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Rajaa Altalli, a Professor of Practice at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, as well as a former Sergio Vieira de Mello Endowed Visiting Chair and a Fellow in the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, spoke to the sophomore class of Seton Hall University’s Buccino Leadership Institute on September 18. Altalli focused on sharing her experiences advocating for increased participation of women in governmental affairs in Syria through her co-founding of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy (CCSD). In the time around her Seton Hall visit, Altalli was in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in which she spoke about challenges and opportunities Syrian women face while working toward sustainable peace in Syria.
Altalli co-founded CCSD an organization working to support women in Syria, in 2011. Altalli explaind that in each of the three controlled sections of Syria, she and the CCSD have held dialogues that allow women to share stories that encourage participation of women in political settings. These forums are separated into sessions dedicated to “open discussions,” which allow women to share their unique priorities based on the political and social surroundings of their communities, or sessions that focus on bridging the differences between each woman at the forum, allowing each woman to recognize that “teamwork makes the dream work,” as Altalli described.
She went on to explain that it is important that her organization does not approach a community with a CCSD-formed interpretation of that community’s needs, whether they are social or political. Instead, the CCSD approaches each community with an open mind, allowing the women of each community the space to voice their own ideas of their communities’ needs. The effects of COVID-19 in conjunction with the February 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake, for example, have led Syrian women to require extensive healthcare and infrastructure resources, which are not developed within Syria to the extent required. Working to hear the needs of the people includes aiming to include women in conversations about communities’ needs, Altalli explained.
Altalli shared that although it is easy to focus on the negative attributes of situations the CCSD addresses, the CCSD has vast opportunities to make a positive impact within Syria. She explained that she does not engage “too much in the division” of Syria. Between the years of 2011 and 2014, the CCSD worked in conjunction with UN Women to secure a seat in Syrian governmental negotiations. She also prepared a delegation of Syrian women to speak at the UNGA, who eventually brought forth Security Council Resolution 2254. The resolution, announced in December 2015, included that Syrian women are essential to forming responses and actions regarding Syrian affairs.
When asked about a timeline for her overarching goals for herself and her organization, she explained that her origins began as a math student in Syria who pursued a Ph.D. in the U.S. in Applied Mathematics. Her father’s arrest during her childhood due to his political activism led to her resolution in 2011, while she was living in Turkey, to pursue involvement with the movement of women pushing for social and political change in Syria. She explained that immediately after moving to Turkey, she placed upon herself a six-month deadline to reach her goals. Now, she celebrates small successes, as success is nonlinear and often slow to arrive.
Altalli finished her presentation explaining that CCSD and Seton Hall University have a long-standing partnership. She has had many interns from the university at CCSD. She explains that students can work toward CCSD’s cause by learning about and sharing the stories of Syrian women, as well as women from all over the world.
Image courtesy of Flickr