Alaa Basatneh and Zainab Khan

Recorded August 1, 2015 Archived August 1, 2015 40:41 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: chi001313


Zainab Khan (31) interviews Alaa Basatneh (23) about her work as an activist for human rights in Syria.

Subject Log / Time Code

Alaa Basatneh (A) reflects on her parents being mentors for her activism. Her father moved the family to Chicago, Illinois because he was under constant threat from the Syrian regime. Her parents taught her that, even though she was living in Chicago, she should never forget the people in Syria.
A talks about phone calls with her aunt in Syria, and hating having to censor her conversation because, as her father used to say, "the walls have ears."
A did not believe the Arab Spring would happen in Syria because of the level of oppression, but she was thrilled it did.
A talks about what propelled her to becoming an activist, hearing about the torture and killing of Syrian children. She could not just go back to Syria, so she took to her laptop, using social media to connect to protestors and activists. She started out by translating Arabic chants and banners so that Westerners could understand their message.
A talks about how the #ChicagoGirl documentary got started.
A describes the Facebook death threat she received from the Syrian regime.
She describes her fear/denial reaction to the death threat, and how she did not tell her parents because she did not want to stop her activism.
A remembers finally telling her parents about the death threat, which her dad then reported to the FBI.
A talks about her disappointment in Western media reporting only on terrorist groups in Syria, rather than what is actually happening to the people in Syria. She gives some examples of the kinds of stories she would like to see reported.
A talks about receiving her parents' support after the death threat.
A talks about gathering medical supplies for children in need with the help of her father. It was her idea to go to Syria to deliver the supplies themselves. She and her father crossed minefields to deliver the supplies.
A talks about her struggles, including her sadness. She believes her struggles are part of what make her who she is.
A shares that, because she has seen the eyes of the children in need, she will never give up.


  • Alaa Basatneh
  • Zainab Khan

Recording Locations

Chicago Cultural Center

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type




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00:02 My name is Anakin and I am 31 years old today is date is Saturday August 1st 2015, and we are located at storycorps at the Chicago Cultural Center. And I have with me today my relationship to my partner a lot who is the fellow activist and inspiration?

00:25 My name is a lot beside me. I'm 23 years old today's date is August 1st of 2015. We are in the Chicago Cultural Center and relationship to partner of friend and inspiration.

00:46 A lot. You've been an incredible source of inspiration and motivation and a symbol of Courage for quite a bit of not just youth but adults and your work has been incredibly inspiring and has led you to an incredible journey. Could you tell us a little about that? I don't know where to start from and I'd love to actually be an inspiration to the upcoming Generations into the youth in America and in the Middle East.

01:28 How it all started. I think it's how my parents raised me when they first came to Chicago. It was that struggle of becoming an American and still holding on to the Syrian traditions and cultures and as your parents come here and they came here in 1992. I was 6 months old.

01:57 And it was back and forth to Siri off for three years and then we came back and settled here for good. It was that constant struggle though of missing home and calling Chicago home.

02:14 And the the reason that my Dad decided to stay in Chicago is because he was

02:26 Under constant threat from the Syrian regime

02:30 And to him Chicago was the place that his children are going to grow up and he's going to see his goals and Ambitions through the future of both of his children me and my brother.

02:48 And so

02:51 Coming here to Chicago is a new home and new identity and a New Journey how yet you were six months old. Would you describe a little bit how that was growing up?

03:01 Hey grew up in a in an Arab family. I remember every time my parents would like you let me for doing something wrong. Especially my teenage years. They say don't you ever think you're in Chicago? You are back home in Syria, and I'd look around there like no, that's not how it is. That's how it works. And it's it's that

03:25 It's done trying to balance living in Chicago and yet I mean being tight to Damascus into Syria.

03:36 It was

03:39 A struggle growing up in Chicago being a Muslim Syrian yet an American Teenager that wants to do rebellious stuff against her parents will listen.

03:54 And went to all public schools. I had diverse group of friends from all nationalities all religions, and that's the beauty of Chicago.

