Straight Outta Syria

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

In mid-April 2011, the Syrian army held the entire city of Al-Balad under an unrelenting, merciless siege to send a message to the rest of the country: This is what will happen if you rise up. The government punished citizens by cutting off access to water, electricity and phone lines. When Bassemy and his friends heard the neighborhood's 15,000 residents were facing a creeping famine, they started smuggling in food, water, milk, medicine and medical supplies.

Eventually, intelligence forces discovered Bassemy's humanitarian exploits and began looking for him. In early February 2012, he fled to Jordan on foot. Armed members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) assisted in the 17-hour-long trek from Daraa through the mountains until he landed at a Jordanian refugee camp. Bassemy stayed in Jordan for three months because he wanted to continue helping his city, but his friends urged him to leave for the United States. During his time at the camp, he witnessed injured FSA members being handcuffed to their makeshift hospital beds and taken away. It then hit him that Jordan wasn't a safe haven for pro-opposition activists. In mid-May, he left that country for Orange County.

Bassemy currently lives in an apartment in Anaheim. He has a full-time job, the nature of which he won't disclose out of fear it could clue Syrian authorities in to his whereabouts. He attends local protests and fund-raisers organized by the Syrian American Council, but he hardly socializes with anyone who isn't from his city or whom he doesn't know. Bassemy refuses to give up hope of returning.

Jared Boggess

"When he [Bashar Al-Assad] falls, I'll be there in 48 hours," he says. It's only a matter of time, he believes, before "Syria is ours, not his, not for one family."

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Bassemy's iron-fisted will to return is a stark contrast to the despair felt by 30-year-old Tarek Halabi, who asked that we not disclose the name of the city he's from out of concern for the safety of his relatives in Syria. Although he only recently arrived in Orange County, he dresses as though he grew up here—in sandals, casual slacks and a sky-blue T-shirt. But the events he describes having witnessed in Syria are those of a much different world.

Among the stories Halabi recounts involves his best friend, Osama, a soldier for the Syrian army, who refused orders to shoot at pro-democracy protesters. As punishment, his commanders jailed Osama for 10 days. After they released him, they again ordered him to shoot at protesters. When he refused a second time, they summarily executed him. When Halabi learned of his friend's death, he immediately planned to leave Syria. He had three weeks before his deadline would be up, after which he'd be conscripted into mandatory military service.

"I couldn't serve in the army that is killing our people," he says, explaining he feared he would find himself in the same position as his best friend if he joined the army. He packed his bags, said goodbye to his family and landed in Dubai. Then he came to the United States on a visiting visa that was set to expire a few weeks after he arrived in May 2011.

He spent his first two months here crashing at a friend's Westminster apartment. Then he rented a room in a five-bedroom house in Fountain Valley. Each family lives in one room, he explains. In Halabi's room are two beds, a television set and a computer. He studies chemistry and biology on his own; he was told he needed to obtain residency before registering for classes at a community college. He intends to someday enter the field of medicine.

Once he obtains residency, which is a year-long process, he'll apply for school, but for now, he finds his room is too small to let his mind focus. "I cannot study inside my room," he says. "There's no space, no environment to study."

In his spare time, Halabi searches for a job—any job. He worked at a gas station for two months after he first arrived, but he was laid off. In Syria, he earned a master's degree in engineering and racked up several years of experience in high-rise-tower construction. But a depressed California construction market and a foreign degree have strained his opportunities to find work. With no job and no viable income, he has relied on a few close friends for moral and financial support.

Halabi has been out of work for a year now. He thinks about moving elsewhere in the United States, but for now, he continues his job hunt here. He wants to bring over his parents and siblings, whom he speaks with via phone three times per month, but the mere thought weighs him down. "How can I support them?" he asks. "In California? It's very expensive. Every month, you have to pay the rent, and the economy—you will not survive without at least $1,000. And I do not have a job."

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Omar Walid, 20, was born and raised in Anaheim. In 2005, just before he turned 13, his family moved back to its native Damascus. When the revolution broke out, he says, the electricity often went out for up to seven hours at nighttime. As the months wore on, several of his cousins and close friends joined the FSA. Though he never became a member, he helped to coordinate protests, and he uploaded videos and wrote updates on Facebook. If it weren't for his father sending him back to the United States, he might have easily joined the armed opposition group.

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