Helpless or helpful? Syrian-Americans reach out from afar

A civil war up close and far away

By Nicholas Nehamas

Since an anti-government uprising began in their homeland last year, Syrian-Americans have watched the revolution with a mixture of excitement and fear, hoping for a Damascus Spring like those in Cairo, Tunis and Benghazi.

Instead, they’re witnessing one of the first great humanitarian crises of the 21st century, as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad allegedly massacre opponents of his regime.

It’s a terrible position to be in, Syrian-Americans told Latitude News.

Thanks to the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, they are able to watch the turmoil as it happens. Many have family and friends who remain in the country. But despite the seeming proximity of the crisis, there’s not a whole lot they can do to make it better.

Coming to America

Bara Sarraj came to this country fleeing the brutality of Syria’s government. Sarraj, a transplant immunologist who now lives in Chicago, said he was arbitrarily jailed and tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, for twelve years in the 1980s and early 1990s. “I have no idea why they arrested me,” he told Latitude News in an earlier interview.“I wasn’t active in any way, I was just a student.”

Bara Sarraj in Chicago. Sarraj was imprisoned and tortured by the government of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez. (Bara Sarraj)

Sarraj said Syrians in America who want to contribute to the revolution have found their options limited. “Our response is support by money and media,” he said. “That’s what we can do. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, sending money to charities. We don’t have any other route to follow.”

Others express a similar frustration. “I attend rallies, try to be vocal and talk with the media,” said Lama Hamoudi, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas who was born in Damascus. “But I’m outside. I don’t live the danger. I cannot say that I do a lot, especially when I look at the people inside.”

Hamoudi was ambivalent about the regime before moving to America six years ago. She said her family, which belongs to the same Alawite minority sect as the Assads, was in favor of the status quo. “But after coming to the States and doing my studies, I read politics and history,” she explained. “It shaped me and put me on the side that I feel I am on now: against oppression anywhere on the planet. Against dictatorship. Against the repression of the people.”

Life in the Camps

Some Syrian-Americans find that their talents have allowed them to contribute closer to their old home. Dr. Mazen Rachid, a Damascus-born pediatrician who’s lived in Chicago for 22 years, recently spent a week at a camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

A Syrian boy climbs a gate at a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border. By the end of May, the UN estimated that at least 500,000 people had fled their homes in Syria. (Reuters)

“People have been in these camps for one year at least now,” Dr. Rachid said. “They are sick. They want food and medicine, something to stop their suffering, something to stop the killing. They want to go back home to Syria. That’s what they kept telling us: ‘Please help us to go back home.’ They need American support, Western support, to stop the killing.”

Rachid added that reports in Turkey said Syrian forces have been targeting doctors who treat anti-regime protestors, jailing around 200 and killing 50.

What can the West do?

No one interviewed for this article was eager for a Western military invasion of Syria. “I don’t want Syria to end up like Afghanistan,” said Hamoudi, though she added that people under constant threat in Syria might feel differently.

Instead, anti-regime Syrian-Americans hope a “no-fly zone” enforced by NATO or UN aircraft could help end the bloodshed. But prospects for international cooperation look bleak. Russia, Assad’s only major ally, is blocking any action against Syria in the UN Security Council and through other diplomatic channels. And Assad appears to be saber rattling on the prospect of a no-fly zone. Last week, Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet that Syria accused of violating its airspace.

The United States has ruled out military action, but reports suggest the CIA is providing intelligence to the Free Syrian Army, the military arm of opposition groups inside the country, and arranging arms shipments to them from other Arab nations.

A diversity of opinion?

The Washington Post estimates there are between 400,000 – 500,000 Syrian-Americans living in the U.S. It’s impossible to tell how many of them oppose Assad, but some purportedly come to the U.S. with Assad’s support.

Hazem Chehabi served as Syria’s honorary consul-general in California for 18 years. After the Houla massacre in late May, he resigned his post in protest. But in The Los Angeles Times, he made it clear that he wasn’t going to become an opposition activist. Chehabi’s ties with the Assad regime have led students to demand he resign his position as chair of the UC-Irvine Foundation.

Other prominent pro-regime Syrians in America include Sheherazad Jaafari, a former press aide to Assad who was recently admitted into Columbia University with a recommendation from Barbara Walters.

And Syria’s violence is starting to spill over into America. In early June, pro- and anti-Assad protestors got into a large brawl in midtown Manhattan. You can watch a video of the fight recorded by reporter Nizar Abboud below.

Who is the opposition?

Few of the activists we talked to said they fear reprisals. But last October, American authorities arrested a Virginia resident for gathering information on anti-regime protestors and passing it to Syrian intelligence.

Sarab Al-Jijakli, co-founder of the New York-based National Alliance for Syria, told Latitude News that he has heard of the “Assad regime pushing their supporters here to pressure and threaten Syrian activists in the United States.”

The Assad government has always claimed that its opponents are radical Islamic terrorists or “armed gangs.” Without the current government, officials argue, rebels would turn on Syria’s Alawite and Christian minorities, a narrative that has played out in Egypt and neighboring Iraq.

Not all Syrian Christians agree. The Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, who lived in Syria for 30 years, was recently expelled from the country for supporting the revolution.

Hiam Altali — a Syrian mother, student, and activist who’s lived in Worcester, Massachusetts for 14 years — describes her homeland as tolerant and multicultural. “I am Christian and I lived all my life with Muslim neighbors and Muslim friends and Muslim students,” she said, “and I never felt that they looked at me in a different way. We never heard of Salafis in Syria before the revolution. I believe it’s a lie. Assad made this lie. We’ve always lived as brothers, different religions and different peoples.”

An interconnected world

Assad’s hard-core supporters in Syria are fellow members of his minority Alawite sect. Many have joined militias that UN observers believe are responsible for the worst massacres in the crisis.

Villagers in Mazraat al-Qubeir bury their dead in May 2012. At least 78 civilians were killed in a massacre allegedly committed by Syrian troops and irregular Alawite militiamen. (Reuters)

Hamoudi, who is also Alawite, told Latitude News that her co-religionists have long felt victimized in Syria, first by the Ottoman Turks, then by local Sunnis. She said that when Bashar’s father took over in 1970, he gave Syrian Alawites the message that “you are alive only because of me.”

Reports suggest Syria is heading for civil war, as Alawites remain convinced that the end of the regime will mean the beginning of reprisals against them. In the Syrian diaspora, those reprisals may have already started: The Australian reports that an Alawi man was shot in Sydney after “a heated Facebook exchange” about Assad. Opponents of the regime are also believed to have firebombed an Alawi prayer room in Melbourne.

Hamoudi argues that sectarian conflict is exactly what the regime is banking on to survive. She and others also expressed fears that, as the Syrian crisis devolves into bloody stalemate, people in the West will grow used to the violence.

“This is a human issue,” Hamoudi said, “What’s happening in Syria concerns us as much as what’s happening here in America. We are all human. We always let borders and nationalities separate us, and say this isn’t our issue. But we are so close to each other as people in the end. ”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story referred to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as “the major opposition group inside the country.” In fact, political resistance to the Assad regime is led by the  Local Coordinating Committees of Syria (LCCS), an umbrella organization of smaller groups. The FSA is the military arm of the Syrian opposition.