Straight Outta Syria

Orange County is home to growing numbers of refugees from that country's growing civil war

Straight Outta Syria

Keep your head down. Whatever you do, don't look them in the eye. Stay silent. Let them beat you, and pretend to be in more pain than you really are. Scream and yell louder than you would. They enjoy it when they hear your pain.

This is what Mohaned Soori was thinking when Syrian authorities arrested him during an anti-government protest in the capital Damascus in April. Soori—a pseudonym, as with all the names in this story—is now 20 years old. He went to prison 13 months after what commenced as peaceful civilian marches for reform in March 2011 quickly erupted into an armed revolt between rebels and the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

At the outset of the revolution, Syrian state media reported that poor people were getting paid by outsiders to demonstrate. In response, Soori and his friends planned a protest in a wealthy Damascus district to send a message to the government that the uprising was not only for food, but also for freedom and dignity, and dignity is for all. They considered the prospect of being arrested, welcoming it as an honor.

Jared Boggess

Once the protest started, the crowd quickly grew to about 500 people. Security forces surrounded the protesters and caught Soori as he tried to escape into an alley. They shoved him into the back of a bus with six other men. An officer slapped him, and he blacked out for a few seconds, blood trickling down his forehead. The guards ordered him to get on his knees, then cuffed his hands behind his back. One of the guards stubbed out his cigarette on the back of the neck of a man kneeling next to him. They hit the prisoners with sticks of wood and iron, as well as electric prods, which turned Soori's back blue.

"What were you doing protesting?" the guards yelled. Soori stayed silent, remembering the warning he'd received from friends who were imprisoned and released, either through paying bribes or sheer fortune, that the simplest form of defiance would be met with brutal punishment.

The guards drove Soori and the other prisoners to a security center, holding them in a cell 50 feet long and 70 feet wide, with around 120 men sharing one bathroom. They bathed with toilet water and without soap. That first night, Soori tried to sleep in a sitting position because there was no room to lie down, but he was kept awake by the pain in his back. He ate nothing the next day—and the day after that, he spent two hours folding mildewy bread over raw olives.

Sitting in the living room of his relatives' Orange County home on a recent weekday, Soori chuckles as he reminisces about the horror of his imprisonment. At one point, he recalls, while being transferred between prison branches, the officers joked with the bus driver about lining up the prisoners and killing them one by one. When they arrived at a different prison, the guards beat and spat on them in what was called "the welcoming party."

"What is the name of your mother and sisters? I'll bring them here," the officers said, insinuating rape.

"None," Soori responded.

The officers ordered the prisoners to lie down on their stomachs. "Who is your Lord?" they asked as they stepped over the prisoners' backs.

The prisoners responded, "Bashar Al-Assad. Bashar Al-Assad." Anything else, and they faced more torture.

Whenever the officers questioned Soori about his involvement with anti-government protests, he narrated the same story: His father forbade him from attending protests, and his arrest was just a big misunderstanding. Soori had attended a funeral; while he was there, some participants forced him to follow the body to the grave. The gathering, unbeknownst to him, quickly turned into a demonstration, which he reluctantly got swept up in.

After 15 days in prison, Soori saw a judge, who believed his story and ordered his release.

* * *

When extended relatives in Orange County discovered Soori had been arrested, one of them rushed to a local community college and registered Soori and his cousin Basel Shami as international students; shortly after, both young men received student visas to travel to the United States. Initially, Soori was reluctant to leave Syria; he wanted to keep organizing protests and to celebrate once the regime fell, he said. But he also wanted to put his parents' anxieties about their son to rest. In late summer, he and his cousin arrived in Orange County.

Soori wants to return to Syria to help rebuild his country after he obtains a higher education in the United States. But an unsettling reality is sinking into his heart, as well as the hearts of many other Syrian nationals who fled their country. They left everything in Syria—families, businesses, friends, homes—expecting the situation to improve, to be able to safely return. Those expectations have been dashed by a civil war that shows no sign of ending and only grows deadlier as time wears on.

Activists estimate the conflict has killed more than 30,000 people so far, creating a refugee crisis in the region. The Associated Press reports that 2,000 to 3,000 Syrians flee each day to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon; the United Nations Refugee Agency says the current number of registered Syrian refugees is more than 325,000, but that figure doesn't include unregistered Syrians who have fled. Unlike Soori and Shami, few of these people are fortunate enough to come to the United States.

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