For the last six years, the world has been watching the continuous horror and destruction taking place in Syria. Most recently, we witnessed the first major international move by the Trump administration – and Trump himself; when the U.S. sent tomahawk missiles targeting the Syrian regime’s airbase. For the last 24-48 hours, we’ve all witnessed countless Facebook threads, found ourselves in numerous arguments, and have been left with conflicting feelings on what to make of our country’s decision to intervene in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. But, in the mix of everything while attempting to form our own opinions, have we ever stopped to learn how the people most affected by this conflict feel – and asked them for their thoughts?
I had the honor of interviewing some of the most incredible people, who are my most trusted sources for the voices of the true Syrian people, and who I am honored and blessed to be able to call – my friends; in hopes of trying give the general public some insight into what it’s like being a Syrian-American in 2017. They are doctors and surgeons who have helped save lives of the Syrian refugees who escaped the grasps of ISIS and the Assad regime. They are attorneys and politicians and community organizers and humanitarians who have helped refugees relocate and start their new lives all over the world. They are mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and brothers and sisters and cousins and friends of refugees who are being demonized around the world for fighting for what every human deserves; the promise of a good, safe and successful life. We owe it to them, and every Syrian fighting for their freedom and for their lives to read their stories and consider their stances before jumping to choose a side.
Here are their voices….
Tell me what it’s like being a Syrian-American in a time like today.
Aman: It’s something I grasp with everyday. I often wonder, will people like me or treat me differently if they knew that my family and I are Syrian. Or my two little girls? It’s a running joke in the Syrian community how terrible our luck is and how things just keep getting worse. From our country being hit the hardest through the travel ban, to having the world’s worst humanitarian crisis to now being blamed for any acts of terror even when it’s been proven that we (Syrians) haven’t committed a single act of terror in the U.S. or Europe. It’s a looming black cloud over us all the time. We are notorious now and there is unfortunately a negative connotation with our background.
Bassam: Being a Syrian American in a time like now has become incredibly confusing, been increasingly difficult, but also very appreciative. Years ago, people just flat out didn’t even know what Syria was and over time it seems like we have been becoming more and more made out to be the enemy. When you look at refugee issues and hear some of the rhetoric about how refugees are “trojan horses” etc., it’s really hurtful because there isn’t anything that makes me any different from any of those refugees trying to enter into the United States. I was just lucky enough to be born in the here because someone in my family got here sooner. On the flip side, I’m still appreciative that I have the opportunity to live in a country that protects my rights and gives me the freedom to flourish and the access to my elected officials. Some of whom have been incredibly supportive and honed in on the issues that concern me as a Syrian.
Yasmin: I’ve always been proud to be Syrian, however, unfortunately there is now a stigma associated with being Syrian-American. When I let people know I’m Syrian-American, the response is sympathetic, confused and inquisitive, or they make ignorant jokes and comments. As a Syrian-American who spent part of my childhood in Syria, I’m hurt and frustrated, watching it go up in flames from a distance, living in the most powerful country in the world where the leaders refused to take any impactful action.
Aya: It’s difficult. Your identity is constantly under attack. Whenever I am asked where I’m from and my response is “Syria,” I can see the pity and fear in people’s eyes. The hateful rhetoric that our current administration has normalized and encouraged does not help as well. I am not a fear-mongering, self-entitled, or radical Syrian woman. Being Syrian does not mean I am a terrorist and/or a refugee looking to take advantage of some
social welfare system. Last year, my husband, Fares, and I participated in a medical mission in Amman, Jordan with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). I worked firsthand with Syrian men, women, and children who were forced out of their homes into the Zaatari refugee camp, which has become the third largest city in Jordan. I listened to the stories of women who lost their children because of barrel bombs that were dropped by the brutal Assad regime, and escaped Syria in hopes of finding a place that they could live in safely in the meantime. They are not looking for home. Home is Syria. Home is not a refugee camp or another country that paints Syrian refugees to be people who believe the world owes them something. The one thing I consistently heard during my trip was, “God willing, next time you and I meet, it’ll be at home. We’ll be in Syria together.”