04:05 A lock. Can I ask for what reason was your father under Threat by those Syrian regime?

04:13 So my father went to college with the current dictator of Syria Bashar that said they were in the same class.

04:24 And around their third year in college. It was time for them to Elizabeth to pledge allegiance to the political party the bath party the only party in Syria.

04:37 And he was under constant.

04:44 Push from them if you would like to join them that they partying to join the regime and what they are doing in Syria in terms of Oppression and just being pledging allegiance to that regime. My dad didn't want that and he didn't want that for himself and he didn't want that for his children yet. He was someone that traveled a lot he saw different countries and he knew that by raising his children in Chicago in America is

05:26 Is way safer for them and is way.

05:32 Democratic for them if you would rather than an oppressive regime that only has a single party and we basically can't do anything without their without their consent. So your father valued the American values in the American dream of Liberty and democracy and freedom. Yes. That was he kind of a mentor for you that kind of kick-started your activism both. My parents were my mentors. My parents raised me in a way. We're all they cared about was me.

06:14 Yes, getting the concepts of freedom and liberty and living it in in Chicago. Meanwhile not forgetting about the ones struggling back home and Syria, they would remember I mean since I was 6 years old and sit around the table, we would eat dinner and watch the the Arabic news knowing what's going on in Syria. My dad would go on to tell me stories of what he encountered being really close to the regime officials and how threatening that was and how a pressing that was for the people in Syria.

06:50 In the 1980's my dad was in his

06:55 Twenties, I believe and the regime went on to something military onto the streets of Syria and started pulling off the scarves and that the head coverings of all the women on the streets. And the reason they did that was they were in fear of a revolution from specific group in Syria, the Adam the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and

07:28 Within three days the Syrian regime in the 1980s.

07:35 Demolish three cities in Syria and kill 10,000 people

07:41 I mean because they didn't have social media and they didn't have but they only had the propaganda of the the Syrian national news. No one in the country got to know of what happened until three or four weeks later. So my dad witnessed that firsthand he saw that have been to his mother and his sisters their scarves being pulled off their heads and that's that's very disrespectful. I mean, I'd put that as if like someone's walking down the street and you know, they eat the they force them to take off their shirt at stuff like that. So it was

08:19 Actions like that that that led my dad to

08:26 Delta leaving the country

08:29 And for you what kind of began the process of your activism and your role in the film Chicago girl, which was based off of you. Could you tell us a little about that?

08:44 So I had the foundation growing up knowing that there's something going in Syria. There's obviously an impression oppressive regime and people couldn't say anything like when I would talk to my aunt on the phone and she was really really close to me. My dad would signal to me to the wall and then to his ear and that would mean you know, the walls have ears to make sure whatever you say is non-political and non-religious. So I mean other than very shallow conversations I couldn't have with my aunt or my cousins and that really hurt like I am someone that is passionate about political science and I love to talk about current events and politics and not being able to do so with my family and relatives. Really, I mean, it it bothered me the least to say

09:39 So when the Arab Spring began and when it began in Tunisia and Egypt, I kept thinking in the back of my head.

09:49 No, nothing is going to happen in Syria. Nothing. We have way of a of an oppressive regime to I just like to think that

10:03 People are going to be on the streets protesting something in me saying, you know for the past 40 years. We've been way too.

10:12 Silenced test to speak up. It's not that I didn't have faith in the people I did but it's just that that got feeling and thank God that was wrong because in March 15th of 2011 when the people went to the streets and they started protesting.

10:32 I remember walking home.

10:37 And as I was walking in

10:41 To my house the news was on and they were reporting of a group of

10:50 9 year olds that were in a school in deira City 40 minutes away from Damascus the capital the children and their school decided to write on their walls. We want to topple the regime.

11:05 And what the principal did she called the authorities and that's already detained these kids.

11:12 So for a week that Syrian authorities were torturing the kids. These are a group of 9 and 10 year olds, and they one of the things they did is that they pulled their nails off and I'm I'm standing there and I'm listening to all of this.

