Meet Amal Rass
We think of English majors as being skilled at writing, but writing is not all we do. Our broad and extensive reading teaches us about the world and develops our capacity for empathy. For Amal Rass, an English major in her junior year at Wayne State, that empathy led to activism. A Syrian-American with parents who are from Syria, Amal first became interested in politics with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Since 2011, the conflict in Syria has led to the deaths of an estimated 400,000 people, along with the displacement of millions of others. These statistics aren’t dry facts for Amal: she became the founder and president of the Wayne State chapter of Students Organize for Syria (SOS), a national, student-led organization, which works to advocate, educate, and raise money for the situation in Syria. She is also the organization’s Midwest/Western Regional Coordinator. What follows is a brief transcript of a conversation with Amal, lightly edited for clarity and concision.
What inspired you to pursue an English degree?
I like to write, and I use the skills I’ve learned as an English major for my activism. I do blog posts every once in a while, and my creative writing tends to focus on Syria and the struggles of the Syrian people. Being able to discuss and express social issues is an outlet you don’t get in other departments. That’s something I value in the English Department. I’m also pre-law, and my goal is to become an international human rights attorney.
How did you get involved in activism?
I started pretty started young, in high school. The Syrian Revolution was something that hit home. It had a personal connection, and that got me into activism. I was 14 when the Revolution started, and since then I’ve been involved with other social justice issues, like the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m also a member of Students for Justice in Palestine here on campus.
What about Students Organize for Syria? Was that your first experience with activism?
No, in high school, I did a lot of work trying to raise awareness, even at school with a bake sale. There are also these protests that happen in D.C. on the anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, I would always go out to those. But now, I think SOS is just my way of being involved with the Syrian Crisis and advocating for Syria on my college campus. I really believe in student activism, I think it’s vitally important. We are the leaders of the future, which I know sounds cliché- But I just feel it’s so important to educate the community on campus about what’s happening in Syria, so we can get people to care and get involved.
So what led you to SOS? You’re the president of the chapter here, right?
I am, yeah. It was through friends who had different chapters at different universities. I heard about it during my first semester of undergrad, and I applied to start a chapter here. That was the fall of 2015 when I was a freshman, and it’s kicked off since then.
As the president and founder of the chapter, what are your duties and responsibilities?
Basically, I help plan events and do a lot of delegate roles for the organization. A lot of the events we plan are awareness and educational events, such as describing what’s happening in Syria or bringing in lecturers and speakers to talk about the history of the Crisis. A lot of people know there’s something happening in Syria, but they don’t know what it is, or how it started. So for example, last year, we had two Wayne State professors come in and talk about the history of the Crisis. We had really positive feedback from that. We also have the Books Not Bombs campaign, and we’re trying to create scholarships for refugees at Wayne State, to help them further their education.
I heard that SOS had its first national conference in November 2017. Did the WSU chapter attend?
Yeah, we did! And yeah, I’m actually on the national board of directors, so I helped plan that event. We had over 200 students come to Loyola University in Chicago. It was a really great, weekend-long conference. We had events with speakers telling students how to do things on campus, and like we had a session that was Syria 101- you know, what’s happening, a basic session. We also had a session about advocating for Syria in this political climate, how to call up elected officials, and what to say. We talked about volunteering with refugees, and how you can start that up in your area. A cool thing is, we also had two members of the White Helmets if you’ve heard of them?
White Helmets? No, I don’t think I’ve heard of them.
They’re a volunteer group in Syria. They’re the first responders to an attack. They’re the ones who go out and rescue people from the rubble. And all of them are volunteers, so they used to be things like teachers, people with ordinary, everyday lives. They have a documentary on Netflix that won an Oscar. Anyway, two of their members came and were able to speak to the students.
Wow, I’ll have to check that out. So in addition to joining the SOS, what else can concerned students do to help Syrians and the situation in Syria?
They can also work to help refugees in the area. There are a lot of refugees here, especially in Metro Detroit. They can call up the Refugee Resettlement Agency, because they’re always looking for volunteers to do things like drive people to the grocery store, and take them to doctor visits. When it comes to the issue globally, one big thing would be to call up elected officials, the people in the state senate and Congress in D.C. Advocate for more refugee resettlement or even just a no-fly zone in Syria would be a huge difference.
By Tristan Shaw