Sarab: All Syrians, regardless of where in the world we reside – are sick of the war and want the slaughter to end. That’s what being a Syrian-American is like.
What do you wish people knew most about the situation in Syria today and how it’s escalated over the years?
Aman: I wish people truly understood the severity of living under Assad’s rule. I think people from the outside think that just because prior to 2011 we didn’t have the world’s worst humanitarian crisis to our name, that all was fine and dandy. It’s simply not true. People have always been terrified of the Assad regime. Our country ran like a mafia. Pictures of the president are plastered everywhere. You aren’t allowed to say a single word or even joke about the president. Syria has always been notorious for torture prisons. I wish people realized how truly fed up we were with it all – how we simply wanted freedom like other countries around the world – how we were sick of being run by the same family for over 40 years. I wish they knew that we never had a real chance to vote for any candidate outside the Assad family. People came out into the streets in peace and our only mistake was having faith that peace and love would prevail. People were literally out in the streets holding flowers. They were struck with such brutal force and it’s gotten considerably worse since then. Especially with the backing of Russia and Iran and the silence of the international community.
Our country ran like a mafia.
Bassam: I wish people knew that the war in Syria is not a civil war. Calling it a civil war gives Assad the legitimacy that he longs for. That aside the war in Syria is no longer a civil war as a result of the incredible amounts of outside forces including Russia, Iran, Iranian militias, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, etc. – these outside groups are attempting power grabs for any part of Syria that they can in order to divide the country up and retain that power leaving Syrians on the out. A perfect example of this is that even my own home in Syria has now, without my family’s consent, been taken away from me and being occupied by Iranians. This is happening all across Syria. I would also want people to really understand that Syria is not a sectarian state and the war did not begin as a sectarian war. The war in Syria was manipulated into becoming a sectarian war as a result of the systematic actions of Assad. He allowed Iran and the Iranian militias into Syria allowing the extreme Shia groups to carry out their inhumane attacks onto civilian populations and create an ethnic cleansing of the Sunni majority. Assad then allowed out of his prisons (they were imprisoned by the U.S. during the Iraq war and handed over to Assad because Syria was stable at that time), the founders of ISIS and they formed Al Qaeda in Syria but then when they were too crazy for Al Qaeda (imagine that) they went on to form ISIS and we know the situation behind that. The goal though, was to unleash both extreme Sunni and extreme Shia groups that will then fight one another and marginalize the Kurds causing them to also then fight for their rights. Thus, we have a manipulated sectarian war. That is not what Syria is and that is not what the Syrian people want. We want an open and free, democratic, and pluralistic society.
Yasmin: If I can convince the world of one important thing, I would clearly articulate the fact that Bashar al Assad and his whole mafia are the source of all the evil and turmoil in Syria. ISIS and all other “terrorist” groups are his creations, stemming from his brutality. The source of the cancer is Assad, and he must be removed for the war to end and ISIS to be eradicated.
Aya: I am begging people to do their due diligence and research what is going on, and how the current situation in Syria came to be from objective, reputable sources. I am not going to answer these questions for you. I challenge you, however, to look into who originally brought in and funded ISIS, the Brigade, etc. I think the answers may surprise you. As we speak, Bashar al-Assad is obliterating Syria and committing a genocide of the Syrian people, as the world stands by and does nothing.
Fares: That this revolution started as a peaceful and non-sectarian request for better human rights and freedoms. The Syrian people have been striving for years, to live their lives with the same dignity that we do as Americans. When the Arab Spring happened and people went out into the streets asking for freedom, they were met with a hail of gunfire. The government is directly responsible for not only the horrible escalation of this revolution, along with the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the millions of displaced peoples, but also for the formation of ISIS – which Americans seem to be fixated on as enemy number one. ISIS is awful and needs to be destroyed, but we must not forget who is responsible for their creation, or the primary terrorist organization in the land that continues to murder far more innocent people on a daily basis.
Sarab: I want people to remember that this all started when the Assad regime started shooting protestors in the streets after Syrians demanded reform. After we demanded true democracy. I want them to remember that it escalated even further when Assad launched a war against his people to suppress dissent.
What are some of the things you’ve seen people saying online or hearing in conversation that you want to address?
