a pixelated illustration of a torture method

Syrians for Truth and Justice: Articulating Entanglements, Disrupting Disciplinarity

Steve Parks with Bassam Alahmad and Ashanka Kumari

Building Community Partnerships

Syrians for Truth and Justice has been described within this essay primarily as an organization, an existing entity doing documentation and reconciliation work. It is also, however, a community partnership—the result of individuals, embedded in communities, deciding to find common cause in an effort at structural and political change. In this particular partnership, the goal has been to be part of creating a future for Syrians that “matters,” that is premised on concepts of democratic and human rights. Such ambitions, however, emerged and developed within the particular networks in which its original partners circulated, sometimes with and sometimes against existing global patterns of military and economic power. To understand how “futures” are created and ladders to potential success formulated, then, it is important to examine the “moment where all ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (Yeats).

It is important, then, to begin at the beginning: I met Bassam Alahmad, future co-founder of STJ, at a workshop for Middle East/North African democratic activists focused on the use of narrative in community organizing. We arrived at Syracuse University through different trajectories but imbued with a similar faith in importance of supporting human rights. We also both carried with us an intuitive belief in the need to connect our personal lives to collective efforts for change. Bassam’s arrival at the workshop emerged from his work in literature in college and activism on behalf of Kurdish culture. He then moved to working more broadly on human rights in Syria, work that resulted in Bassam being arrested and tortured by Assad’s regime. Rather than being reduced to Assad’s brutal acts, Bassam escape to Turkey, developed an idea for a way to continue his work, and journeyed to Syracuse University to enact that plan.

Three excerpts from a 20-minute interview with Bassam Alahmad in Istanbul, Turkey, where he traces his activist beginnings, his arrest/escape, and his current view of democratic activism. For full video, click here.

I had found myself conducting this workshop at Syracuse University as a result of a journey that included growing up on military bases as the son of an Air Force Master Sargent and hearing stories of his missions in Viet Nam and Cambodia. As a child, I walked through military hospitals in the Philippines where the wounded and disabled were resting in the hallways, waiting for a visit from Bob Hope or some other visiting celebrity. Prior to this workshop, I had spent much of my adult life drawing these latent threads together into a critical vision of United States military involvement, its effect on local populations, and the potential power of concepts such as human rights that pointed toward a more humane future.


Now, from the opposite side of the globe, within a network that seemed broadly implicated in the human rights abuses occurring in the Middle East/North African (MENA) region, I stood in the same room with Bassam. As individuals and as part of collectives, we were using the workshop to consider how to respond to the current political crises in the MENA region. As one strategy within the workshop, I had split the participants into small groups, asking each of them to imagine a project that might grow out of the skills acquired that day. Bassam’s group developed a book project focused on testimonies by Syrian victims of torture, which I offered to help publish through New City Community Press if completed. It was that moment which initiated our partnership. Over the course of the next eight months, as the conflict in Syria worsened, the book project morphed into a recognition of the need to create Syrians for Truth and Justice.

Yet, if this was the personal beginning of our work together, I now want to use this partnership to highlight more explicitly how our interactions were situated within an existing network of institutional, political, and economic networks that enabled or disabled collaborative possibilities. That is, I now want to tell the story of the creation of STJ as an institution circulating a human rights public rhetoric, which was the result of negotiating the different possibilities existing within a network of material apparatuses (such as government or university institutions) and the conceptual rhetorics that existed within and beyond such institutions. While not strictly a “new materialist study of entanglements,” I want to broadly invoke such a framework to highlight how Bassam and my own identity acted as collective nodal point which allowed new truth mechanisms, such as STJ, to emerge. (For a discussion on how this strategy intersects with “new materialism,” see Chris Scheidler’s “Making Future Space”.)

