “He was always working, working, working — he wanted to use documentary films for something special.”
The news of his death was shocking to everyone, said Adam Heicklen, a junior film major, who learned the news after his parents saw an article online. Heicklen and Al Shahade were both students in Shapiro’s film perception class.
Heicklen said he best remembers Al Shahade’s trademark look: a big wooly hat with flaps that he always wore to class, along with his smile.
He was always so positive about the world, said Kyung Park, a film graduate student.
Said Park: “He taught me what we’re making films for — I really give him thanks for that.”
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