Aman: Where do I begin!? I HATE when people say that no one should interfere in a country like Syria where “fair and democratic elections” took place and Assad won the majority of the vote. Syria doesn’t even know what a fair election would look like. My dead grandmother voted for Assad. People have no choice. Good luck seeing tomorrow if you don’t vote Assad.
I also hate when I hear things like, well if Assad goes won’t Syria be worse? Do you want to be like Libya? Aren’t you better off now? We didn’t start a revolution to get someone worse than Assad. If someone like that comes along – then they must go, too. We wanted to send a message that we will not stand for long term dictators anymore that will rule Syria with an iron fist. And how can we dream or want better when our rhetoric is, well it could be worse. Do we tell battered and abused women to stick it out with their man because, “Hey it’s hard finding good men. It could be worse and he could be the best you’ll get!”
I also hate when people say things like Assad is secular and not an extremist and if he goes, Syria will be an extremist country run by ISIS. No, no and no. Assad is actually working with extremists like Iran and Hezbollah. He also allowed ISIS and all these extremists to come in after his own army began falling apart. Before they came in, it was the free Syrian army against Bashar (Assad). If Syria is run by extremists that is his doing, not the revolution.
I hate when people ask why Syrians who fled Syria didn’t stay and fight. These might be the most insensitive of all the comments I’ve seen. The major migration into Europe began less than 2 years ago, I believe. That means Syrians endured 4 years of this nightmare. Four, long years of bombing and slaughtering and imprisonment and kidnappings and no food or water. Americans can hardly last two days in a snowstorm without cleaning out their local supermarkets. How much can a person endure? How is one supposed to take care of their family like that? And the horrible stigma that came with going to Europe, that we were just all ISIS members trying to destroy Europe. Why was Europe suddenly filled with all men? Where were the women and children? I don’t know where people got the idea that it was only men fleeing to Europe. And if they saw a lot of men did they think maybe it’s because they were trying to prepare a life for their family? My cousin’s husband went to Germany almost a year before her. Got a place to live and a job and made sure he was settled before he uprooted his entire family. And my cousin was getting her paperwork finalized. This shady Syrian man who came to Europe all alone was preparing a life for his wife and 3 daughters! Is that shady? People can be so narrow minded.
Bassam: I keep hearing people say that the United States is attempting regime change and frankly – it’s not the United States that’s pursuing regime change it’s the people of Syria. We have lived under a culture of fear for years. Living with the constant fear of torture and death and always being suppressed. The majority of Syrians were second class citizens and were never able to advance themselves. It was inconceivable that life pre-war under the Assad regime was possible to continue and now, after he has committed all these atrocities it is just absolutely unimaginable. I also hear people claiming that Assad didn’t use chemical weapons in 2013 and that he again didn’t use weapons in this most recent attack again. Assad claims he didn’t use chemical weapons but Assad is a flat out liar and he has a long proven record of that. There is also a long proven record that Assad did use chemical weapons but not just the 2013 sarin attack – he has also been consistently using chlorine gas and in this recent attack we have hand-over-fist evidence of Assad using the sarin gas on innocent civilians.
…We live in a globally connected society.
Yasmin: I see a lot of Americans against the war; however, many of these same people are terrified of terrorism hitting our shores. If only these people would understand that we are no longer protected within the confines of our nation’s borders in this day and age – we live in a globally connected society. What atrocities happen in one area will eventually make its way all around, if it goes unchecked. Syria is now a breeding ground for terrorists, and they’re no fans of America. Given the chance, they will attack. So not only is it America’s responsibility as the world’s most powerful country to take action to protect millions of innocent people abroad, but it’s in our country’s national interest to stop this cancer called Assad, and all the cancers he’s creating throughout the world as a result, to save our citizens as well.
Fares: When the revolution started, people who supported the government and Bashar al-Assad for their own political or financial reasons used to say, “Bashar will be president or we’ll burn the country.” Unfortunately, they’ve kept true to their word.
Sarab: Despite being the largest humanitarian catastrophe since WWII, people are still woefully uninformed. For example, people are discussing this strike as if the U.S. isn’t already involved in Syria – the U.S. took over Syria’s airspace in September 2014 to confront ISIS and have dropped thousands of bombs.
