Syrians in America turn to technology to help their countryman get message out

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Muna Jandal, who lives in Flint, Mich., is one of several Syrian-Americans getting pictures and videos from Syria out to the wider world. (Photo by Assia Boundaoui.)

Story from PRI's The World. Listen to the above audio for a complete report.

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The UN estimates that nearly 3,500 people have been killed in Syria since the revolution began there eight months ago.

Unlike in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the Syrian revolution is not being televised – but it is on YouTube.

A loose knit group of cyber activists made up of Syrian expats from around the world, have smuggled satellite phones, laptops, and high-definition video cameras into Syria and smuggled information and videos out.

Activists have even launched their own online news channel. They call it the Shaam News Network, after the Arabic name for the Levant region.

“Sham News Network was inspired by what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. A lot of the founders were from Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution, and our goal was to show the world what the regime was doing,” said Anas, whose last is being withheld to protect his safety.

Anas is one of dozens of activists based in Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago who upload and verify videos, host servers, and coordinate and dispatch citizen-journalists on the ground. Another is Muna Jondy, a Syrian living in Flint, Mich.

In addition to getting satellite phones smuggled into Syria, she’s one of the main curators and moderators for the Syrian Days of Rage Facebook page. It’s one of the most popular English-language websites for the Syrian Revolution. It gets more then 16 million visitors each month.

“We worked shifts, I had the nine to midnight shift,” Jondy said. "Twitter is a big source of information, following SNC members, bloggers, they have links to what was going on. We had to post twice an hour. Fridays are particularly heavy days. Syria is literally the first virtual revolution. We know day to day in each city what exactly is happening, we’re seeing it on a daily basis despite the media ban, because the Syrian revolutionaries are making sure that everything gets out."

Jondy was born and raised in the US, but her father’s family is from Daraa. She said while she’s had little communication over the years with her family in Syria, things really hit home after a tragic event involving her uncle.

"They show up to one of my uncle’s house and they came to take his 16-year-old son and he was basically begging them, please don’t take him. He’s older, he’s 70 years old, he’s frail.,” Jondy said. “Basically they just beat him, they took their guns and beat him on the head. They really beat him bad until he was in a coma. Because he was saying to them ‘please, my son, leave him. I’m as old as your father, have some respect.’ So they just beat him.”

Jondy’s uncle was beaten to death by security forces, and she said his killing spurred her family to become even more active in the revolution. While her cousins back in Daraa are on the ground protesting, Jondy has taken up the role of online activist.

“The reality is that there’s these hundreds of thousands of people that are on the street, and they’re being attacked, they’re limited in what they can do and how they can organize,” Jondy said. “So there are all of these Syrian activists on the outside that are like we have mobility, we have the ability to speak to government representatives, we have the ability to provide finances, so to me the relationship is support of the revolution.”

Many expats have similar stories about the violence against family members and activists – sometimes leading to death – at the hands of the regime’s security services.

Khalid Saleh lives in Dearborn, Mich. He was appointed by the revolutionary council of his hometown of Deir Azzor to be one of their representatives.

“I think some of the activists working outside don’t necessarily feel the pain of the revolutionaries on the inside,” he pointed out. "To them its like 10 people died today, 20 people died after. It’s a lot different for me when I talk to someone at night, and I try to call him in the morning and he is gone.”

And that’s why a lot of the activists – in and outside of Syria – keep their identities secret. Cyber activist Anas says he’s well aware of the danger the citizen journalists put themselves in every day to get him information.

“It wasn’t an easy commitment to commit and say, 'OK, I’m going to send you pictures and videos and tell you about what’s going on,' ” Anas admited. “At least 8 to 10 people lost their lives, some of them were captured and were on Syrian TV admitting their relationship with Shaam News Network.”

Despite this, Anas says the time for fear and anonymity is over. He says sharing his own identity openly for the first time is indicative of a turning point in the Syrian Revolution.

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PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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