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Syrian-born, Chicago-raised college grad heads to White House

As a Syrian-born Muslim and Chicago area-raised activist, 23-year-old Alaa Basatneh has risked her life to help others living in war-torn Syria, and yet, here at home, has endured looks of disgust and verbal attacks like "[Bleep] you, go back to your country!" and "You are a [bleep]ing Muslim terrorist."

The insults, looks and remarks have not deterred the recent Northeastern Illinois University graduate. In fact, her resilience landed her an invite from U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) to be a guest Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol, where President Obama will give his last State of the Union address; Obama's speech comes at a time of polarizing debate over whether to allow or block refugees, including Syrians and Muslims, from entry into the U.S. 

Basatneh was happy and honored to get the invite, which she said empowers youth and activists "even though people call themselves politicians, like [Donald] Trump, who are poisoning communities and society with negative rhetoric against Muslims and against people who are trying to do good things in the world."

Obama's annual address to Congress typically offers a recap of his accomplishments and a peek into the president's legislative agenda.

Basatneh's activism started when she was 19 and watching Al-Jazeera coverage of the Syrian revolution, and she saw children imprisoned, tortured and suffering in the country where she was born; her family moved to the U.S. when she was six months old. 

She hopped on her laptop and reached out to activists she found on social media to let them know she spoke Arabic and English and had access to high-speed Internet so she could help raise awareness of what was happening in Syria under President Bashar Assad.

Using the power of the Internet and social networks, she helped activists in Syria organize protests, upload videos and send them to news outlets, and connect activists to one another and to the media. Her work was the focus of the award-winning "#chicagoGirl" documentary screened a few months ago in Washington, D.C., where she met Quigley.

"I have friends that died, that were killed by the Syrian regime by sniper bullets and these friends were protesting on the street," said Basatneh, who lives in suburban Des Plaines. "I want the kids to grow up in a country where they have a top-notch education and freedom and democracy."

Despite getting threats on Facebook from the Syrian regime, she brought to Syria medication supplied by doctors in the Midwest, even walking over a minefield and risking her life to reach liberated areas of Syria twice in 2012. A third trip got canceled after she received a death threat by an extremist group.

On Tuesday, she'll be meeting with politicians and human rights organizations and doing media interviews in which she plans to draw attention to how people are dying of starvation in the blockaded town of Madaya just outside the Syrian capital, Damascus.

"The more people talk about it, the more, hopefully, international action, the international community will do something about it," she said.

At home, too, attitudes need to change. She and others have had to fend off anti-Muslim comments. "I should not be treated as if I'm a terrorist or doing something hateful or wrong in my own society just because I have a headscarf on my head," Basatneh said.

Quigley said Basatneh's work should be a symbol to the nation and a model for others—that's why he invited her. "By attending President Obama's State of the Union Address, I hope that Alaa's story can help inspire love and compassion over fear and discrimination," he is quoted as saying in a news release.

Copyright © 2016, RedEye
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