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UCI Students Vote to Remove Syrian Regime Loyalist from Board of Trustees

Tasbeeh Herwees |
March 15, 2012 | 10:27 p.m. PDT

Senior Staff Reporter

Hazem Chehabi
Hazem Chehabi
UC Irvine's student government voted in favor of a resolution to call for the resignation of the chair of the UC Irvine Foundation, Syrian-American Hazem Chehabi, for his ties to the embattled Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad in a meeting Thursday night. Chehabi, the Syrian Honorary Consul for Orange County, has refused to make explicit condemnations of the regime for its use of brute force against peaceful protesters. 

The legislation, which calls on UCI administration to remove Chehabi from his post, passed with 15 votes; four student representatives abstained but no one voted against it. 

“We’re not asking him to step down as consul,” said representative Nicole Hisatomi, who voted in favor of the legislation, “All we’re asking is that he stop representing this campus.”

UCI Chancellor Michael Drake responded to calls for Chehabi’s resignation in a statement released in July 2011. “We join the world community in expressing outrage at the continued violence toward unarmed civilians in Syria and in demanding that the violence stop,” he wrote.

The legislation denounces Chahebi’s continued tenure at UCI and argues that Chehabi’s presence on the board is in contradiction to UCI’s dedication to human rights. 

Chehabi, who donated $1 million to the UCI Foundation in 2005, allegedly denounced the killing of innocent civilians but did not implicate the regime and labelled students protesting his presence on the Board of Trustees as “Islamic fundamentalists”. 

During public comment, Syrian American students and members of the Muslim Student Union expressed offense and anger at his comments, likening them to that of the rhetoric of the Assad regime.

“[Chehabi] basically called the people who are protesting [against him] extremists,” said one student, “This is a tactic the dictator Bashar Al-Assad has used against his own people. The international community has not been fooled by this, so I urge you not to be fooled by Hazem Chehabi.”

“I don’t think anyone who disapproves of his family being killed in Syria is an extremist,” said another student at the mic. 

Students also criticized the council for taking a private meeting with Chehabi on Wednesday, where he made a personal appeal to the representatives to vote down the resolution. Representative Hisatomi was not able to attend the private meeting and disapproved of the way it was conducted. 

“I am really disappointed because it was really undemocratic,” said Hisatomi, “It was really rushed and it was really secretive.”

She advised the Council to critically analyze Chehabi’s claims. 

“If you understand his words as fact, that’s a fallacy,” Hisatomi said. 

Those who abstained from voting cited concerns they may not know enough about the Syrian conflict to make an informed opinion, while others, like representative Skyla Zhang, defended Chehabi, and reminded students that it was a dangerous time to be speaking out against the regime. 

Others, like representative Shiv Ghandi, were against the resolution until Chehabi made his remarks calling the students Islamic fundamentalists. 

The UCI student who's leading the campaign to remove Chehabi from his post believes his presence on the Board of Trustees is secured by his donations to the school. Fearing for her family's life back in Syria, she did not want to be identified by name.

“I don’t think our school should be honoring someone who represents a regime that has killed thousands and thousands of people,” she said.”It’s our jobs as students to hold administration accountable.”

Though the Council has no power to remove Chehabi, the resolution calls on the administration to take steps towards his removal in the coming weeks.

Reach reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here.



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