Like most of the students sitting around Northeastern Illinois University’s student center, Ala’a Basatneh can often be found either staring intently at her laptop or browsing social media on her cell phone. But perhaps unlike her classmates, the 23-year-old political science major is using social networks for a very singular purpose. Basatneh is an online activist and has been involved in organizing protests against the Syrian regime since the onset of the revolution against President Bashar al-Assad.
Beginning in 2011, Basatneh has been in constant contact with activists inside the country and helps them in a variety of ways, including strategically coordinating mass protests, collecting and publicizing photos and video of human rights atrocities, translating, and protecting the online identities of activists on the ground.
Over the years, Basatneh has seen many friends lose their lives to the violence in Syria, and has herself been threatened by agents of the al-Assad regime and other groups. She has met with then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the United Nations regarding international intervention and applying a no-fly zone, and has also visited Syria twice to deliver medical supplies. She was the subject of the 2013 documentary #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
The Reporter caught up with Basatneh in Chicago, her home since she was six months old, at the NEIU North Side campus.
How and when did you first get involved in the Syrian revolution, and why?
When the Tunisian and the Egyptian revolutions started, I remember clearly saying to myself: there’s no way anything’s going to start in Syria. Because I know how brutal the Syrian regime is, I know how oppressed the Syrian people are, and I didn’t know if that factor of bravery really existed.
I remember clearly walking into my house and seeing on the news that the children of Daraa, they wrote all over the schools, they wanted to topple the regime and I mean I had plans at the mall and I just decided there’s no way on this planet I’m just going to hear this, let it pass through, and go to the mall. It’s not fair, it’s unjust, it’s just inhumane to not do anything about it, so I looked around the room and the first thing I saw was my laptop and I said, “Ok, I can help them at least through this.”
Tell me more about the initial protests. What was the strategy, and what were the protestors’ demands?
We’ve had martial law in Syria for ten years. The basics of martial law include no protesting, you just definitely can’t speak up, everything has to be under certain rules. So the very first protest [I organized] was here in Chicago. I got on the mic and everyone was chanting, “Down with the martial law.” We didn’t even say, “Down with the dictator,” we didn’t call him anything, all we wanted was for martial law to be ended in Syria.
People on the ground [in Syria] were also protesting against the martial law, and as soon as that happened, the Syrian regime did a stupid move. They opened up tanks and fire and live ammunition on the protestors, they killed a lot of people, and that’s when the rage became ten times worse. Because that’s not how you respond to people that are yearning for freedom. They were yearning just for martial law to be ended and then and there, everyone said, ok, down with the dictator, no more Bashar al-Assad, no more Syrian regime, we’ve had enough.
How did you manage daily life as a student while managing the social network?
I didn’t. (laughs) That’s the thing. Since day one in class, I would explain to the professor, you know, this is what I’m doing. Some professors would understand and others would look at me like ‘What are you, crazy? What’s going on?’ And I’ve had professors say to me, ‘Once you finish your activism I think you’ll be ready to take my class,’ and I easily dropped those courses and took different courses because I’m not going to stop my activism in the revolution and I’m not going to stop going to school, because if I stop either, it’s just never going to happen. So it was a lot of sorry letters to professors, a lot of Red Bull and coffee, and just waking up very early or going to sleep very late, sometimes no sleep, but I managed it.
Can you give us an update on the current situation in Syria?
When it comes to protests, there are weekly protests throughout the country. There are pictures and videos that are being sent to me every Friday and these protests by civilians have evolved from, ‘We want to topple the regime’ to ‘We want to topple the regime and we want ISIS outside of our country.’
Since the rise of ISIS and the lack of international intervention, the Syrian people felt hopeless. But there are activists on the ground, there are still citizen journalists, they’re still doing their jobs. I’m in contact with them on a daily basis, but we just have to double up our work because media outlets stopped taking our videos. They stopped covering everything because ISIS is a sexier story. Everyone is down that trend, everyone wants to cover ISIS and no one wants to talk about the children that are eating cardboard boxes and grass and suffering on daily struggles.
The documentary shows you maintaining a spreadsheet of all of your activist contacts in Syria, their locations, and even your plans to meet them in person. What became of that spreadsheet?
A couple of days ago, one of the activists sent me a message and he’s like, ‘You know what, if you help me translate this, I will take you to so-and-so’s restaurant once the revolution is over.’ And I really laughed because it hurts. I haven’t seen that spreadsheet since two years ago, and the reason is because 75 percent of the people on there are either displaced or dead or I don’t know anything about them. The chaos that’s been going on just … it really made me just close that spreadsheet for now and not open it.
The film ends with you and your father departing for a trip to Syria to deliver medical supplies to liberated areas. What made you decide to go in person instead of just continuing to help remotely?
So Omar [Mazhar Tayara] passed first, he was killed first, and then Bassell [Shahade] was killed second after him. That’s when I really felt hopeless and I felt like no matter what I’m doing it’s just not enough. At times I would just leave my laptop in my room and cry because I felt so hopeless.
At the same exact time, Syrian activists reached out to me and said we only have six insulin shots left in Aleppo, we really need your help. Children are going to die and elderly are going to die. So I said ok, great, this is something that I can do you know other than sitting behind my laptop. So with the help of my father I got to reach out to doctors in the Midwest. They all donated a lot of medication. I had these bags and bags of medication and I said to myself, ok, next is take it there.
I mean in the beginning, the plan was that the movie would end with ‘The regime is toppled! Ala’a is in Syria, we’re going to film her in Syria walking around with her friends, meeting people on her list.’ But that didn’t happen. It will happen though.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.