The Middle Eastern nation of Syria has been dominating headlines for years. From a chemical attack on a town just last week, to the U.S. launching airstrikes on a Syrian air base. What’s happening on the other side of the world is also impacting some students here at home.

Brad Byrd talks with University of Evansville student, Walid Hasanato, who is from Syria and Gail Vignola, a co-founder for the Scholars of Syria program, on the recent events that have occurred in Syria and how the UE program helps the community learn more about the Syrian people.

Transcript of Interview:

Brad Byrd: “Welcome to In-Depth. The middle-eastern nation of Syria has been dominating headlines for years, dominating lives for centuries. From a chemical attack on a town just last week, to the U.S. launching airstrikes on a Syrian airbase, what’s happening on the other side of the world is also impacting some students right here at home. I’m joined tonight by Walid Hasanato, a UE student from Syria and Gail Vignola who is a co-founder for the scholars of Syria program at the University of Evansville. Walid, thank you for being here, Gail, thank you so much for being here tonight. Walid, where was your home in Syria?”

Walid Hasanato: “I lived in a place called Aleppo, um, it’s where both my parents actually grew up and got married. Um, yeah, that was the area that I grew up in.”

Brad Byrd: “And, you still have good memories of those early years there, tell me about that.”

Walid Hasanato: “I mean, both of my grandmas live on that street and it’s the time where I go there and feast, a lot of food, a lot of friends, a lot of families are there.”

Brad Byrd: “And Gail, why are these recent events, especially the recent events, uh, so troubling? At least in the UE community, 22 students are Syrian at UE, tell me about that.”

Gail Vignola: “Yes, well I think it’s a problem for the world actually, not just UE and Evansville. But, locally, UE has 22 Syrian students and one of the largest percentages of Syrians in the U.S. So, we’re lucky to have them. They’ve contributed so much to the local community in so many ways, academically, socially, um, work-wise. So, we started this initiative to support our students with fundraising initiatives. And to, um, help the community understand what’s going on in Syria and to connect our Syrian students with local, middle, and high school students.”

Brad Byrd: “Walid, we were talking tonight in the news room, you’re heartbroken over what you’re seeing there, share that feeling with me.”

Walid Hasanato: “I mean, it’s your country, it’s your blood. These people who look like you, who share the same genetic configuration that you do, it could have been you, you know? It’s cousins, it’s friends, it’s brothers, it’s parents, it’s family. So, you see that, and the physical pain you may not feel, but all the emotional trauma lives with you.”

Brad Byrd: “And you tell me you like to speak out, you speak your mind here in the United States. But if you were speaking out in Syria, as some of your friends have, um, what would happen to you? Why would you be fearful?”

Walid Hasanato: “I mean, growing up, I was told by my parents and all the elders that politics is just not for us. It is not for me to share my opinion with these issues and politics is only for a certain class and the country. And, they controlled everything, and they decided everything. I was not to share my opinion, and I was always the kind of child that wanted to learn, the one to speak out, the one to present, the one to engage. So, when I got here to the States, and having this right, this freedom of speech, I did not hold back. I just let it all out, I spoke my mind the way it is. And the opinions that I’ve shared, much like a lot of my colleagues in the University of Evansville have shared,  are opinions that would put us in, in high risk of being killed in Syria.”

Brad Byrd: “Have you lost friends?”

Walid Hasanato: “Absolutely. A childhood friend of mine who used to play with me around in Syria in the neighborhoods, he was captured by the Syrian regime, tortured in a prison cell, two years later we hear about his death. He was a suspect, we don’t even if he was outspoken. He lived in Syria so he was much more conservative with his opinions than I was. But, so, people who have spoken less than I have, have been affected 200 times more than I have in most treacherous ways.”

Brad Byrd: “Gail, 23 students I believe you said, right?”

Gail Vignola: “22.”

Brad Byrd: “22, okay. And, um, you’ve had a passion for this Scholars for Syria Program. You tell me that, uh, this came about by just knowing the Syrian students who are on the UE campus, tell me about them. Because they have different opinions too, I mean, and I know Walid, you’ll jump in on that too to comment, but, what about that, Gail?”

Gail Vignola: “They do have different opinions but they’re all humans, first of all. And they’re all, um, we want to shelter them, um, and help them kind of deal with the crisis that’s going on in their country now. I know that from teaching them and befriending them, and sort of, um, valuing their contribution to the university. Um, we just wanted to help them out and kind of support them.”

Brad Byrd: “And, Walid, the attack on that city in which those children died. Al-Assad says the Syrian government just today was not behind that. Do you believe that?”

Walid Hasanato: “Absolutely not. I have no doubt in my mind that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attacks, and we have American intelligence that says so, British intelligence has said so. The area that was attacked by the chemical warfare was a rebel-controlled area. So it was the Assad regime attacking that area.”

Brad Byrd: “I kind of in the newsroom, we were talking about how you said ‘I need to mature.’ But Walid, you speak very eloquently. I think you are a very mature man right now, but what did you mean about that? I need to mature before I go back to Syria.”

Walid Hasamato: “Well, I mean I thank you for the compliment. But I still see a long road ahead of me before I can impact what is going on in Syria. Today, I’m doing my best educating my fellow Americans here in the states about what’s going on in Syria, but you watch the death, you watch the torture, and you kind of just want dive in personally. And I still don’t see myself at place where I’m capable of doing much. So, I want to get to a place in my life where I have so much tools that I can actually elevate the pain of a lot of people directly and not directly in education.”

Brad Byrd: “In the past when you walked through Aleppo, and if you would walk through hour homeland now, tell me what would a walkthrough your homeland feel like. What did it feel like?”

Walid Hasamato: “In the past, Aleppo to me was more of a place where I can be myself because I grew up Saudi Arabia for a long period of my time and I use to speak with a very thick Aleppo accent which a lot of my friends over there used to make fun of me for that, and I had to pick up a lot of accents just to fit in. But there, you’re walking and people look a lot like you, act like you, and think like you. You’re just yourself walking down the road and this is your neighborhood.”

Brad Byrd: “You talk about accents, and you’re talking about you had a thick Aleppo accent. We have accents right here in the United States of America. We have deep south accent, we have the Jersey accent, the New York accent. So in many ways, we’re all alike on this planet in various ways I should say. Yours is a fascinating story and definitely what UE is doing in bringing the Syrian students here. You made one interesting comment. We often refer to here in America as the Middle East. It’s not really the Middle East. There are so many different variables here.”

Walid Hasamato: “It is an area of unbelievable diversity, the Middle East. You talk about countries that have their own languages, let alone dialects, let alone cultural norms. You cannot classify the Middle East as one labeled one place. You can be in Aleppo, Syria, being dying of being bombed by the Assad regime, or you can be in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, living a very luxurious life. And Lebanon, itself a country considerably very small country compared to any country. You can be in the north of Lebanon living a luxurious life, or you can be in the south facing violent soldiers. Labeling one area the Middle East is very inconvenient.”

Brad Byrd: “Alright, Walid, best to you. Thank you so much. Gail, thank you so much for joining us tonight. We need more time to talk about this and we’ll find the time but hope to have you back soon and take care and continue success out there.”