11:37 One of the children was tortured to death and he was skinned in his body was given back to his family. And that's when the entire city of Dora the suburbs of Damascus started protesting that this should not be happening to our kids.

11:59 That's when I looked around the room and said to myself. All right, I'm in Chicago. I can't I mean just leave and go there. I got to help I got to do something.

12:10 So I looked around the room and all I saw was my laptop and I said, okay. This is the window to reaching out to them. I can help through my laptop. I want on social media and started adding activist and start and found myself in this whole big amazing world of technology and social media that I am actually reaching out to protesters on the ground little by little I I started translating for them the banners because they would send me clips of their protest so I can send out to Media because my internet connection is way faster and it was obviously not censored so I can reach out to all the media agencies and noticed that the eclipse and the chance and the banners for all in Arabic. So the Western World could not connect that fast. So I said, okay, why don't we start translating everything to English? Why don't we start chanting and I say we because I felt

13:10 I knew back then that I was with them on the ground and that's the power of the social media.

13:16 I started translating everything into English. They would send me clips. I would send out to Media. I would be in a three-way call at 4 in the morning Chicago time with a journalist. Would it say in Germany and a Syrian protester that just came back from a protest? I would be translating back and forth for them from English to Arabic. Stuff like that. Nice that I started helping the activist on the ground with the revolution.

13:53 Wow, what were how long was did you do this for?

13:59 I'm still doing it. I'm still helping activist on the ground. I'm still helping raising awareness about The Starving Children. So it's were in 2015 right now and it started March 15th of 2011.

14:15 Until you're the example of how local impact can bring about some sort of global change and

14:25 The the film Chicago girl covers that could you tell us a little about the film and how

14:32 The director in the filmmaker came across you sure. So it's #chicago girl and the entire titles have sexy cowgirl The Social Network takes on a dictator.

14:46 In August of 2011 so I received a death threat from the Syrian regime on my Facebook inbox. And the reason is that one of my very very close friends.

15:05 That we used to organize protests together. He was detained by the Syrian regime. And the first thing that happened is that they force him to open his Facebook and to show them all the messages and all of the coordination between different activist so they can get to the activist. That's when I received a death threat and right away. I contacted Amnesty International I said, but I just received this that's right, and we tracked it back with the help of other activists and it was from a Syrian intelligence office in Aleppo.

15:48 So imma see International documented that's in their annual report and it went out to media and that's when journalists started interviewing me and there was a baller brand about me in the LA Times. So Joe piscatella is the director of the documentary he had an idea of making a documentary about the social media and the negative uses of social media. He saw the blurb and he sent me a Facebook message with an idea. He said, you know, I'm I would hope that you would talk more to me about your activism and the threat that you received so we got on the phone we talked a bit and he said well, LOL, this is my ID on I said Joe, I think you have the wrong idea and that's when he stopped and he thought to himself like how on Earth does she know what I want this like, I'm the director. I have the idea and I said no Joe.

16:48 Activist on the ground and around the globe are coordinating this revolution.

16:55 So that's trucks him so much that two days later he flew out to Chicago with the producer Mark Rinehart and they met me and my family they sat next to me showed them how to organize a protest how to get the protest going on the ground how to get the the footage out to media and right away. They started filming the reason why I agreed to being in this documentary is because I lost so many friends in this revolution. They have given up their life for the sake of this revolution for the sake of change and democracy in Syria. And I want this documented so that their children 20 30 40 50 years from now can watch this documentary and know how much their parents have.

17:55 Worked and given up for the sake of this revolution for the sake of the free Syria they live in

18:02 Hello. I just want to go back a little bit. Can you describe what it was like to get that deathreat just paint us a picture of what that was like and how it how you felt. What was your reaction? Sure. I'm so the death threat that I received was Brandon Arabic and it said it is it is addressed to you uchicago girl. And by the way, that's how we got them the name of the document uchicago girl you traitor. We are we have gotten to know of what you are doing and we are waiting in the airport in Damascus to make an example out of you.

