Syrian Americans join the revolution at home

The YouTube revolution stirs a community of exiles

By Michael May

Syrian Americans demonstrate outside the United Nations in New York. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

Syrians began immigrating to the United States in the late 1800s. The first wave came in search of prosperity and assimilated quickly. But after 1971, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, came to power, many Syrians started coming for another reason: they were fleeing an increasingly brutal regime. Of the more than 64 thousand Syrians that immigrated between 1961-2000, 10 per cent officially came as refugees and many more as unofficial refugees.


For first and second generation Syrian Americans, the current uprising has reopened old wounds, as well as a fear that history could be repeating itself. But it’s also the first time in decades that they have an opportunity to fight back openly against the rulers that forced them out. Here are the stories of two Syrian Americans who have answered the call.

Arrested Without Warning

You would never guess the brutally painful past of Bara Sarraj. These days, Sarraj is an immunologist at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine. He did his post-graduate studies at Harvard. For years, he rarely spoke of his life in Syria.

But the revolution has changed that. “A year ago, I didn’t want to talk about my experience,” he says. “Words can’t describe what I went through. Even the word “fear” feels inadequate. But when the events started in Syria, I felt a race against time. I felt like I must do it.”

Sarraj testifies to a grim reality; Syria did not just begin brutalizing its people last year.

On March 5, 1984 Sarraj was a 21-year old college student studying electrical engineering in Damascus. Approaching the university, he saw that security forces were questioning students as they entered the building.  He waited in line, feeling sorry for whomever they were looking for. As he walked through the doors, he heard a man call him by name. His heart sank. He wouldn’t return to school or see his family for 12 years. “I have no idea why they arrested me,” he says. “I wasn’t active in any way, I was just a student.”

He was imprisoned at the notorious Tadmor prison, where dissidents were held. This was a bloody time in Syria. A few years before, in 1980, Assad’s forces had marched into Tadmor and executed 1000 prisoners in retaliation for an assassination attempt on the president. In 1982, the government leveled the city of Hama, a stronghold for the opposition. It’s estimated that between 10 and 40 thousand civilians were killed.

Sarraj now found himself labeled the enemy of an extraordinarily ruthless state. At Tadmor, torture and executions were part of the daily routine. Sarraj says that around 11 thousand prisoners were killed during the time he was held there.

There are not many Syrians who lived to recount their experiences at the prison. But Sarraj’s family, who left for the United States,

Bara Sarraj in Chicago (WBEZ/Joe Linstroth)

lobbied hard to get him released. Senator Edward Kennedy wrote a letter to the Assad regime asking for his release. And, in 1995, he was let go. Within a year he was on a plane to America.

From Tadmor to Harvard

He went back to school in the United States, and he excelled. He didn’t talk about his experience at Tadmor much, but he told the independent Arab news site Jadaliyya that it was in the back of his mind, even during his decision to go to Harvard. “I wanted to prove to my mother that I was not a wasted life. I wanted my family go back to normal. And I wanted to send a message of defiance to the intelligence heads Ali Douba, Hisham Ikhtiyar, and Hafez al-Assad himself: I am doing fine.”

It was only last year, 15 years after his release, that he started to speak openly about his ordeal. He wrote a memoir, in Arabic, called From Tadmor to Harvard, which he published online. He hopes that somehow, by recounting the past, he can aid the current uprising. “Every day for the past 50 years Syrians were getting tortured and killed,” he says. “Now we’re exposing to the world what’s been going on.”

“The same officers who oversaw the massacres of 1980 are doing this,” he says. “The problem is the Syrian intelligence. If Assad goes but they don’t, it would be just a façade change. The litmus test is if I can go to Damascus and feel safe. If not, then nothing has changed.”

Sarraj is speaking out, as well as organizing fundraisers to help victims of Assad. The regime has, over the years, been known to target its opposition outside Syria. “I don’t think that will happen here,” he says. “But when I leave campus I am alert.”

Growing up exiled

Mohja Kahf, a poet, novelist and professor at the University of Arkansas, came to the United States in 1971. Her father was part of the Muslim Brotherhood, an allegiance which would later become a capital crime under the Assad regime. Her parents saw the writing on the wall. They got student visas, packed up their belongings and never returned.

When the Syrian revolution began last year, Kahf says she and her family began to wake from “long term despair and numbness over Syria.” This wasn’t easy for some relatives. She describes an aunt who lives in the United States but still lowers her voice when she talks about the Assad regime. Even though this Aunt had seen members of her family killed,  Kahf says that she still says “it wasn’t the president, but bad men around him.”

