Straight Outta Syria

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

Walid arrived alone in Anaheim in March 2012. His mother came shortly after and stayed with him for two months. His younger sister told him that after he left, a few buildings near his Damascus apartment were bombed and the army killed five of his friends, two of whom were thrown from the building adjacent to his family's apartment. (A week after our interview, Walid informed me that two more friends were killed.)

He now rents an apartment with a family friend, has a car, works full-time at a warehouse and pays his own bills. When he's not in his daily routine, his worries persistently gnaw at him.

"Mostly, just thinking about family there is enough stress," he says. "It's not easy, but at the same time, that's all I can do."

Jared Boggess

Walid hopes to study engineering or business, but he found it difficult to enroll for classes at Fullerton College because the school requested his parents' tax forms after he applied for financial aid. "I can barely get in touch with my parents," he says. "That kind of slowed me down a bit."

School officials suggested Walid visit the Syrian consulate in Los Angeles to get help. "I wouldn't even risk it," Walid says. "They're with the regime."

Like many anti-government Syrians, he feared that if regime officials found out he was in the United States, they would threaten his family in Syria. Hassan Twiet, the head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Syrian American Council (SAC), stepped in and wrote a letter informing the school that Walid could not obtain the forms requested because of the dangerous situation in Syria. He will now be able to start school in the winter semester.

Twiet himself lost 23 members of his family in what is known as one of the bloodiest massacres in modern Arab history. In 1982, Bashar Al-Assad's father, Hafez Al-Assad, sought to quell the city of Hama's active Muslim Brotherhood base—longtime opponents of Assad. The massacre destroyed the city and killed thousands of residents, with estimates varying from 10,000 to 40,000 dead. Thirty years later, Hama is the site of some of Syria's largest protests and bloodiest violence.

The memories of the Hama massacre come back when Twiet hears on the news about bombs dropping in Syria. "I know the magnitude of the explosions," he says. "I know the sound of rockets. When I was there, when you hear it, you know death is coming. It's kind of like a moment of death, where you can see it, hear it, but you can't feel it."

Twiet's activism with SAC predates the revolution. The Detroit-based nonprofit started in 2005 as a loosely organized group aiming to build bridges between Syria and the United States, but after the revolution's inception in March 2011, it started to assume a different role, mobilizing Syrian Americans, organizing protests and fund-raisers, and providing a community for refugees in the U.S., as well as humanitarian relief to those abroad.

A pro-revolutionary group, SAC quickly expanded into 18 chapters operating in different cities across the United States when the revolution started. "This is the only time in 50 years that Syrians start belonging to an organization," says Twiet, referring to the fear his countrymen harbor of associating themselves with anti-government organizations. "People used to not give us their phone numbers or emails. . . . Now, that fear is gone. People are so proud to give us their names."

Tamarah Salem actively volunteers for the council. In late summer, her brother, his wife and their four children fled Damascus to stay in her Claremont home. They hadn't expected the violence to escalate; by their last month in Syria, army helicopters were flying over their apartment and shooting at anti-government rebels on the street.

One day, Mohamad El-Maghrabi and his wife, Noha El-Maghrabi, drove to a government building to get forms excusing their 9-year-old daughter from school for the remainder of the year after the building behind it had been bombed. After his wife entered the building, a gunfight broke out between insurgents and soldiers. El-Maghrabi ducked under his car, but his wife was stuck inside the building. The gunfight ended after 30 minutes; when El-Maghrabi and his wife returned to their apartment, they decided to leave, but there was only one plane flying out of Syria. El-Maghrabi booked five tickets for his wife and four children, then five days later, he booked two tickets for his mother and father, and one week later, he booked a ticket for himself.

* * *

Shortly after El-Maghrabi and his family left for the United States, a gang of masked men broke into Soori's apartment, robbed his family at gunpoint and asked for Soori. Not finding him, the men instead kidnapped a close relative. Perhaps they were agents of the government, whom activists on the ground say is strapped for cash and is capturing wealthy businessmen for ransom, or maybe they were just gangsters. Either way, a few days later, Soori's mother received phone calls asking for large sums of money in exchange for information on her relative's whereabouts. She has continually paid, but with no results.

"We hope that he's in the prison because in the prison, they don't die," says Shami, adding that two weeks after the kidnapping, his father received a call from one of Syria's intelligence units.

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