By Andrew Beiter
During World War II, a Polish Catholic social worker named Irena Sendler and her network of allies rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. When asked years later where she got her courage, Sendler harkened back to something her father had told her: “Always remember, my darling Irena, that if you see someone drowning, you must rescue them – even if you cannot swim.”
It doesn’t require too much imagination to guess what Sendler might say today about the worsening situation in Syria. Since the rise of the Arab Spring almost two years ago, the dictator Bashar Assad and his forces have killed more than 30,000 Syrians, with well over 1 million fleeing for their lives to neighboring refugee camps. The crisis is yet another test of our humanity and the future of the world.
What makes the issue even more incredible is that the revolt was started in the town of Daraa by a group of 9- to 12-year-old boys, who brazenly wrote on the side of their school, “The people want to topple the regime.” The students’ efforts were followed by other Syrian children who courageously pressed their painted green hands against the walls of their community as a sign of symbolic protest.
In addition to our shared humanity, what’s at stake for America is that due to the world’s inaction, the rebel movement is now contaminated by al-Qaida and other Islamist forces – all of whom have enthusiastically filled the vacuum that we have chosen to ignore. In short, we overlook Syria at our own peril. At best, the situation there can now be deemed a civil war; at worst, a petri dish where extremism will be grown for a generation.
As for what to do, readers can follow and friend the group I Am Syria that was started by a group of young Western New Yorkers. Concerned citizens can also send a tweet to their elected officials, or call the free 1-800-GENOCIDE hot line, which allows them to encourage their leaders to work for the most peaceful solution possible. Tell them that Syria matters and that you care. As the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon once said about the genocide in Rwanda, “If every member of the House of Representatives and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we have to do something, then I think the response would have been different.”
Why is all this important? The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a saying that “What you do matters.” When one human being suffers, it affects us all. As Buffalonians, we celebrate the role that foreigners such as the Marquis de Lafayette and General Casimir Pulaski had in assisting our American Revolution. Now, for our brothers and sisters in Syria, let us in some way do the same.
Andrew Beiter lives in Hamburg and is the director of the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies in Buffalo.