Kahf was outraged. “I felt, ‘It’s like they’ve lobotomized you,” says Kahf. “It’s not just that people were opposed from the outside. People’s minds have been changed from within, and you see it in the mental acrobats that people do to rationalize what’s happened.”

But Kahf says there’s a significant difference this time. Before, the Assad regime could suppress information about the repression and massacres. This time, the revolution is armed with cellphones and YouTube.

The YouTube revolution

Ask Kahf about her experiences since the uprising began, and she’ll build a timeline around particular videos.  Her own awakening began on February 22, 2011 when she watched a video of a candlelight vigil in front of the Libyan embassy in Damascus, and chanting, in reference to Gaddafi, “Traitor, he who kills his own people!”

Kahf was amazed to see people protesting in solidarity with the Arab Spring. She wrote a post on her blog, saying of the three women that it was like they were singing to save their own lives. And one of the women in the video answered: yes, that’s exactly how we felt. “Tears poured down my face,” says Kahf. “All this pain just came to the surface.”

Soon, Kahf was on a mission to get her friends and family involved. It wasn’t easy. One of her Syrian friends, who had left the country in the 1980s, just looked at her blankly when she asked what they thought about events in Syria. “I said, ‘You had two brothers shot by the regime!,” she says. “How can you ignore this?”

“They responded, ‘We hid for three weeks while soldiers were looking for us. We put Syria away,’” recalls Kahf. “I said, “No, you have to take it out!” And now they’re on board.”

On Feb. 2, Kahf’s daughter, Banah Ghadbian, posted a video on YouTube. It begins, “I am a Syrian girl that has never been to Syria.” And goes on to recount her family’s exile from their home. It’s gotten more than 25,000 views and has hosted a vibrant discussion on YouTube with pro-regime voices taking part as well as people opposed to Assad.

A few days later, Kahf posted her own video, in Arabic.

She got mixed reactions. “Some said they didn’t like my style, that I was too much of a diva,” she says. “Well, I’m a slam poet! Others kept saying, ‘You are in Arkansas, you have no right to make demands of people in Syria.”

Then, in March 2011, a YouTube video surfaced that shocked the Syrian diaspora. It showed protestors who had been shot down on a rain-slicked street in Damascus. Kahf says that after that, a lot Syrian Americans “came on board.”

And then, last summer, Kahf decided to do what once seemed unthinkable. She headed to Syria. Or more accurately, she headed towards Syria. To Turkey. With her daughter and several other relatives. The goal was to bring supplies to Syrian refugees there, as well as be a witness to stories from the opposition.

She recounted her story in a piece titled, “The Daughters’ Road to Syria.

Visiting wounded Syrians in a Turkish hospital. On the left, Kahf’s daughter Banah Ghadbian & friend Mariam Jalabi. On the right, Mohja Kahf with her brother-in-law Hamza Ghadban. (Courtesy of Mohja Kahf)

They went to Antakya, Turkey, where Syrian refugees were fleeing across the border. As they met with opposition activists, it became clear that there were also Syrian officials in Antakya. Then, her brother-in-law, a well-known opposition journalist, told her that he’d found out that Syrian agents had told smugglers that they would receive a million dollars each for bringing Kahf, her daughter or her brother-in-law to authorities in Syria.

“My initial reaction was catch me if you can,” Kahf says. “That sounds full of braggadocio, but it brought out inner warrior. It brought that out, but having my daughter sobered me up.” Soon after hearing the rumor, she began to get phone calls from strangers asking to meet. She and her daughter were soon on a plane back to Arkansas.

The revolution begins at home

Since returning, Kahf has been focused on organizing Syrian Americans to support the revolution. “A lot of Syrian Americans who have been here for decades say, “Write your congressperson,” she says. “I think that’s old school. I think you need to do the work. I’ve been asking people to publicize the names of prisoners, translate opposition documents and videos, circulate petitions, and hold protests to lift morale in Syria. We need to show them that they’re not alone.”

And she’s spent time arguing with folks she considered her allies, the American left. “I’ve found common ground with them on the Iraq War,” she says. “Now they say, this is just an excuse for another war. No, this is supporting a wide spread indigenous movement for regime change, dignity and social justice.”

She’s also helped distribute a list called, “13 Ways to Support the Syrian Opposition,” that includes pressing Arabic-language satellite TV to broadcast documentaries on nonviolent resistance, organizing targeted boycotts of Syrian businesses and encourage the opposition to stick to non-violent civil disobedience. “Violence is the regime’s game,” she says. “We will win with brains.”

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