Published on October 23rd, 2013 | by Greggory Moore0
A Syrian Among Us: A Refugee Struggles as His Homeland Disintegrates
“Syrian Regime Chokes Off Food To Town That Was Gassed.” This title from an October 3rd Wall Street Journal article typifies the horror that Americans have heard coming out of the faraway land of Syria for the past couple of years.
But the horror is far less remote for one Long Beach resident. Not only is he Syrian, but because of his efforts to aid villages targeted in such a way by the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, he is a young man who cannot return home.
Fearing reprisals against his family, who remain in Damascus, “Steve” does not want his real name appearing in this article. He’s not even comfortable talking about his experience in a public place. “I’ve heard there are agents who are looking for people from [Syria],” he tells me, looking over his shoulder to see whether anyone is eavesdropping. It strikes me as paranoid. Then again, I haven’t lived his life.
Steve was born and raised in Damascus to what Americans would call “a middle-class family.” But unlike in the United States, the Syrian middle-class is susceptible to what is, in effect, institutional corruption, intimidation, and even brutality,
“It’s scary. We [have] been living like this for 40 years,” Steve says. “If you park your car in the wrong spot and the police came to you, you can give them $2 [or] $3, and he’s gonna go away,” Steve says. “Whatever you did, if you have money, it’s gonna go away. But if you don’t have money, they’re gonna torture you, insult you; they’re not gonna respect you at all.”
Things can become even scarier when dealing with members of the Assad clan. Steve recalls walking down a public street one afternoon with two female friends. A ritzy car pulled over, and out filed several men, one of whom began attempting to coerce Steve’s friends into the car. When Steve came to the girls’ defense, the men began to pummel him. He doesn’t know what would have happened if a friend with his own high connections hadn’t happened by and sorted the matter out. Steve later found out that his attackers were a member of the Assad family and his bodyguards.
“Stay away from politics, stay away from the power, be corrupt, pay bribes, and you’re going to live in heaven in Syria,” Steve says. “But if you are an [honest] guy trying to make your own way in a decent way, you’re going to feel that place is hell.”
Steve kept his head down, applying himself to his studies, in the hopes of eventually being able to find work outside of the country, one of “a lot of Syrians who are really working hard to be better persons [and] feel that, ‘I have no future in this country, [so] I’ll leave.’”
But even in school he could not escape the corruption.
“You feel like you’re spending years and years and years with very little achievement,” Steve says. “Like, you go to school, you study really hard—especially if you go to public school, which is related to the government. [For example], when I [would take] an exam, I [would] answer almost all the questions [correctly], but when I go to check my score, I [would] get 30 [percent], because the professor, he don’t care. […] He gives marks randomly, or he give [high] marks to the people who can give him money. And he kept doing this to me. One day I gave him 100 [U.S.] dollars just to say, like, ‘Let me pass!’”
In mid 2011, despite the regime’s attempts to limit the flow of information to the Syrian populace, Steve began getting word of the Arab Spring’s coming to season in Syria (“The little child in Syria, he know how to get around the government’s [Web censorship]“), along with the expected governmental crackdown. But a few months later Steve began hearing particularly horrific tales from residents who had fled the city of Darah, tales about how the regime had dealt with schoolchildren parroting a chant they heard on television of Egyptian protestors calling upon President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
“The government reaction was really crazy, and really brutal,” Steve says. “They tortured them, and when their parents asked for them, they said, ‘You don’t have children anymore. Send us their mothers, and we’re going to give you new children.’ […] When I heard these stories, they made sense to me, because I know that our government is really crazy. There is no value for the human being there.”
Steve says it was around that time that the protests against the regime became increasingly intense.
“In the beginning they were just asking for freedom,” he says. “[But] whoever was protesting, they started shooting them. That’s when people started asking for the government to step down. […] There were a lot of people who were waiting for this moment.”
As Syrians were crying out for freedom, life in Damascus became ever more constrained.
“Just imagine Long Beach is Damascus,” Steve explains. “Between 2nd St. and 3rd St. they’re gonna put checkpoint; between 4th St. and 7th St. they’re gonna put checkpoint. […] They want people to live in fear. […] A lot of people in Damascus were waiting for this moment, but they were afraid. They are surrounded by intelligence [services].”
But Steve felt impelled to get involved. He began working with a small humanitarian organization delivering supplies to towns to which the regime was basically laying siege.
“[The regime] wouldn’t let any food or gas or anything to go into those cities,” Steve says. “You’d see a lot of children [who were] cold, and they don’t have food, they don’t have milk, they don’t have anything. And we are human. I always had the feeling like I want[ed] to do something. Just human caring; I just wanted to help. […] I was happy; it made me feel good, especially when we was giving milk to little children.”