18:43 Right when I read the message, I mean I close this my screen and then I opened it again and then I closed it like I didn't believe but I was reading I was really really afraid and for an entire week. I didn't tell my parents my fear was that I didn't want to stop my activism. I didn't want to stop the way. I was helping my friends on the ground. My friends are the ones who are facing bullets and bombs and TNT Barrel bombs and tanks and snipers. It was not fair for me for someone in Chicago behind her laptop start her to stop or to be forced to stop her activism because she got a death threat, but at the same time I got a distress from the Syrian regime, it was freaky and I was 19 at the time.

19:37 So I I kind of hit it and was in denial for a week like no. No this really didn't happen. No, I'm not going to read this and then I got an email from a friend of mine that works at Amnesty International. She's saying, you know, we're reaching out to anyone that got death threats from the Syrian regime. We would like to include that in our annual report. That's when I kind of just got myself together and I said, you know what I really have to talk about this. I can't just ignore it and stay in denial. So I reached out to him to see International and that's when I told my parents as well as your parents react, my dad are reached out to the FBI and just notified the FBI of this that's right then.

20:28 I felt safe afterwards. I felt very comfortable. I'm knowing that I'm in Chicago. No one is going to do anything to me. Thank God. We live in a very safe country with justice system in I I felt at peace and I felt more comfortable to doing more activist work and coordination after that my parents got to know when that it was documented and it was in the media.

20:54 What are your future plans for activism?

20:58 I will not give up. I will not stop helping the Syrian children and the Syrian activists with the Syrian Revolution. There are still protest going on right now in Syria. I will do and since day one I said this and I will say this over and over I will do anything and everything to help raise awareness and to help get the voices of the struggling syrians and citizen journalists from the ground on Syria to the rest of the world.

21:33 Do you feel like you've been provided with adequate resources and tools here in America to be able to voice raise your voice and amplify others as a muslim-american?

21:50 I believe so. I've been interviewed on many media Outlets. I've been invited to many schools and venues to speak to Youth and adults about what's happening in Syria about the Syrian Revolution about the struggles of the children in the females living in tents literally have nothing to eat and to survive on at the same time. I wanted to the thank God for Wi-Fi, but unfortunately I am

22:30 I'm kind of disappointed in the mainstream media that they have the past two years kind of.

22:40 Kind of ignored the Syrian Revolution the struggles of the Syrian people and focused more on terrorist groups and Isis and those horrible monsters that are going around and beheading people guessing it's important to

22:58 2

22:59 Tell the world about what's happening in Syria, but I would I would wish that we would tell the entire story and show the truth of what's happening on the ground and not rather just focus on one group and what they're doing.

23:17 Can you can you talk a little bit more about an example of something you would you would have liked or you would like the Western media to cover or maybe some work that you saw the you saw your your activism coming to fruition in a positive way when you saw a change happen?

23:37 One of the examples that I would I would have hoped and I was really disappointed that the Western media did not focus on was videos and YouTube clips of children in Syria that were in seized cities a seized City meaning that and nothing can enter and no one can leave and they were seized off by the Syrian regime.

24:05 Children in those areas were eating a grass and cardboard boxes because they had nothing left to eat.

24:14 Stories like that need to get out to the rest of the world. We need to show the world that the syrians are struggling. They're still struggling. It's not the matter of when it's not the case. Just Isis fighting the regime or armed civil war in Syria. It's not that only there was a story of a two year old.

24:37 Has both of his parents were killed in a TNT Barrel bomb and he had no one left. So he wandered the streets. This is a two-year-old. He wandered the streets of humps. And eventually he was sniped by a Syrian regime sniper and when I got his I mean one of the activists sent me the pictures when I got it I just

25:05 I sent it out to all my contacts. I sent it out to everyone. I knew and the that work as a journalist and media outlets and to wait 3 days and see there was no response and no one is it's not breaking news on CNN that broke my heart knowing that they're getting all this evidence documented evidence with names and everything and they're still not doing anything about it. Do you think maybe perhaps

25:38 People feel like powerless that they can't bring about change.

