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“Is this the cost of freedom?” Noah Gottschild of OXFAM and Meera Tawil ’14 Tackle the Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

In the small town of Homs, Syria, Meera Tawil ’14 awoke to the sound of shell fire and the sight of tanks outside of her window. What was originally a normal teenage lifestyle devolved into chaos when the Syrian conflict began in Daraa and spread to Homs in 2011.

“It wasn’t easy to wake up and see soldiers everywhere and feel like I was living in a war,” said Tawil. “It was really hard to get through daily life. It was really hard to study for exams. It was really hard to sleep at night. It was even hard to stay optimistic. Things got worse from there.”

Noah Gottschild, Senior Policy Advisor for Humanitarian Response at Oxfam America, and Tawil both addressed Andover students and faculty on Friday in Kemper Auditorium, focusing on the current plight of Syrian civilians.

During the presentation, Tawil shared the story of her friend Maya, who was killed on her way to a party. “On the way there, armed people stopped the car. The armed people shot them in the car without even asking them where they were from or their political views or what religion they were. They just shot them,” said Tawil.

Tawil said that Maya did not die immediately and was able to call her family and friends to inform them. They, in turn, contacted the Syrian army responsible for protecting the town. The army refused to help, stating they could not risk their lives to save just one individual. Two other friends were shot and killed that night, said Tawil.

“People our age are dying, and for what reason? Is this the cost of freedom? Because if this is the cost of freedom, I don’t want this freedom,” said Tawil.

After the war’s arrival in Homs, Tawil and her family moved north to Aleppo, where Tawil’s school was bombed two months later.

“My home doesn’t exist anymore; my family is in danger; half of my friends are injured or dead. The children who used to play in our neighborhood aren’t there anymore because now they’re either refugees in camps, dead or are orphans,” said Tawil.

She continued, “People who have met me here would notice that I always have a smile on my face and I don’t look like a sad person and I look like a normal person. But the ones of you who have spent time with me know that a single burst of popcorn will make me freak out and when a plane goes by I put my hands over my ears and walk like nothing is going on. There’s a lot of things in normal life that people don’t notice, but, to me, they’re daily reminders of the things I’ve seen and the things I’ve lost and the people I’ve lost.”

Gottschild said that the situation in Syria is currently the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

“It’s really the crisis of our time, and it is fundamentally changing the way the Middle East is functioning. How we respond or don’t respond will determine the lives of millions of people. It’s fundamentally important that we get this right. There are too many lives on the line not to,” said Gottschild in an interview with The Phillipian.

Friday’s presentation was the first time Tawil has shared stories of her life in Syria with the larger Andover community since she arrived on campus this fall.

“Andover kids are really into politics. Every time someone finds out I’m from Syria, they ask what I think about the regime or the rebels. They never ask me about people’s lives there,” said Tawil in an interview with The Phillipian. “This was an opportunity to give a new perspective because in their mind, Syria is a place of terrorism. They really don’t see it as a place of a humanitarian crisis. I wanted people to see it from that perspective and I’m happy that people now know another side of the story and have heard the Syrian people’s voice.”

At Oxfam, Gottschild tracks refugee population development in Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria by communicating with colleagues in each country. He then takes this information to the media or the appropriate department of the U.S. government to maximize awareness.

Although the crisis is mounting, Gottschild maintains hope for Syria. The Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference is an upcoming international summit that will bring together the Syrian regime and Syrian rebel factions to discuss a new government for the country, said Gottschild.

Clint Yoo ’14 arranged the presentation as a continuation of a project he undertook last spring in which he made a film to raise awareness of the Syrian crisis. After contacting NGOs, conducting research and holding interviews, Yoo published a video entitled “Stand Up for Syria.” The video reached over 330,000 views on YouTube.

Yoo said the talk was everything he hoped for. “Meera’s personal story truly moved everyone in that room that night. Noah Gottschild’s informative and insightful speech about his experience working on the Syrian crisis, I believe, also provided a comprehensive context of the problem in Syria, as well as the problem in the US, in its support to Syria,” said Yoo.