Although such actions were risky, Steve didn’t involve himself in anything as overt as protesting. Some of his friends did, though, such as “Rick,” with whom Steve had delivered supplies. Then one day Rick was arrested and tortured.
“They chained him and kept him standing in one position,” Steve says. “The only time they let them rest in when they give them food. He [later] told me he was so tired that he [kept] falling asleep while trying to eat. […] They don’t know about his delivering food, only the protesting, so I was safe at that time. […] When they let him go, they tell him that if they pick him up again, they gonna kill him.”
At the beginning of 2012, with Steve attending school on a temporary basis in a neighboring country, he had a conversation that would forever change the course of his life.
“I was talking to my friend on Skype, and he told me, ‘Dude, don’t even think about coming back to Syria,’” Steve recounts. “He told me one of the guys who was working with us got arrested. We knew they were going to torture him and force him to say everything. We knew he was going to be linked to us. [Luckily] I was already outside of Syria. The next day my friend went to Lebanon. But only three hours [afterwards], when my other friend tried to cross the border, his name was already at the checkpoint, and they arrested him and took him to jail. And I don’t know if he’s still alive or not.”
Steve stayed abreast of the goings-on in Syria by way of Al-Jazeera and conversations with friends outside the country, but he didn’t dare speak with anyone inside of Syria about what was happening.
“Anybody in Syria, if I talk to them and mention anything [negative about the regime], I’m going to put them in danger,” he says. “And I don’t want to do that to anybody.”
That includes his parents,. And that feeling of being unable to speak frankly has followed Steve to the United States, where he matriculated early this year.
“Every time I talk to my parents, we always try to make sure we say everything we want to say, because it might be the last call,” he says. “Especially since [the regime] used the chemicals. […] I’m telling you, even sometimes I avoid my parents, because it’s breaking my heart, and I’m really tired and feel like I can’t handle it.”
While he tries not to dwell on that which he cannot control, Steve knows that the situation is affecting him in unseen ways.
“I really have a lot of trouble sleeping, because…If I spend the evening, like, watching the news or something, it’s going to bring the memory back of when I was living in Syria,” he says. “I have a lot of nightmares. In one of them I’m in my [home] watching TV with my friend, and we hear the sound of a helicopter coming and, like, a whistle or something, like when rockets get released. And the sound is growing and growing and growing. And then, like, boom, it’s exploded. I woke up shaking. […] I make the best of things, but there are things going on deep inside that I don’t even notice.”
An added stressor is the uncertainty of his status in this country. Unable to return to Syria for fear of government reprisal for his humanitarian work, Steve is having difficulty making his case for asylum to the U.S. government. For starters, he doesn’t have the $4,000 he says he needs to retain a lawyer who specializes in such work. On top of that, for obvious reasons Steve’s organization did not maintain detailed records of its actions even before Steve did his best to delete whatever evidence he had (for example, on his cell phone) once his peril became more specific.
“They [i.e., the U.S. government] want proof that the military wants to arrest you,” he says. “How am I going to get that proof? They don’t give you paperwork when they [target] you like that. […] I don’t want to be given financial aid; I don’t want to be given anything. Just let me work. I can help developing this country [i.e., the U.S.] better than people who are taking money and doing nothing. Just let me stay and find my way.”
It’s the same wish he has for his home country: that it be left in peace to find its own way. But that may be trickier than his immigration status, what with Syria caught between the threat of external military action—which Steve thinks would only complicate the status quo—and foreign interlopers attempting to expropriate Syria’s unrest to their own fanatical ends.
“I’m feeling really sad that big change came, but not in the way we were wishing,” Steve laments. “[…] The revolution now is stolen, stolen by the extremists who came from outside of Syria. They are not Syrian; they never lived in Syria. […] A lot of them are doing crazy things. We are not supporting them; we are not like them. […] We don’t know what to do. What if those types win the war against the government? What if the government win the war against them? You are in a position [where] you don’t know which to support. A lot of my friends say, ‘We would prefer the government to stay in power over those extremists.’ And I totally understand their position.”
In the midst of an uncertain future for himself and his homeland, Steve is doing the only thing he can do: moving forward in the here and now. He is temporarily out of school as he tries to remedy his financial problems—a tricky situation, since at present he does not possess a work permit. But despite the culture shock and other difficulties, Steve hopes to stay.
“I’m not surrounded by family; I’m not surrounded by people I’ve known for a long time,” he says. ” […] What I love about living here is that everything is protected by the law, and almost everybody respect[s] the law, which we don’t have in Syria. […] I’m in a new world, but I’m trying to get used to it. I know there [are] differences in culture, but I don’t feel that I can’t fit in with this community.”