BEIRUT: Syrian opposition activists have started a petition urging Columbia University to rescind the admission of Sheherazade Jaafari, daughter of Syria’s envoy to the U.N., arguing that she was admitted due to her political connections, and criticizing her support of her country's brutal crackdown.
The petition, which has been circulating on Facebook and other social networking sites, says, “We believe the prestige of Columbia University is at stake, and must be preserved from being tainted by allowing the admission of a well-known aide and direct advisor to the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad.”
In an email to CNN, included in an article published Friday, Jaafari denied she was an aide to Assad.
“Unfounded reports published recently have wrongfully claimed that I was the aide of the President of Syria. I want to make clear that I have never served as a President[ial] aid[e] to the President of Syria,” she said.
She added, “I am nothing but a victim [of] some personal agendas.”
Sheherazade Jaafari, 22-year-old daughter of Syrian ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari, was accepted by the Ivy League university earlier this month. Earlier, it had been revealed that her application had gotten “special attention” because of her close friendship with ABC’s Barbara Walters, for whom she helped secure a news interview with the Syrian president.
The interview, which was aired in December, got widespread international attention for Assad’s defense of his policy in the face of the popular uprising, which began in March 2011 and has so far claimed more than 14,000 lives. Assad insisted throughout the interview that he had not issued orders to kill civilians.
"We don't kill our people ... no government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person," Assad said. He said later in the interview, "There was no command to kill or be brutal."
Assad was reportedly angry with Walters’ aggressive questions, leading him to dismiss Jaafari as a media adviser. She then apparently sought Walters’ help in being admitted to Columbia.
In a personal email exchange, leaked by Syrian activists to the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Jafaari wrote to the 82-year-old television news veteran, “I applied for Columbia and I hope to get accepted. If there is any way you think you can give my application a push I would really really appreciate it. You did mention that you know a professor there... I will buy you some jewelry from Syria. Let me know if you need anything else from there!”
She signed off as “Your daughter.” Walters, in turn would often end her messages with “Hugs.”
Walters then sent a message to her friend, Richard Wald, a journalism professor at Columbia: “Hi there. This young woman, whose resume is attached, is the [daughter] of the Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. She helped arrange my interview with Assad. She is only 21 but had his ear and his confidence. I have recommended her as an intern to your son for Piers Morgan. She is applying to Columbia School of Journalism. She is brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages. Anything you can do to help?”
Wald responded, “The degree she is applying for is not in the journalism school but in international affairs. However, through the admissions office network, I will get them to give her special attention. I am sure they will take her.”
Walters later apologized for pulling strings for her young friend, calling her actions a “conflict of interest.” But Wald was much less contrite, saying that what had occurred was not unusual.
“We get many similar requests,” Wald told The New York Post. “I would forward any from a prominent journalist.”
The university defended its decision, saying it had admitted her based on the standard procedure of reviewing her application.
“There have been various media reports regarding Sheherazad Jaafari’s application to Columbia,” Jesse Gale, the associate dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, wrote in an e-mail. In accordance with the school’s procedures, he wrote, “Ms. Jaafari was admitted to SIPA for the 2012 semester based solely on the submitted application materials.”
Many of those signing the petition, however, are not focusing on Jaafari having gotten special preference in the admissions process, but rather her connection to the Syrian government, which they believe should disqualify her from admission to an institution that purports to support democracy.
“To accept someone who has endorsed and helped [in] covering up the killings of children in Syria will not measure up to the standards of a respectable university [such] as Columbia,” writes Bilal Badawi.
Ibrahim Barbour, another signatory, writes, “Admitting someone who publicly, openly supports a killer. That is low standards.”
So far, there are over 1,500 signatures.