How 15 Syrian American activists blasted digital graffiti onto New York's U.N. building

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For a few brief moments in Manhattan last Friday, the humanitarian crisis in Syria was impossible to ignore.

During rush hour that evening, a projection featuring the words SYRIA IS BURNING and END ASSAD GENOCIDE was blasted onto the facade of the United Nations headquarters.


"It is something we are proud of,” said Ahmad, one of the activists behind the digital graffiti protest, who wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns. "We want to wake the U.N. up,” he said.

Ahmad is from Al-Rakah, Syria, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, and is now based in New Jersey. The projector stunt, video of which was shared exclusively with Fusion, shows how hard young Syrian Americans activists are working to fix the world’s attention on the human-rights violations committed by the Syrian regime and ISIS in Syria.

The 15 activists worked with The Illuminator to pull off the protest. Ahmad said they were motivated by the lack of international intervention in Syria and also increased fatigue within the activist community.


“What we projected is a humanitarian call,” said the mastermind behind the project, who also asked to remain anonymous. “We did not damage any facilities, but at the same time we made sure the art is being seen by many people in downtown Manhattan,” he said. Sure enough, minutes after the group packed up, people were posting pictures on social media of the projections.

The projection opened with a photo of Syria’s oldest citadel in Aleppo, which was built in the 13th century, on fire. The illustration of the burning citadel symbolized the antiquities of Syria being burned and demolished by Assad and ISIS. Then the projection transitioned into a flashing message in capital letters—SYRIA IS BURNING—followed by the clear message END ASSAD GENOCIDE, ending with a hashtag for the public to Google, #FREESYRIA.

Last month, the Syrian regime bombed Al-Quds hospital to the ground and killed the last pediatrician in opposition-held Aleppo. As a result the hashtag #AleepoIsBurning went viral, and people worldwide changed their profile pictures on social media to red to sympathize with the victims of the bombardment. Days later, people went back to normal, stopped talking about Aleppo and reverted to their personal profile pictures. That upset many activists, who are trying to keep the international media focused on the suffering people in besieged cities throughout Syria.


Earlier this month, the U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said that there are “indiscriminate and seemingly calculated” attacks against civilians in Syria.

“We have given up on the politics of addressing the Syrian cause,” said Ahmad to Fusion. The Syrian revolution against President Assad started mid March of 2011. Protesters took to the streets to voice their opposition to Assad’s oppressive regime and were faced with live ammunition and TNT barrel bombs. The international community hasn't done enough to help alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, he said. “Syrians are left by themselves to die. We decided to be creative and mix art with activism to get the world to care,” said Ahmad.


“There is a large proportion of the [U.S.] population who knows nothing about Syria despite almost six years of the conflict,” Ahmad said. Ahmad said that people know about ISIS, but not much about Assad and the human rights violations his regime has been committing. “For those who have heard of Syria, the first thing that comes to mind is ISIS, and the reality is that we have something much bigger and scarier than ISIS. It’s a genocide, it’s Assad the neo-Hitler,” he said.

Many people stopped and asked Ahmad and his friends question about the projections. “I explained to them what is happening in Syria and it’s because of the ineffectiveness of the international organization,” said Ahmad.


“We saw many posts on Snapchat and Instagram of people sitting in their homes and business offices who posted about the projections after they saw it,” he added.

The group of activists, who collaborated together from 5 different states on the project, believe this is freedom of expression. “The U.N was formed with the objective of promoting international cooperation and maintaining peace. Obviously with what's happening in Syria the U.N. failed with those objectives so at least we can use their walls to project a humanitarian message to the world,” said the originator of the stunt who asked to be anonymous.


“I want the whole world to know that there are thousands both inside and outside of Syria who have not given up, and will never give up,” said Ahmad.“Hopefully this will have an impact on the people who are not really aware of the scale of this conflict.”

According to the U.N. the number of casualties killed in Syria to date has reached 400,000.


Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."