Sewanee student raises awareness about Syrian crisis

Dr. Rodelio Manacsa, Amb. Stephen Rapp, Mr. Mouaz Mustafa, and Mr. Jerry Adams listen to a question. Photo by Olivier Mbabazi (C’22).

By Anna Mann

Abigail Straessle (C’20) didn’t want to leave Little Rock, Arkansas after her internship with the Syrian Emergency Task Force this past summer. After realizing that working with a nonprofit was indeed her ambition, she began imagining ways she could stay involved while on Sewanee’s campus. After talking with Paige Schneider, Assistant Professor of Politics and Women’s and Gender Studies, they decided to bring Syrian human rights activist Mouaz Moustafa to campus.

When Straessle called Moustafa, her summer internship supervisor, to ask him to speak at Sewanee, she says he knew immediately that he would bring “The Caesar Exhibit” as well.

“The Caesar Exhibit” is a collection of nearly 55,000 photographs of the mutilated bodies of Syrian women, men, and children at the hands of the Assad regime taken by a former military policeman of the state. The photo exhibit has traveled across the world, including other American universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

The photos were accompanied by an hour-long panel between Moustafa, former U.S. Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice Stephen Rapp, Jerry Adams (C’65) founder of The Wisdom House: a school for orphaned Syrian children and widowed women, and Associate Professor of Politics Dr. Rodelio Manacsa as the moderator.

Straessle emphasized that the purpose of the exhibit and panel was to inform her classmates about the crisis. She recalled that she knew next to nothing about Syria before her internship, adding that “once you know something like that, you can’t unknow it.”

Though Straessle spent most of her time working in the Arkansas office of the Syrian Emergency Task Force last summer, she spent some time in their Washington, D.C. office to see what she dubbed the “action side of nonprofit.” She first saw the photos of “The Caesar Exhibit” while lobbying and working closely with Moustafa as well as congressmen at the capital.

After the initial shock of seeing the images, Straessle began to do her research. She watched documentaries about the photographs and became deeply interested in the politics of Syria. Her explorations completely changed her perspective on American life as the desire to take action deepened.

The event planning began in August as Straessle worked with Ambassador Rapp and Moustafa to find a date and begin promoting. The preparation and speech-giving alike pushed the student out of her comfort zone. Indeed, she confessed that  “it is not my forte. Even going to congress [this Summer] and talking to really important people I was thinking: ‘I should not be here right now, I’m just a kid.’ But I definitely grew from it.”

The panelists discussed the lack of coverage regarding the Assaad regime, the stories of some of the victims shown in the photographs, as well as the legal, political, and humanitarian sides to Syrian involvement. Then they opened the floor for students to ask their own questions.

When Jasmine Huang (C’21) asked the panelists how students could go beyond passive listening, Adams responded, “What I think a night like tonight should do is teach you about who you are and what you stand for. I think you need to be aggressive. You don’t want to get to my age and wish you’d done something. So do something. Don’t be passive.”

Moustafa mentioned the Letters of Hope project, where one can write a letters of encouragement to refugee children who have fled their homes in Syria. “Reach out to us through Abby and talk to us about what you can do to support the families of victims and witnesses who have risked everything and left everything in order to have national prosecutions,” Moustafa answered.

Straessle hopes that her fellow students will push themselves as well. Regarding the event she stated, “We are so fortunate to go here and to have the opportunity for a US Ambassador and Mouaz to come speak to us. We are so safe here. We’re not in danger. We’re not scared of bombs. It really puts your world in perspective.”

She encourages students to reach out should they have questions and explained that a booth in McClurg will be open to those interested in writing Letters of Hope to the children of The Wisdom House or calls to action to senators from January 28- February 1.