Students Hope for Peace

Students Hope for Peace

Students at George Mason University feel stress for Iraqi friends and family.

With her body shaking, Shaimaa Alazzawe watched on television the bombs fall in Iraq. Her mother had just returned from Iraq from visiting their family. She had told her that people there didn't really understand why the Americans were planning to bomb them, after 12 years of sanctions, the Persian Gulf War and no hidden inventories of chemical and biological weapons.

Two days after last Tuesday's first strikes, Alazzawe's family members still couldn't reach their family in Baghdad. Alazzawe, a senior at George Mason University, was too stressed to go to her classes, so she skipped.

"It's not an accident that they're dying," the Arlington resident said, of those involved in the war.

Alazzawe was one of about 30 students present at a protest rally at George Mason University's Fairfax campus on Thursday, March 20. Although the rally was rained out by the fast-moving thunderstorms that had rolled into the area, rally organizers moved the event indoors.

The rally was just one of the activities that Mason Students for Peace and Justice have staged in recent weeks. Another teach-in featuring academics, outside experts and graduate students took place before spring break, and creative writing students hosted a poetry reading earlier in the week. Mason faculty against the war placed an advertisement in the student newspaper, The Broadside, with 90 signatures collected for the ad.

"We had to do something, we had to act," said Fairfax resident Toby Mendenhall, a freshman, on the creation of the Mason Students for Peace and Justice.

A student who had spoken at the rally, Arlington resident Julie Ryan-Silva, read some e-mail correspondence from three friends she had met when she went to the University of Baghdad in January. Ryan-Silva, a graduate student studying conflict analysis and resolution, had signed a petition by academics earlier in the winter against a war, and the University of Baghdad invited them to Iraq. The 32-member group that went for one week in January represented 28 universities from 21 states.

"I've been very fearful for the people I know," Ryan-Silva said, referring to her Iraqi friends and those in the military.

One excerpt from Ryan-Silva's e-mail correspondence with a 27-year-old graduate student expressed the fear that her friends were facing.

"When you see the event like a video game on CNN, will you remember me? I am really afraid. All those years I spent doing what I did for myself and my family, all the hard work ... all the days that I went without sleep studying for exams or doing a project ... it will be so painful if they go in vain, like dust in the wind ... if they go without anyone remembering that I was here," wrote the 27-year-old.

Another excerpt from a 24-year-old student found hope in their friendship:

"All that you are doing has its impact," the 24-year-old wrote. "What is important for me is to know that there are people outside Iraq who care. I never really thought there were any, or I never believed it was possible, until I met all of you and saw all that you're doing. ... In the end, Julie, no matter what happens, just seeing all those people protesting this war makes all the difference."

After reading the excerpts, Ryan-Silva held back her tears.

"They're just like us," she said. "They want the same things we do. They want to lead normal lives, they want to raise their children in peace."

Although the war has begun, members of the Mason Students for Peace and Justice still meet every Tuesday at 7:15 p.m. By organizing, the 40 members feel they can still make a difference.

"People feel sort of powerless," Mendenhall said. Mendenhall, 26, had served in the armed forces prior to attending Mason but left with an honorable discharge. The U.S. war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, rattled him, as did work by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

"I could not believe what had not been taught in history," Mendenhall said.

A Mason faculty member, poet Carolyn Forche, read at the poetry reading because she wanted to take a stand.

"I've been a peace activist all my life, and this is a time where we must declare ourselves," Forche said. The poems she read were about people's desperation in war.

Asked why poetry, Forche replied, "Poetry is the natural prayer of the human soul."