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2022 Syria Justice and Accountability Centre Fellow

Sumayah Basal

Sumayah Basal
BA Political Science ‘24

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre

“My experience at the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre was very enriching overall. The ability to live in Washington D.C. and work at an N.G.O. working on international law and justice was an irreplaceable experience. I am very thankful to the DHRC for enabling this experience. During my time at SJAC, I was put under the instruction of the communications director, which was not my initial expectation. Given that I was the first DHRC-SJAC intern the organization did not have clear expectations for what the role and fellowship would entail this meant that there was some misalignment with the position description and reality. I did not get to work on one of SJACs special projects in a systemic manner or with the President as the position purported. However, I did take the initiative and met with all those working in the office in the form of little coffee chats. During these meetings and at other times I communicated my desire to work on projects or tasks more directly related to human rights and transitional justice thus, I was able to pick up extra work around the office. In hindsight exercising this skill of self-advocacy was very important as it shifted my workload to represent more tasks that I took interest in. My initial coffee chats with staff members were a really excellent way to meet all the workers and get a taste of the different parts of NGO work. It also allowed me to ask questions related to graduate school paths and different programs each employee undertook. 

Going into the office every day allowed me to gain a very concrete sense of how organizations work and the moving pieces that contribute to them. However, some of the more comprehensive work I carried out after asking for further tasks were: compiling a research document that examined agreements/locations where cross-border body exhumations and data sharing had been enacted; creating a list of academics and sources on ISIS disappearance networks (that informed our understanding of how ISIS networks operate which contributed to the Missing Persons Project); writing an open-source report to the U.S. Office of Financial and Asset Control on Abu Amsha (a notorious brigadier and tyrant in Afrin)-- the report detailed his illegal enterprises and human rights abuses; writing an article on the findings about Abu Amsha that was published on the SJAC website; and reaching out to journalists and setting up meetings for our forthcoming report that resulted in a Washington Post Article, al-Arabiya, and the New Arab writing articles the day of publication. The communications work I did entailed editing reports, articles, and manuals; creating weekly mail newsletters; publishing articles to the website; creating Instagram graphics; formulating Twitter and Facebook posts; editing videos; re-coding errors on the website; and completing monthly data collection and analytics M&E. I was also able to sit in on the weekly Missing Person’s meetings where the working group discussed their progress, as well as one of the legal meetings to gauge my interest in the legal field and legal dimension of the work SJAC undertook. I was so excited to complete these tasks and work directly on human rights and transitional justice topics.

I, additionally, attended a congressional hearing on Syria virtually where I took notes and an in-person conference at the Middle East Institute on ISIS detainees (usually women and children) in camps such as al-Roj and al-Hol. The experience not only enriched my understanding of the topic area but also afforded me the opportunity to network with others working in NGOs and Government agencies with a focus on the Middle East. There was a wide variety of speakers from European diplomats, heads of various NGOs, journalists, to national security officials in the U.S. government. The ability to network and be in a professional space was something that I had not been able to do previously, and it allowed me to utilize many of the skills I have learned.

Overall, SJAC was an organization that was so thoroughly connected to the cause it represented and seeing an organization that was making a tangible difference was very refreshing. From running on the ground exhumation teams, working with U.S. authorities, providing documentation training for those in Syria and a database for human rights documentation, investigations, and case building, to transcribing and filing court cases in Europe– the organization has managed to thoroughly involve itself in meaningful ways of addressing justice in Syria. This was one of the biggest takeaways from the internship– that NGOs can and do create change in their focus area. I also was able to explore most of D.C. and would take very long walks every weekend to discover the nooks and crannies of the city. It was an invigorating city filled with a diversity of neighborhoods and people which I appreciated. I am keen to return in the future.”