With this in mind, I want to return to and expand upon some of the conceptual and institutional networks that existed prior to working together. Currently, I am a cis-gendered, abled-bodied, white male with United States citizenship living in Philadelphia and—at that time—working at Syracuse University. My intellectual/political work involves community partnership and organizing within local communities. I have not been to Syria. I have no cultural or familial relationship to Syria. And I do not speak Arabic or Kurdish. My primary relationship to this region prior to knowing Bassam emerged from stories told by my father’s military friends. Bassam was defined as Kurdish by the Assad state, only gaining official Syrian citizenship near the outset of the current civil war (despite living in the territory called Syria his whole life). As noted above, he worked as a human rights defender in Damascus, prior to his being arrested and tortured. He is now a refugee in Istanbul, which is undergoing its own political transformation. He speaks Kurdish, Arabic, and English. Prior to the conflict, he had travelled to numerous countries. These different identity networks offered different affordances and restrictions for our work together. For instance, as a United States citizen, I have travelled to approximately ten European countries as a “United States professor,” having travelled previously as part of a military family. To leave Turkey currently, Bassam often has to have me, as a United States-based STJ Board member, validate the reason for his trip. In this case, my national/state identity, and perhaps academic credentials, “authorized” his travel. Yet, at other moments, Bassam’s “Syrian” identity (not necessarily his Kurdish heritage) has brought Middle Eastern/North African allies into our work in ways my United States identity/location could not achieve.

As we began to develop STJ, then, there was a need to develop language which would draw together Bassam’s resources as a human rights activist and my own resources as community partnership advocate to create arguments to secure funding from foundations or government agencies. In the beginning, our strategy echoed (worked within) the language of community literacy partnerships now placed in the Syrian context. (See sample grant language.) There was a focus on collecting testimony, publishing, and circulating victim insights, and, thus, providing a platform for marginalized individuals/communities to be heard. There was, then, a latent sense of community change based upon models within the field of composition/rhetoric. Yet because it emerged from a States-based disciplinary enterprise, I would argue such rhetorical models imagined a local population rooted within a certain geography; it imagined a sense of the state, with recognized borders, where within that space there was some semblance of a free press and a protection of speech; finally, there was often an implicit sense of nationalism or appeals to a public “citizenship,” or civic action, that spoke implicitly to a “higher ideal” of civil society with the United States as an implicit model.

This combination of human rights/disciplinary frameworks was challenged as actual grant money began to move through the work of STJ. At the outset STJ had no legal status. Initial grant funds had to be held by Syracuse University, given my identity as a faculty member. Within the University, the formal system of budget keeping works within a paradigm of an individual being geographically located within a state, possessing identification from that state, and being networked into the financial systems of that state—a bank or credit union. Yet, many of the individuals helping to form STJ had fled Syria for Turkey or Jordan. They did not always have the required paperwork. Nor, given the complex politics within Turkey and the MENA region, did these individuals necessarily want US dollars entering their bank accounts.

Here it is worth noting again that STJ is registered in Turkey, a decision made prior to the recent government crackdown. For a period, the United States was considered a possible registration site, but United States foreign policies (and now Trump) coupled with the registration being so far geographically from the crisis, removed it as a possibility. Now, with the post-coup political situation in Turkey, increased fees are being applied to non-profits, which threaten our sustainability. There has also been a political crackdown on dissidents, professors, and protestors. The United States is still not a viable alternative, again think Trump, but we are exploring whether a state government exists in Europe that will allow STJ, and its activities, to claim a legal status and receive funds. Here, the very geographic state identity of its founders (Syrian and American) now becomes the very reason why some states might deny its entry as a legal civil society entity. (For a discussion on how “mangle” might be a productive lens through which to view this partnership, see Layne Porta Gordon’s “Transformation and Agency in Activist Scholarship.”)

To successfully build STJ, then, it was necessarily to understand our identities as enabled by a series of conceptual/institutional overlaps which opened up possibilities for the creation of STJ, as its own nodal point of redistribution of possibilities. In this sense, the concept of “community,” as a generalized concept, had to be particularized within the material practices through which it was instantiated within an institution or institutional network. These material practices, such as budget processes or travel documentation, had to brought into alignment, if only momentarily, to allow passage of STJ’s conceptual framework across seeming borders. And it was only this particularized vision of community and expansive vision of “entanglements” in our work that allowed STJ to ultimately emerge as its own institution with material practices—the practices of Syrians documenting the human rights abuses in their neighborhoods, then using that same documentation to rebuild.

By working within and through an unarticulated network of possibilities, STJ became articulated into reality.

Written by Steve Parks with Bassam Alahmad.