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UConn alumnus and journalist shares experiences in Turkey

By Marissa Piccolo
On March 31, 2014

  • UConn Police arrested a student on Fairfield way, beside the student fires started in the celebrations burn. Courtesy of Sarah Walewski

A University of Connecticut alumna was tired of reading news coverage of the conflict in Syria, so he decided to get closer by going to the Syrian-Turkish border.
"I didn't feel like I was getting a good or full view of the conflict from the media, so I went to see it for myself," Diego Cupolo, CLAS Journalism '06, said.
Cupolo shared his experiences as a volunteer school teacher for Syrian refugees in Turkey at a UConn4Syria event on Friday.
Cupolo, an independent journalist, said he likes to immerse himself in the stories he covers, in lieu of collecting quotes and sound bites from major media sources that may be biased and deceiving. After working in Latin America, reporting the history of nations that overthrew dictatorships a few decades ago, Cupolo knew that the same situation was happening in Syria now, and he was drawn to go. Cupolo volunteered for five weeks at a school in Reyhanli, an agricultural town and refugee camp on the Syrian border, for the organization A Heart for Syria. Along the way, he documented the personal accounts of refugees through writing and photography.
While in Turkey, Cupolo was able to form his own narrative of the situation. He said although the conflict started in the name of democracy and the Arab Spring, it is now a different war. Islamist extremists manipulating the revolutionary fervor to achieve their own ends and Kurds fighting for self-determination have complicated the war on multiple levels, he said. It is a grudge match between Saudi Arabia and Iran for Middle Eastern dominance that will shape the future of the region. In general, support for the opposition and rebel forces is provided by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the Untied States - while Iran, China, and Russia are on the side of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Yet when Cupolo was volunteering in school, it was not the politics that mattered, but the children he encountered everyday.
"That's the environment I was working in: just doing arts and crafts," Cupolo said.
He did whatever he could to distract the children, who he found were naturally as energetic and playful as any American child.
As one of the only people at the school from a democratic nation, teachers asked him one week to lead a school "democracy" project to demonstrate to students what their government will hopefully look like after the war. Democracy was an abstract concept to students, as Syrian leaders banned talks of self-organization, however he said he successfully established the school's first student council elections.
Although Cupolo did whatever he could through school activities to relieve some tension from the war that has been raging on for three years in their backyard, he acknowledged there was an undeniable emptiness some of the kids harbored that was difficult to connect with and fix. He occasionally had to break up fights between students who were frustrated and psychologically confused. It was common to see students back at school after relatives had been kidnapped or murdered over the weekend.
"What do you do when someone tells you this information?" Cupolo asked, "I'm like you. I came from UConn and never had much death in my family."
Cupolo added that Syrian children were happier everyday they came to school and were part of a community and a solid foundation.
Throughout the presentation, Cupolo introduced the people he met and profiled in his book, "Seven Syrians," and said he was taken aback by their welcome.
"They invite you to share the little that they have; it's a different kind of hospitality," Cupolo said.
After hearing so many of their stories as refugees and political prisoners, Cupolo knew he wanted to write a book to capture the magnitude of the content, complications and emotions in a way an article could not. Syria currently has the current largest refugee population in the world, which is the largest since the Rwandan Genocide. Refugees take space wherever they can find it, whether UN-funded camps such as the one in Reyhanli near the school, or even the remains of half-bombed buildings. Nearly half of these refugees are children, which Cupolo believes proves just how pervasive and long lasting the consequences of this war and Syrian displacement will be.
"Refugees that come out of Syria are some of the happiest people, the ones stuck here are facing the worst circumstances," Cupolo said. "Unless you have a gun, there is no place for civilians in Syria. You're just in the middle of the crossfire."
The village Cupolo worked in was on the border Turkish border with Syria and although conditions were much safer in Turkey than in Syria, it was still a challenging place to be a photographer. Not only were locals suspicious of a foreigner holding a large camera, but it was difficult on an emotional level as well, he said.
"We have some responsibility as humans who feel emotions," Cupolo said, "When you see this stuff happening, that's when I get angry."
Cupolo's book, "Seven Syrians: War Accounts from Syrian Refugees," which includes his photography as well, is available through, Barnes&Noble and other retailers. Profits form his book are given to the non-profit A Heart for Syria.

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