Last night, after weeks of postponing a vote, the University of California, Irvine's student government passed legislation calling for the immediate removal of Syria's honorary consul general Dr. Hazem Chehabi from the school's board of trustees. Inside the student center's Moss Cove Room, a crowd of more than 40 students and community members gathered as council members deliberated for nearly an hour and a half before finally voting in favor of the legislation just after 7 p.m.
Students criticized Chehabi's ties with the university, saying that he represents a brutal government crackdown that has left 8,000 Syrian people dead since the uprising started just one year ago.
"We're not asking him to step down [as consular general]," said fourth-year student Aminah Galal. "We want the university to cut ties with the regime."
University officials don't necessarily see it that way. In an emailed statement, UCI Chancellor Michael Drake cited Chehabi as a Newport Beach doctor, and active, longtime supporter of the university. A few years ago, Chehabi donated $1 million to the UCI Foundation.
"We understand the feelings of our students, but directing this resolution at Dr. Chehabi is not the answer," Drake said in his statement. "From what we have seen, his volunteer community work as honorary consul is on behalf of the Syrian-American people, not the government. He has worked to keep channels of communication open between those living here and their friends and family there."
Student council members met with Chehabi a day earlier, but some members criticized the meeting as non-transparent; Chehabi requested that it be a closed meeting and didn't allow any form of audio or video recording to take place.
"I'm appreciative of hearing Chehabi's side," said council member Nicole Hisatomi. "But [the meeting] was rushed and secretive. It wasn't possible for me to go to the meeting. . . . We didn't receive a transcript of the meeting."
Council members who attended the closed meeting with Chehabi said his position with the Syrian government was unpaid and that he claimed he wasn't affiliated with Syrian President Bashar Al-Asaad. During the meeting, Chehabi also took pains to make clear that he denounced any killing and violence in Syria.
"He never directly stated he was against the Syrian regime," co-author of the legislation Michelle Vasquez told council representatives who weren't present at the meeting with Chehabi. "When you vote for this legislation, remember what it says, that we don't want to be represented by a man who represents the Syrian regime."
Chehabi condemned the students calling for him to step down as Islamic fundamentalists, according to students present at the meeting. The vote to call for Chehabi's dismissal from the board of trustees passed by a strong majority; 15 students voted in favor of the vote, with four abstentions and no votes against the resolution.
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Students are vowing they'll continue to pressure the administration until it actually removes Chehabi, something the school has made no indication it will do or is even considering.
"We could be really happy, but this is not even a quarter of the battle," said Vasquez. "Now our biggest issue is that these are just words. How are we going to keep administration accountable? Now we have to make sure they follow through and take action."