Local student raises voice against Assad

Ellis School senior uses temporary art installations to draw attention to violence in Syria

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At 17, Laila Al-Soulaiman has learned some truths about creating installation art in the public square: Some Pittsburgh neighborhoods are more receptive than others to political statements. Black balloons are effective at getting people's attention. Helium is expensive so it's a good idea to recruit the healthy lungs of your peers.

"With the help of two classmates, we blew up 300 balloons in less than 24 hours. I hadn't slept in like 48 hours," the North Huntingdon resident said.

Thursday afternoon, the Ellis School senior led 10 of her friends and classmates into Schenley Plaza, the grassy Oakland space between Carnegie Library's main branch and the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library.

Their mission was to protest -- in a graphic, visual way -- the violence inflicted on Syrian civilians by a brutal government since violent conflict that has become a civil war erupted there in 2011.

"Over the past 20 months of conflict, I've lost 15 family members," said Ms. Al-Soulaiman, whose father's family lives in a Syrian village called Nawa. She watched the funeral of her 19-year-old cousin on YouTube.

The students drove 300 plastic garden stakes into the ground in a grid, topping them with black balloons. Each of the 300 stakes represented 100 people who have died in Syria since March 2011. Students handed out fliers that compared the death toll of 30,000 Syrians to the population of Monroeville.

A tall, thin young woman whose curly dark hair reaches her waist, Ms. Al-Soulaiman is intense and earnest.

"I realized lately that a lot of Syrians are silent because they are scared of the regime. They don't know if what they say in the U.S. will affect their families in Syria," she said.

The graphic art installation is just one of many projects Ms. Al-Soulaiman has planned this year. She began by talking about Syria's plight to Ellis classmates. Last July, she worked with Global Solutions to host a panel discussion about Syria's conflict at the Carnegie Library's Squirrel Hill branch. Last June, with Ellis classmates, she created installation art on Walnut Street in Shadyside. Last month, she was the only high school student to attend the second annual Envision Arabia Summit, which drew 300 people to New York University.

She believes President Bashar Assad's regime will fall. Afterward, cities and villages must be rebuilt or many refugees will never return to their homeland.

"Some cities have faced large-scale destruction," she said.

Her goal is to establish a nonprofit that links Pittsburgh with the people of Daraa, a small town west of Damascus in southern Syria. After Daraa became the first city to erupt in protest, a swift, harsh crackdown followed. Electricity was cut, and residents could not get bread or water.

David Cerniglia, who is in his first year of teaching English at Ellis, has encouraged Ms. Al-Soulaiman's efforts. He traveled throughout Syria on vacation in 2009 with his wife, Michael-Ann Cerniglia, who teaches history at Sewickley Academy.

"We fell in love with the place and the people," Mr. Cerniglia said, adding that Syrians were warm and welcoming.

He also attended the art installation, which lasted until 4 p.m. Thursday.

The students arrived in Schenley Plaza at noon. As they got to work, a security guard approached and said they needed official permission. "We explained our plans and that the piece would be down in a few hours," said Ms. Al-Soulaiman. "He made a few phone calls, we compromised on the time we would take down the piece, and then we were allowed to install it without problem."

Ms. Al-Soulaiman enjoyed setting up the temporary visual message. "We did it fairly efficiently. I was surprised at how big it actually was. I liked that about it," she said.

Reactions varied.

"People were interested in a fluffy way. Then I would discuss the subject matter. Their facial expressions kind of dropped when they realized that this was sad and serious. I didn't meet anyone who wasn't receptive to the message," Ms. Al-Soulaiman said.

Aside from the fliers, "there wasn't any contextual information around the balloons. That made more people come up and ask," she added.

People were far less interested last summer when she did another temporary art installation on Walnut Street.

"A lot of people didn't want to listen to me. I had bodies shrouded on the sidewalk" -- Ellis classmates wrapped in white sheets near the entrance to Victoria's Secret," she recalled. "They brushed it off as an inconvenience."

But in Oakland last week, Ms. Al-Soulaiman met a Syrian woman who has lived in Pittsburgh for decades. The woman sat underneath the large tent in Schenley Plaza.

"She was just crying. She had come from Syria many years ago. We were talking about how the death toll is continuing to rise. She was so emotional and got up and had to leave. We both acknowledged the fact that what's happening is going to happen for a long time," Ms. Al-Soulaiman said.

Every two weeks, Ms. Al-Soulaiman speaks by telephone with her father, who left his Syrian village in the 1980s to open a restaurant in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

"My father's oldest brother was kidnapped and imprisoned. My father had to send money to Syria to have him released from prison. He was released. He's 63. He had only been in prison for about 10 days," Ms. Al-Soulaiman said, adding that the price for release was $15,000.

Ms. Al-Soulaiman, who was born in Dubai, lived there until age 5. Her parents married in 1990 but later divorced, and in 2001 she returned to the United States with her mother, who grew up in Swissvale.

The young activist remains determined to help people in Syria.

"My dad, who has never been a political person, has gotten so involved. He is extremely vocal. People are dying whether we're doing anything or not. My family members have already died. What does me being silent say for them? Nothing. If I have an opportunity to speak, I'll speak."

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Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com


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