What is your biggest fear for what our recent involvement (U.S.) could result in?
Aman: I want to know that there is a long term plan. That we didn’t just bomb an airbase for shock value. I understand it sent a message and believe me, I hope it makes Assad and Russia think twice. But we’ve also seen how ruthless and evil and selfish Assad and the Russian regimes are. Being rational is not their forte. So, will they do something even worse? Will they provoke a WWIII? Will more innocent Syrians die? Or, could this be the flip side where we do this once and move on and Assad stays in power and nothing changes?
Bassam: My biggest fear is that we don’t proceed with strikes against Assad and ISIS uses that as propaganda that the United States isn’t going to help and is willing to watch and that was a one time strike just for a political play and now there is no one left for you. As a result, people resort to the evil of ISIS hoping that will provide some sort of protection for them meanwhile Assad, Iran, and Russia increase their aggression and kill even more civilians completing their ethnic cleansing and Syria becomes fully handed over to Iran and Iran doesn’t contain themselves to the borders of Syria and pushes even further.
Yasmin: My biggest fear is if we do go to Syria, not only would we lose American soldiers and Syrian civilians, but the situation just gets more chaotic; and the resources that Syria does have gets syphoned out, depleting the country of its resources, and leaving multiple factions fighting each other with no leadership or construct of civilization for decades to come. This is my biggest fear; however, that being said, I don’t think we can continue with status quo and as an optimist, I don’t think my biggest fear will come true. I think with Assad, Syria will suffer a long, brutal, slow death, where Assad and his cronies are benefiting from its resources while deploying chemical weapons against children; but if the U.S. intervenes, we may have a quicker end to the savagery and begin to rebuild.
Sarab: This strike seems to be done without a strategy and more by Trump to separate himself from Obama’s inaction and to quell critics that he is in bed with the Russians. This seems like a symbolic strike that really isn’t aimed at ending this war, rather – more for political theater.
If you had one thing to say to Donald Trump in regards to Syria, what would it be?
Aman: We are humans too. We have suffered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis for too long now. We have not committed a single act of terror in the U.S. ever. Why close your doors on us? You can’t pretend to care about dead children but still tell us we can’t come here.
Bassam: To me it seems so counter intuitive as someone who has worked as an advisor to Hillary Clinton and does typically vote democratic but this isn’t a partisan issue, it transcends party lines, so if I were to say something to DJT I would first thank him for this attack on Assad’s war machine but also urge him to continue to strike Assad and to fully ground his air force. This would provide a real amount of civilian protection (today was the first day that war planes didn’t fly over Idlib) and it would force Assad to legitimately come to the negotiating table.
Yasmin: I would tell Donald Trump that he has a chance to show Barack Obama how to protect our national security, act with humanity and decisiveness, and eradicate Assad and his cronies before the situation gets even worse. Make Obama’s biggest regret Trump’s greatest victory.
Sarab: I’d say since you (Trump) control the skies over Syria – ground all military airplanes – stop the slaughter from above – let Syrians breathe. And please, end the bigotry and Islamophobic Muslim Ban and welcome these refugees in.
Said: I hope that Mr. Trump’s most recent action is truly for the sake of humanity and to save the Syrian people. I hope his intention was not a distraction from his problems with his adversaries internally within the United States.
What do you have to say to the general public who may not know what’s really going on in Syria or who are undecided on what side to lean more towards?
Aman: To use your inner judgement. As complicated as the media likes to show Syria is, it really is very clear. Assad must go. Assad is a ruthless and evil dictator. Even if you know nothing else, you should know better than to side with an evil regime that has had a long history of ruling a country with an iron fist. How can you trust any regime that has been in power for nearly half a century and has a proven track record of torturing its citizens? All you need to do is look at the Assad’s regime history and you know this regime can’t be trusted.
