By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Lewai Murad will not likely go down in the annals of history as the man who helped to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad by developing a rocket-fired missile capable of penetrating the heavy armor of the Russian T80 tanks used by the ruthless dictator's army.
First of all, Lewai Murad is a pseudonym. He asked to remain anonymous because, while he has lived in Orange County for the past year and a half (initially on a student visa, now as a refugee), his extended family—mother, father, several siblings—remains in Syria. Were the Syrian government to discover he was helping the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, his entire family could be arrested, tortured and/or killed.
Secondly, about those missiles: They aren't real, and therefore they haven't blown up a single Syrian army tank, much less turned the tide of the civil war against al-Assad and in favor of the ragtag fighters Murad hopes to help. The only place these missiles exist is on paper, in the 12-page study he wrote in Arabic after months of running elaborate computer simulations on a laptop computer. Because of an international arms embargo, the FSA is struggling to fight al-Assad and his tanks with little more than AK-47s and hand grenades. Those are no match for tanks, in particular the 2,800 or so estimated T80 tanks of the Syrian army that are protected with so-called explosive reactive armor and are invincible to the lightly armed FSA.
What Murad created—in theory, at least—was nothing short of miraculous: an improvised, armor-piercing warhead that rebels could easily manufacture en masse in Syria (thus not violating the embargo), and then fire from conventional rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers until every last Syrian army tank was nothing more than a smoking hull. However noble, Murad's dream fell victim to a series of errors—lots and lots of them—with a touch of bad timing thrown in for good measure.
Murad came to the United States to study at Cal State Fullerton at the precise moment when the Syrian civil war kicked into high gear in his hometown and he lost touch with his family, thus losing his ability to fund his tuition and remain in the country on a student visa. Then there's the fact that, perhaps more than classwork, Murad's real motive in moving to Orange County was to secretly hook up with his best friend's girlfriend, with whom he'd secretly been Skyping and chatting online for two years. Compounding that questionable move is the fact that Murad then proceeded to marry the woman without bothering to tell her that he was bisexual.
Another bad idea: surreptitiously living with his new wife in her bedroom inside her parents' house for several months, without either party informing the parents they were, in fact, married, which led to the parents calling the cops on him. All these rather striking lapses in judgment, when compounded, not only prevented Murad from realizing his dream of freeing Syria from tyranny, but also unraveled his marriage, left him homeless and ultimately caused the FBI to question him about his project.
Earlier this year, shortly after his former mother-in-law called the police to evict him from her house and alerted the FBI to his interest in explosives, a desperate and confused Murad sent a frantic email to the Weekly. "I am under strict surveillance," he wrote. "Two FBI agents met with me and questioned me at a local restaurant. . . . The FBI is monitoring me, and I do not know what is going on in their minds!!!"
The email expressed a confused jumble of emotions: despair, lovesickness, what seemed like a legitimate fear of being arrested or deported, and paranoia. It was also clear Murad desperately wanted to share his story, so his grand efforts to help end the Syrian civil war would not disappear into the same oblivion that had devoured the rest of his life in America.
The email's subject line seemed to sum it up perfectly: "Lost Syrian in Anaheim."
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By his own telling, Murad (again, not his real name) grew up in a cosmopolitan city in Syria that he prefers to not mention by name. He has two good reasons to worry. First, the aforementioned government retaliation against his family. Second, as a bisexual atheist, Murad doesn't want to bring shame to his large Sunni Muslim family. The city is populated by a roughly even mixture of Sunnis, the branch of Islam that constitutes the majority of the Syrian population, as well as most Muslims throughout the world, and Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam.
Traditionally, Sunnis viewed the Alawites (who don't observe the five pillars of Islam and whose women don't wear hijabs) as heretics, and they were therefore ostracized. In Murad's hometown, the Sunnis lived in the city's center, while the Alawites dwelled mostly in villages in the hills outside, where they had lived for centuries. "These guys had been oppressed throughout history," Murad explains. "It was an official segregation. They were not allowed to walk in the city after 6 p.m. They were considered infidels."