Internet Censorship 3 min. read

Meet Alaa Basatneh, the #ChicagoGirl who helped run the Syrian revolution

Meet Alaa Basatneh, the #ChicagoGirl who helped run the Syrian revolution

At age 18, all I worried about was saving up for a new car. A year later, my priorities changed drastically.

When I was 19, I found myself in the middle of facilitating a revolution 6,000 miles away, from behind my laptop in Chicago. At age 20, I walked across a (literal) minefield for 30 minutes to smuggle medication to kids and the elderly in northern Syria. This may all sound crazy, and I suppose it was, but it’s also more doable than you might think when armed with fast WiFi, a VPN, and plenty of dedication.

I was six months old when my parents moved to Chicago from Damascus, Syria. I found my identity between two clashing worlds—the mighty liberal West and the rich traditional Middle East; growing up and identifying as an Arab American Muslim female wasn’t easy. I’ll go into those stories in upcoming posts.

But for now, let’s stick to the basics. A few years ago I was caught up in helping facilitate and organize the Syrian revolution against Assad’s regime; meanwhile I was also a full-time political science undergraduate student and a part-time Arabic teacher at a local community center in the suburbs of Chicago.

My work was highlighted in the award-winning documentary #ChicagoGirl, which aired in over 40 countries on Fusion, Al Jazeera, Netflix, and is currently on iTunes. You might want to pause reading here, watch the trailer and come back.

It was hard for me to live a normal life of a teenager. I couldn’t spend my day meeting up with friends at the mall knowing children, citizen journalists, and protesters were being detained, tortured and even killed for demanding freedom and democracy.

That’s when I made up my mind to dedicate my life to helping people on the ground dying for freedom and luxuries that I’ve had all my life in Chicago. I found myself spending more than 10 hours of my day online helping activists organize protests, translating protest banners into English, and evacuating entire villages before bombardment. I took it upon myself to build awareness of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, and advocating for human rights became my ultimate goal.

I vividly remember in August of 2011, when a fellow activist and protester, Omar from Homs, reached out and asked me for a VPN login to access social media platforms. He needed to post videos of protests and get in contact with journalists in Europe. Initially, I was puzzled and ashamed for not knowing what a VPN was, and that it’s vital to bypass censorship and online restrictions imposed by governments. Having Googled it, and discovered how VPNs were commonly utilized by protesters and activists throughout the Arab Spring, my relationship with Hotspot Shield began.

Unfortunately, Omar was later shot and killed by an Assad army sniper during a protest.

Meet Alaa Basatneh

Joe Piscatella, the director of the documentary #ChicagoGirl, put me in touch with one of the movie’s executive producers, which happened to be David Gorodyansky, the CEO of AnchorFree (makers of Hotspot Shield VPN). Gorodyansky generously provided me with free Hotspot Shield subscriptions to many of my contacts on the ground in Syria, enabling them to access the internet securely without worrying about Syrian police and intelligence forces tracking their IP address online.

My human rights advocacy and activism got me numerous awards and landed me a bunch of articles in international newspapers and magazines globally, but my favorite—something I always like to brag about—is being named Human Rights Defender of the Year 2014 by Amnesty International in The Hague.

AnchorFree perfectly aligns with my passions. As a company that embraces the notion of an unrestricted internet for all, free from censorship — enabling access to the world’s information regardless of where you live — I now proudly call AnchorFree home. Our missions are intertwined and our goal is to make positive change around the globe possible.

To sum it all up, if you care about current events, human rights advocacy, internet security, and privacy then stay tuned to my posts and videos in the upcoming weeks. I’m excited to be at AnchorFree and looking forward to sharing more stories with you soon.

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