32-year-old Syrian pro-democracy activist Rami Nakhla (pictured second) is happy to be spending this fall in New Haven. For that matter, he’s happy to be spending it anywhere.
Nakhla—here as a participant in Yale University’s 2014 World Fellows Program—has been a target of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime since his transformation from what the government considers a “good citizen” to an enemy of the state.
“I never questioned our politics,” he says. “I believed that my country was the best in the world.” That is, until eight years ago, when a good friend from high school was savagely murdered—stabbed 24 times—by her brother. Nakhla was confident that the perpetrator would be brought to justice. Instead, the court ruled that the brother had committed an “honor crime” because he’d suspected that his sister was sexually active. The prison sentence? Six months.
That outcome galvanized Nakhla. He resolved to learn all he could about honor crimes, but found nothing in libraries or the local media. “Finally, a friend told me to ‘Google it,’” he says. “I had no idea what he was talking about.” After spending an afternoon becoming acquainted with the internet at his friend’s home, there was no turning back. “It was like opening Pandora’s box,” he says. “I learned that more than 300 women died this way every year in Syria.”
Upon acquiring his own online access, he spent three sleepless days and nights reading about horrors he’d never imagined. Rather than living in what the regime defined as a democracy, he realized Syrians were really governed by martial law. “There were people imprisoned for 29 years for expressing an opinion. Two blocks from my home, there was a branch of the secret police where people died every day from torture.” To promote the illusion of freedom, the Assad regime had established a “safe zone” for dissidents, but even there talk of change might be dangerous. “You could talk about women’s rights, but gay rights? No way.”
Frustrated with these limits, Nakhla began agitating “way beyond the government’s ‘red line.’ I realized I had to work anonymously, to create an alias,” he says. So he became pro-democracy blogger Malath Aumran, launching an anti-martial-law campaign called “Enough Silence” and helping to orchestrate Independence Day protests at seven Syrian embassies around the world. Disturbed by such events—and others leading up to the “Arab Spring” overthrow of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt—the Syrian government began arresting even “acceptable” protesters; Nakhla says that in 2010, he was questioned 40 times, but never connected to Aumran.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Syria dissolved into civil war. Threatened with arrest and imprisonment, Nakhla fled to Lebanon, where he revealed his alt-identity as Aumran and was profiled by The New York Times and the Washington Post. His influence grew, but not his security. Targeted for assassination by the Assad regime-friendly extremist group Hezbollah, he fled again—this time to Washington, D.C., with the help of the United Nations. While there, he served as program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, coordinating “The Day After,” a project that produced a road map toward democracy for post-civil war Syria. “We managed to bring 45 prominent members of the Syrian opposition together to develop it,” Nakhla says. In 2012, he became the project’s executive director, working in Istanbul to prepare for such a transition.
“I’m devoted to seeing Syria become a democratic nation,” Nakhla says. “I don’t see myself doing anything else until that dream is realized.” That transition, he adds, could happen at any time. For him, the question has now become: how can he best rise to the occasion?
15 other distinctive international storytellers—including citizens of Pakistan, Nigeria, Hong Kong and the Netherlands—make up this year’s class of Yale World Fellows. There’s Nandita Das, an award-winning Indian actress and director who is also the face of the international Dark Is Beautiful campaign, addressing cultural skin color bias. Groundbreaking Italian designer and robotics engineer Salvatore Iaconesi uses data from social media networks to create futuristic art installations. Iceland’s Thora Arnorsdottir sparked international debate on gender equality during her 2012 presidential candidacy after entering the campaign trail eight months pregnant.
“The Fellows are people who are really pushing the systems they work in, trying to change them,” says Uma Ramiah, the program’s director of communications. “They’re fighting extremely difficult battles every day. This program gives them a chance to step back and reevaluate, develop strategies to become even more effective.” Running from mid-August through mid-December, the fellowship offers four components, including self-directed study (participants can audit any university course they wish); skill-building sessions facilitated by Yale’s School of Management; and leadership conversations with guests like former British prime minister Tony Blair and U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In addition to the 16 Fellows from other countries, there are also two Associate World Fellows selected from among Yale graduate student applicants, because, as Ramiah puts it, “learning goes both ways.”
The program’s linchpin is a 15-week global affairs seminar taught by university faculty, during which each Fellow presents a talk on his or her work and critiques the others’ projects. “To me, the most valuable aspect of the program is the interaction between the Fellows,” says Ramiah. “They really challenge each other and form incredible bonds.” In return for Yale’s mentorship, each Fellow is expected to give back by presenting, or participating in, at least 10 New Haven community events. In addition, the program sponsors World Fellows Night (Sept. 18) and The Inspired Series, four Thursday evening colloquia at New Haven Free Public Library.
Now in its 13th year, the World Fellows Program was the brainchild of former Yale president Richard C. Levin, who, Ramiah says, strove to make the university’s focus more global. The program receives 4,000 applications a year, and to be accepted, applicants must endure intense scrutiny by committee, but the long-term benefit, Ramiah says, is that “once you’re a Fellow, you’re a Fellow for life.” The program has now developed a network of 257 past Fellows all over the world, who continue to make themselves available to the Yale/New Haven community for everything from consulting on civic projects to supporting students seeking international internships.
For Nakhla, the fellowship has come at just the right time. Largely self-informed about democracy and politics, he says, “I’ve had huge doubts about my education. So this was a crucial opportunity for me, to be able to interact with some of the most distinguished professors in the world.” He’s currently taking courses on economic behavior, negotiation and conflict and civilization. Having never formally studied English, he’s also being tutored in writing.
“I’ve never received this kind of personal attention,” he says. “I will be indebted to this institution for the rest of my life.”
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Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.