25:48 Realistically, I think people feel powerless or they feel tired and they feel that they've done everything they can but nothing is happening.

26:00 There's lack of international movement International intervention to help the syrians, but that doesn't mean we give up when we turn our head away from the store and say it's Isis fighting the regime. No, that's not cover it. That's not covered.

26:23 What do you help to bring about with your voice?

26:30 With your work

26:33 What are your future goals and your Ambitions and some of the action items that you want to take now as an American Muslim moving forward to utilizing power of social media using technology is an Innovative source for human rights. There's quite a few ways that you can really Garner and galvanized and movement with your experiences. What are kind of some of the the goals and hopes and Ambitions for that?

27:10 One of my goals is to show the youth and the activists around the world that you can't give up no matter what and that every day. We become stronger we even though we know there are ups and downs, but there's we're walking in a very very very dark tunnel.

27:36 But at the end we see the light we don't know how long that tunnel is or we're going to get there eventually and with the use of social media with the strength and the strong will of the people on the ground in Syria.

27:54 It will be accomplished. My main goal is to keep raising awareness. Keep talking even though it's small mosquito bites, but they make a huge impact.

28:08 Do you have to go back one day?

28:12 Now that I've been threatened by so many groups and I laugh about it because it's it's quite

28:20 Unfortunate I know I will go back one day.

28:26 I don't know when I know that the Syrian regime in the Syrian dictatorship will fall will be toppled. I know they extremists will be imprisoned and that there is Justice in the world.

28:45 But that's going to take a very long time.

28:50 I have a question. Can we go back in just to finish off the story of you getting the initial death threat was you're so you're when your parents found out about it. They didn't try to force you to stop your activism. What was their reaction?

29:07 When it came to the deathreats my dad both my parents were really concerned. But at the same time they said we can't force you to stop because this is your passion and what you were doing. You are helping save people's lives. So you just have to be careful. I got that talk is a nineteen-year-old. Yes, and I understand. I was really I was really happy that my parents were open-minded and we're we're okay with the fact that I can I can pursue my passion even though I'm getting death threats.

29:45 As an American Muslim woman, you're very empowered and you've had you've had the courage in the motivation in the

29:55 That the drive to bring about change. What advice could you bring about to perhaps somebody 5 years 10 years younger than you that is probably listening to this and

30:09 You know is Maybe.

30:12 Just hoping for a guidance.

30:18 Well

30:24 Listen to your heart is the number one advice. I would give to 10.

30:33 That teenager or someone that's a couple years younger than me.

30:40 Please pursue your passion. If you're passionate about something just get out of it get the tools what look around you work with whatever you have to pursue your passion because when someone pursues their passion great things come along and I never imagined that I would be speaking to a crowd of 2,000 people and talking about my experiences. I never imagined that I would be listened to by a crowd of 500.

31:19 Sixth graders at a local school, but it happened and it's happening and it's something that's very motivating and it's possible.

31:31 There I've been through many struggles and I've been not only through death threats, but I've walked on a Minefield going into the liberated areas in Syria to Bringing medications to the children that were dying because of the lack of help from the International Community and I've seen

31:59 Death so many times. I've been close to death so many times I've had at Auntie I've had an airplane with 6. TNT Barrel bombs being dropped seven buildings away from me.

32:12 I know what it means to be helpless and

32:20 All That Made Me Stronger

32:22 And even though I sent in my room many many days and I've cried because I've lost friends and because I felt hopeless and helpless, but at the end it's your struggles that make you who you are and achieving the fact that

32:47 That you are stronger after you went through those struggles and that you're still standing up no matter what.

32:55 That itself is

32:59 I don't know how to describe it. It's it's a it's an amazing feeling.

33:04 You are someone that can make an impact and it and a great impact.

33:10 Have you received support from Syrian communities here in the United States supporting your work?

