Columbia University has stumbled into an international scandal by admitting a former aide of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is accused of ordering the massacres of civilians in his country’s escalating civil war.
Sheherazad Jaafari worked as a press aide to Assad for three months in 2011, after a stint at the public relations firm Brown Lloyd James (BLJ helped Assad’s wife, Asma, get a fawning profile in Vogue). Her father, also named Bashar, is the Syrian envoy to the United Nations.
Last month, Jaafari gained acceptance into Columbia’s prestigious School of International and Public Affairs, or SIPA, a hothouse for Americans and foreigners seeking jobs in diplomacy, public administration, foreign aid and intelligence (a.k.a. espionage).
Brilliant or a virus?
Syrians in America have responded with outrage. “Jaafari is a virus that needs to be kicked out of the university,” Bara Sarraj told Latitude News.
Sarraj, who now lives in Chicago, was imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime in the 1980’s. “Her admission was based on connection, not merit, and paid for with money stolen from the Syrian people,” he added.
Sherry, as she prefers to be called, had help from an unusual source: Barbara Walters. The two women met at a cocktail party last year and Jaafari subsequently arranged for Walters to interview Assad on ABC in December, 2011.
You can watch an excerpt from their conversation here.
According to Lebanon’s Daily Star, Assad was infuriated by Walter’s aggressive questioning and fired Jaafari. Walters later asked her friend, Columbia journalism professor Richard Wald, to support Jaafari’s application to SIPA.
Flirting with the dictator
Wald wrote back saying he would ask the admission office to give the young woman “special attention” and added that he was “sure they would take her,” the Star reported.
Jaafari told Britain’s The Telegraph the importance of her work with Assad has been overblown and that she is “a victim of personal agendas.” But anti-regime hackers have released flirty e-mail exchanges between the two that seem to tell a different story.
Some believe that Jaafari’s family ties alone should have disqualified her from being admitted. “Syria is run by a mafia family,” said Sarab Al-Jijakli, co-founder of the New York-based National Alliance for Syria. “It has been for forty years. Jaafari, the UN envoy, is a close ally. Their entire family is very close to the Assad family. They are the arm that is spinning what’s happening in the country to the outside world.”
Ms. Jaafari certainly seems to have been a consummate spin doctor. In other e-mails leaked to The New York Post, she tells Assad that “the American psyche can be easily manipulated” and recommends blaming the violence in Syria on terrorists and “armed gangs.”
Ala Sassila, secretary of the Syrian American Council in Chicago, told Latitude News that Columbia is sending the wrong message to the Syrian people: “Everyone says they are standing with us but the reality is no. When it comes to reality we have been abandoned. Columbia University is a liberal school, an elite school. This is the time to prove to the world that they stand behind their values.”
His group has sent a letter to Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, urging him to rescind Jaafari’s application.
An online petition making the same demand has received more than 1,600 signatures in six days.
In an e-mail to LatitudeNews, Jesse Gale, SIPA’s associate dean of communications, wrote that the school shares the world’s “deep concerns about the violence engulfing Syria.” She added that no applicant receives special treatment and that anyone making a claim about the likely outcome for any particular individual does not have “an accurate understanding of the admissions process.”
Somebody better tell Professor Wald.