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History Repeating in Syria

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My parents fled Syria in 1980 to escape the prevalent political persecution at the
time. Their first stop as fugitives was to Jordan, where they lived in a three-bedroom
apartment with two other families. Despite the instability and uncertainty in their
lives, they were consumed with a profound sense of gratitude to be alive. While their
circumstances were difficult, my mother often reminisces about her days in Jordan with
a smile. She remembers the graciousness of her friends and the undeniable unity she felt
with other Syrians who had fled from their homeland. When my mother became pregnant
with me, my parents moved to Saudi Arabia where my father had found a job. For the
first time since their escape, my parents no longer had to worry about affording basic
necessities such as food and clothes.

Three years prior to my birth, my parents were newlyweds in Aleppo, Syria, and
seemed to have a beaming future ahead of them. My mother was pregnant with my eldest
sister and in medical school while my father was working as an engineer. What sparked a
bond between my parents was their shared vision for political change in Syria. This
vision was the thread that wove the fabric of their love. The ruthless dictator Hafez Al-
Assad was president of Syria at the time and ruled the country with an iron fist. My
parents were members of an opposition movement interested in political reform. When
Assad learned of this underground movement, he responded by imprisoning thousands of
men and women, most of whom did not have any political involvement. The president
wanted to create a state of fear and suffocate any threat to his power.

My father was imprisoned in 1979. My mother was pregnant with my eldest
sibling at the time he was captured. The guards crammed him with so many prisoners
he could hardly sit in his cell. In fact, the inmates took turns sleeping due to the limited
space. Prisoners had regular interrogation sessions where guards took pleasure in
torturing them with metal rods, whips and electrocution, demanding that the prisoners
confess to their supposed crimes and give up the names of their friends and family
members who were involved in the opposition.

Over a year into my father’s captivity, the unthinkable happened. One of the
guards offered him an opportunity to escape. The oppression and unspeakable torture this
guard witnessed everyday spurred in him the courage to risk his life to save seventeen
men who would soon be executed for their “crimes”. The guard strategized an elaborate
plan including slipping fellow guards sleeping pills and faking an emergency in order
to get access to an ambulance. Stuffing 17 men in the back of an ambulance truck with
bodies piled on top of one another was just the beginning of a long and perilous journey
to flee the country. Half the escapees, including the guard, did not make it out of the
country and were eventually caught, viciously punished, and then killed. Imagining the
torture that brave guard surely endured before meeting death is unbearable. My father
was one of the fortunate few who managed to cross the landmine-infested border into
Jordon. He then organized a meeting time and place with my mother. By then, my mother
had given birth to a baby girl whom she had to leave behind with her parents so as to
protect her child from the grave danger ahead.

While my parents understood the immense blessing of freedom God had granted
my father, they ached for their daughter whom they left behind in Aleppo, and lived in
constant fear for their family members who remained in Syria. They knew they could
never return to Syria and began searching for a new life. They traveled from country to

country looking for stability. In the meantime, the persecution in Syria had worsened and
Assad wanted to send a horrifying message to his people. In February of 1982, the same
year that I was conceived, Assad ordered the murder of approximately 20,000 residents
of Hama, Syria. Journalists were banned from reporting in Syria so the massacre took
place under a cover of darkness. Assad ensured that his people would live in constant fear
and would not dare think of opposing him again. The shiver that ran down the spine of
every Syrian after witnessing the Hama Massacre persisted for thirty years.

The brutality of the Syrian government was so widespread that I have yet to meet
a Syrian who has not been affected by it in some way. In my case, I would never meet
my paternal grandfather. He was kidnapped by the Syrian secret police in the middle
of the night while wearing his pajamas. The secret police interrogated him about the
whereabouts of his son, then punished him with a bullet to the head for his son’s audacity
to escape from their clutches. My father’s baby brother suffered the same fate, a young
bachelor with his whole life ahead of him, while his eldest brother who was married with
children was imprisoned for fourteen years.

Over thirty years since my father’s escape the silence has been broken and the
fear has been lifted with the rise of the Arab Spring. My family has been forced to keep
our story a secret from even our dearest friends for fear that our family in Syria would be
further harmed. The current Syrian revolution has made it possible to speak out against
injustice and oppression. Many Syrians see the current uprising in Syria as a miracle.
When the first statue of Assad was toppled my parents watched and re-watched the video
in disbelief. Thousands of protesters in Syria have taken to the streets to demand freedom
and they are ready to die for this cause.

So far, at least 12,000 protestors have been killed and hundreds of thousands
have been displaced or imprisoned. The jail cells are so full that the government has
resorted to using schools and other public buildings to hold prisoners. It is commonly
said that death is a mercy for Syrian political prisoners; what happens in those jail cells
is beyond barbaric. Nobody is spared, including women who are gang raped daily and
children who are physically and psychologically tortured. In fact, the Syrian Revolution
was sparked by fourth graders who had their fingernails pulled off for writing anti-
government rhetoric on their school walls in Daraa. I am perpetually haunted by the
pictures and videos of Hamza Al-Khatib, the 13 year old boy tortured to death for
peacefully protesting. His body was returned to his mother blue and swollen, castrated
and filled with cigarette burns. This young boy shares my last name. He could have been
my brother.

Today, my parents have a newfound hope that Syria will be free. Their hearts beat
in unison with the Syrian people as my parents continue to participate in protests and
opposition outside of Syria. While Syrians relive the nightmares of their past, this time
there is hope for change. This time, the world is watching. Journalists are still banned
from Syria, but the government cannot silence the cellphone cameras and social media
pages of every day civilians who continue to document the brutality of the Syrian regime.
The Assads can no longer coat the streets of Syria red with the blood of their own people
without consequence.

The Arab Spring has brought with it a new era that has no room for
oppressive regimes. While the international community has been slow in taking action
against Assad, the end of the regime will surely come. Patrick Henry put it best when he
said, “Give me liberty or give me death”. The recent Arab revolutions reaffirm the power
and universality of this principle over 200 years later. They no longer fear death and are
willing to sacrifice their lives in order to attain freedom for their people.


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