33:18 I've received both support and not support. I've received a lot of positive Facebook messages and emails and texts from syrians and Muslim saying keep going good job. I have received messages saying you're a woman you belong at home. This should not be you should not be doing this. You should be ashamed of yourself and I take the positive and I keep going I don't look back.

33:55 So a lot of that you have been back to Syria, then yes, I've been I've is eted. The liberated areas and liberated meaning they are not under a regime control twice. The first time I was contacted by a group of activist in Aleppo.

34:17 And they said we only have six insulin shots and then Tire City children and elderly are dying. You need to help us. So my dad and I went around the Midwest knocking doors on doctors and saying in donations. Can you give us what medications can you give us? So within three days we packed about four or five used suitcases full of donated medications and insulin shots. And this is like my father and I were sitting down and we're looking at each other like okay, we have all this medication. Now what and I said, okay now we go to Syria and we give it to the children and my dad said what this is not going to happen. I mean, we're going to find a way to send and I said no we're going to go so, I mean being the rebellious me I went on using my credit card and I booked the airplane tickets and I said we're going

35:14 And we flew into turkey we flew into Southern turkey from the capital Istanbul. The capital is not a simple circuit but ignore that so we flew into Southern turkey and Syrian activists were at the borders and they said, you know because of the threats you have received this way too risky for you to go in through the borders, even though those supporters were not under regime control, but it's the chaos and not knowing who's controlling what so we had to walk on a Minefield for about 35 minutes and there was one of the scariest moments in my life to to walk on a Minefield and not knowing your next step, but what's going to happen in carrying luggage full of medications, but it happened and I went in

36:10 I sawed tens and tens and tenths full of children and families that have nothing and they don't know till when they are staying in these 10 afterwards. I we got in the car and we went to the city. We visited underground clinics and saw the struggles of having nothing and Performing surgery without the medication and the surgery equipment. I've met nurses that told me they have they had to perform surgeries because the doctors fled the city.

36:57 A week after I left that underground Clinic. It was bomb To The Ground by the Syrian regime with TNT Barrel bombs so you could only

37:10 Imagine what they're going through in that country.

37:15 And you being here at the courage in this Aston that drive and the passion to bring about Justice and kindness and Humanity where some of the most worst human-rights disasters have been occurring.

37:34 Time because I saw the children that are struggling.

37:41 To stay alive

37:43 With my own eyes and Syria, I will never give up.

37:52 No matter how many messages I get from crazy people saying that you're a woman you belong at home and there's a spelling all of those stereotypes as an American Muslim woman. Thank God.

38:06 Thanks to my parents as well.

38:09 The values that your dad bought for

38:14 Where were installed would you say and you are engraved in me?

38:22 We just have a little over a minute left. I wanted to just ask you you mentioned many times your friends on the ground are those all people that you just met through social media. Yes.

38:37 And the beginning of the Revolution I only had 60 friends on Facebook and none of them were syrians. So, I mean, I have a network and I can I reach about a quarter of a million people around the globe and majority of them are in Syria now and that's all thanks to social media to Facebook and Twitter and YouTube.

39:00 And you really feel like they're real friends. Not just social media friends their family to me. They're not only friends their family.

39:07 They're risking everything they have for the sake of freedom and democracy. I mean how I bet you can't go beyond that. They're there is nothing more rich and empowering than that.

39:21 What's that Universal human condition of wanting to share your experience and Global connectivity and really seems like the with the work that you've done. The one thing that people want is just

39:38 A life without violence

39:40 The security of safety and freedom of peace

39:49 It's about time to wrap up.

39:51 I want to thank you a lot for your remarkable remarkable story and narrative.

40:00 I

40:02 Just know somebody is probably listening and is receiving, you know, even in Iota or inkling of Hope and inspiration and they perhaps want to model after you.

40:17 Thank you is enough for this amazing interview and I didn't feel it was like an interview felt like talking to a close friend about my experiences and together. I promise you we will both achieve our goals and and having a peaceful world.