Bassam: I would emphasize that the war in Syria started with teenage boys spraying graffiti on a wall and having their tortured and mutilated bodies returned back to their families as a result. This was what life was always like under the Assad regime. People disappeared, were regularly kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned, and killed in Syria. Nothing about the rule of Assad was ever sustainable. It was a life of fear that included suppression, manipulation, and sociopathic tendencies as the regular way of life. It included a vast majority being treated as second class citizens. No one citizen should be ranked above the other for any reason, especially not for their religious beliefs. That’s what Assad created in Syria. If you were an Alaowite you were given preferential treatment and lived a much more lavish lifestyle. You didn’t need to pay for things when you went shopping and you could literally get away with murder. This just isn’t right. People should all be treated equally, fairly, and just with basic decency.
Let Syrians breathe…
Yasmin: For those that haven’t lived in Syria or are not aware of the history, the conflicting news and stories leaves one completely confused. I can assure these people that Assad is a monster, and so was his father before him. The Assad family came from the rubbles of Syria, full of contempt for the Syrian people and a dangerous obsession with power and money. When they took over power in Syria, they sucked the country dry of its resources, its strong education systems, the opportunities for its people to live with humility and decency, and any sense of self-respect or freedom. They starved the country for decades, brutally murdered tens of thousands throughout their dictatorship for any hint of criticism against them, leaving the Syrian people too powerless and frightened to rise up. However, once the revolution began and it’s been made very clear that Assad will never be accepted by Syria as a legitimate ruler, he will stop at nothing to preserve himself and his family.
Sarab: All efforts should be focused on ending the regime and Russian slaughter of Syrians. They are the #1 perpetrators for all of the violence in Syria.
What is the most important thing to remember when collecting our (the general public) thoughts about the Syrian Crisis?
Aman: That Assad was, is and always be the number one factor in it. He is the reason we are in this mess. Over 90% of the death and destruction in Syria is due to Assad. He is not only a ruthless dictator but a failed president who let his country fall apart.
Bassam: The Syrian people just want for their families what anyone else wants – freedom, security, and a life worth living. A Syria that is for all Syrians by all Syrians and practices the basic human rights that should be afforded to all people. We are still humans. Please see us.
Yasmin: The most important thing you can remember when thinking about the crisis is the following famous quote – “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” We must stick together and help each other out, before the situation escalates to a WWIII using today’s more destructive weapons and wider reaching devastation.
Fares: While I appreciate that Americans are weary of war and want to focus on fixing our own country’s problems before fixing the world’s, there are certain times in history that we can’t be idle spectators. WWII was one of those times. Now is another. Watching the genocide that is happening in Syria while keeping our distance and saying that, “The Syrian people will decide who rules their country,” is a travesty for them, us, and the global community – not to mention a complete farce as the Syrian government has recruited the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian Special Forces, and Russian Air Force to fight the rebels. Above all, we must remember that these are people – actual living, breathing, human beings – too, and that watching them be shot, bombed, gassed, starved, tortured, raped, beheaded, and serially executed should not be something we can turn our back on. It’s not “their problem”. Its all of ours. We have already witnessed the global implications of this conflict and the international reach that its players have. It’s time that we get on the right side of history.
Sarab: The Syrians have agency and have been struggling for 6 years to end the 40+ year rule of one family over Syria. Eventually Assad will fall, and then Syrians will have to find ways to reconcile among each other – until then, the struggle will continue.
Said: I wish people would make an effort to learn who Syrians are and who we were throughout history before they (we) came under the oppression of the ruling regime. Syrians are hard working, honest and ambitious people. Syrians started to emigrate to the United States in the 19th century – escaping the Ottoman occupation and have been very productive in supporting the growth of this country as we know it to be today. I strongly recommend, for those interested in learning, an essay by Khalil Gibran, To Young Americans of Syrian Origin from 1923.
People have a tendency to voice their opinions in places and times when they are unwarranted or inappropriate. Feeling validated in their thoughts because they’ve read a few articles, watched a few horrible videos and have suddenly become an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. It can get hard to listen to those with personal experience while adamantly shouting over them insisting our outsider views are right. Please consider the voices above before doing that the next time you find yourself in a conversation about Syria and deciding where you stand. These voices represent the majority of the Syrian people who have been holding on to the hope of one day gaining freedom in their homeland. The best way to learn, is to learn from the personal stories of others.