Mohammed Alaaghanem, senior political adviser for government relations and director and strategist for the Syrian-American Council, and Shlomo Bolts, policy and advocacy officer for the council gave a presentation Tuesday night in the CANDLES Museum. The museum held the first in a series of conversations about current issues relating to human rights and conflict resolution. The inaugural event was titled “Conversation on Syria.”

Shlomo Bolts reflects on the world’s reaction — or lack thereof, in his view — to the Syrian chemical attack on civilians in August 2013, blaming an “empathy gap” for the absence of U.S. military response to the televised atrocity.

“It’s pretty sad that this didn’t mobilize the response to stop the killing,” Bolts, a policy and advocacy officer from the Syrian American Council, told the Tribune-Star on Tuesday evening. The Washington, D.C.-based group is a grassroots organization of Syrian-Americans that promotes freedom and democracy for Syria through awareness-raising, youth empowerment and outreach.

Bolts and a colleague, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, discussed the current situation in Syria during a program at CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, urging audience members to take a stand against what they see as an ongoing slaughter of families under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The discussion kicked off a series of occasional conversations at CANDLES about current issues relating to human rights and conflict resolution. Program director Dorothy Chambers said the events are designed to foster understanding about how citizens can help stop human rights abuses throughout the world.

“With understanding, we become better informed and responsible citizens,” she said.

The symbolism of the event’s setting was not lost on Bolts and Ghanem. Bolts, whose father’s relatives were victims of the Holocaust, said Assad has used the same kind of gas on his people as was used in the concentration camps during World War II.

Ghanem, the council’s senior political adviser, government relations director and strategist, helped organize some early peaceful protests against Assad in 2011, long before the movement morphed into an armed rebellion. He grew up in Damascus and lived in Syria until moving to the U.S. five years ago.

Having been taught with the rest of his peers that Assad was a god-like figure and being exposed to anti-U.S. propaganda by the government, the notion of demanding the president’s ouster was unfathomable, Ghanem said. 

The only protest he could remember before the current uprising was one ordered by the government against the U.S. He said he and schoolmates were ordered to throw rocks at the American embassy.

After being arrested and detained in college for trying to defend a boy who military intelligence services were beating for challenging one of the authorities — he didn’t realize the plainclothes men dealing the blows were intelligence police — Ghanem said he wanted to do something to bring about change in his country.

“I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when,” he told the audience. “It didn’t even cross my mind that we could be one day asking for a change to the whole state in Syria, because that was even beyond imagination, but I wanted to do something.”

When he left Syria, about seven months before the revolution began, he said he wanted to help people organize against the regime. After the first protests started in March 2011, he communicated with the protesters, feeding them information from an American academic on how to wage a peaceful demonstration.

Ghanem explained the evolution of the movement — from when the Syrian government began occupying neighborhoods and Army members defected to fight against the regime, up until recently, when the Islamic State has become a transnational threat and Russia is providing military support for Assad’s troops.

He called on audience members to reach out to their congressmen and urge more U.S. action against the Syrian government and for the nation to accept more Syrian refugees. Syrians account for many of the refugees in the current European refugee and migrant crisis.

Reporter Nick Hedrick can be reached at 812-231-4232 or Follow Nick on Twitter @TribStarNick.

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Nick Hedrick has been a reporter for the Tribune-Star since 2015. A 2012 graduate of Indiana State, he covered government and features for the (Winchester) News-Gazette and was editor of the Jackson County Banner before returning to Terre Haute.