Syrian rebel fight felt in Hoosier heartland

Indianapolis hosts first event featuring political art from rebel forces. Work visits Chicago in March.

February 25, 2013

Syria is half a world away from the Midwest.

But to Kenan Rahmani, it’s like home, although it’s a home that’s been besieged with violence, bombs, death and suffering for nearly two years.

Rahmani wants to end the bloodshed and hopes Americans will lend a hand.

“I don’t have a stomach for war, but I also don’t have the stomach to see 35 children being killed on a daily basis. I hope that Americans can see there’s a moral issue,” Rahmani told WBEZ in an exclusive interview.  “Part of the promise of this country (United States) is that we stand up against oppression. Our moral conscious should lead us to the right answer in Syria.”

Rahmani is a 24-year-old resident of Fishers, a wealthy suburb just north of Indianapolis. He also attends law school at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend.

His family moved to the United States when he was two years old leaving behind relatives such as cousins, uncles and aunts.

Rahmani used to visit overseas often but the Syrian conflict that erupted two years ago doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is holding on to power as rebel forces continue to fight – some with guns, others with art.

Two months ago, Rahmani visited parts of Syria to delivered humanitarian aid to families who he says have nothing to survive on.

Upon his return, Rahmani helped to bring back to the United States 34 political drawings poking fun of Assad, criticizing his politics and taking the U.S. to task for not getting involved in the conflict even more.

Those paintings – drawn by activists in the northern Syrian city of Kafrabel, were displayed at Eman Elementary, an Islamic-based school in Fishers on Sunday night. It was hosted by the Indianapolis chapter of the Washington, D.C.-based Syrian American Council.  It’s the first stop in several for the Midwest which will make its way to Chicago on March 30.

“These activists are incredibly brave young men who week after week, they go out and stay up all night to try to send the perfect message to the world because they have lost faith in governments, they have lost faith in the U.N.,” Rahmani, national board member of the Syrian American Council, said. “But they have hope, that Americans, that Europeans, people of the world can look at these posters and see for themselves. … All we want is someone to stand up for our right for us to stand up to a dictator.”

Some of the drawings are done in Arabic but many are in English to appeal to a wider international community.

Dr. Shadi Latta, a physician who lives in the northern Chicago suburb of Niles, says it wasn’t easy getting the painting out of the country. It’s also dangerous to even possess the drawings, he said, since it’s a crime to criticize the government.

“When the revolution first started in Syria, no international media was allowed to get into Syria to tell people what is going on. These talented people found this way to reach out to deliver their messages,” Latta, a native of the Kafrabel region, said. “All that they had was their cell phones with a camera and a Facebook account. That was the only mean of delivering their voice.”

The Indianapolis area is home to a small number of those of Syrian descent, about 40 families.

Laila Mossa-basha is an American born Syrian who lives in Carmel, another northern suburb of Indianapolis.

The 21-year-old has visited Syria in recent years but returning isn’t likely because of the ongoing conflict.

“Syria is always in our hearts all times. It really breaks our heart of what’s going on there,” Mossa-basha, a pre-med student, said.

“It’s an honor to have the paintings here in Indianapolis for its first stop."

The event was also an opportunity for organizers to raise funds for humanitarian aid. Some $10,000 was raised during Sunday’s event.

Rahmani will return to Syria in early March to deliver more aid, such as food, blankets and infant formula.

He’s hoping the United States will provide the rebels with arms to protect themselves.

His hopes has the support for several top ranked U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But so far, President Barack Obama is unwilling to arm the rebels.

New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to meet this week with the leadership of the Syrian rebels during his first overseas trip as secretary of state.