Hazem Chehabi Is Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's Man in OC
The biography of Dr. Hazem Chehabi reads as though it were something out of a Horace Greeley fable. The chairman of the UC Irvine Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the university, came to this country as a 23-year-old medical student from his native Syria and quickly found fame as a doctor to the rich at his Newport Diagnostic Center, located on the outskirts of Fashion Island. His facility's pioneering efforts in medical imaging earned the immigrant untold wealth: a palatial Laguna Beach estate once featured in the pages of Architectural Digest; access to the lords of Orange County; and enough money to mark him as one of the county's premier philanthropists, donating more than $1 million to UCI alone. Chehabi's close ties with the Syrian government—NPR reported last year that he and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad grew up together—also earned the doctor the title of the country's honorary general consul to the United States, a position that Chehabi has used to bring over Syria's national orchestra and otherwise promote the Middle Eastern country.
Chehabi's trajectory wasn't a problem until about a year ago, when pro-democracy protesters in Syria took to the streets that spring, as did Arabs in other countries, to demand the overthrow of their despot. But unlike similar uprisings in neighboring Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Assad has remained in power and brutally cracked down on the opposition, killing more than 8,000 Syrians and drawing worldwide condemnation.
Despairing in the United States over their relatives at home, Syrian-American activists have decided to target Assad's most prominent American connection: Chehabi. Last week, UCI's student government, the Associated Students-UC Irvine (ASUCI), considered nonbinding legislation that called for the immediate removal of Chehabi from the foundation. More than 40 students and community members gathered inside the student center's Moss Cove room, where council members deliberated, and passionately urged them to pass the Chehabi condemnation.
"We're not asking him to step down [as consul general]," said fourth-year student Aminah Galal during the public-comments session. "We want the university to cut ties with the regime."
Another student told the council, "[Chehabi has] basically called the people who are protesting him extremists. This is the same tactic that the dictator Bashar al-Assad has used against his people. The international community has not been fooled by this, so I urge you to not be fooled by Hazem Chehabi."
The ASUCI vote on Chehabi was the culmination of a nearly yearlong effort. Two months after the revolution's outbreak, the Syrian Emergency Task Force started calling for the resignation of Chehabi, whose father was the former chief of staff of Syria's army. Eventually, that group combined forces with the Syrian American Council, a national organization with the same motives.
"[The Syrian American Council] will accept nothing less than a resignation [of Chehabi] and complete disassociation with the murderous regime," says Ammar Kahf, a doctoral student at UCLA. In May 2011, Kahf wrote a letter to Chehabi, asking him to step down from his UCI Foundation post and to publicly condemn the atrocities committed by the Syrian government; the doctor refused. Kahf responded by organizing protests outside Chehabi's Newport Beach medical offices (which double as the West Coast's Syrian consulate) and at UCI, making international news. In late October, Kahf collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition calling for a meeting with the foundation's Board of Trustees and UCI Chancellor Michael Drake to discuss Chehabi's tenure. The university responded in November, with Associate Chancellor Ramona Agrela saying that university leadership and Dr. Chehabi both denounce the Assad regime's use of violence against peaceful protesters; the university foundation wouldn't further discuss the issue.
But that wasn't enough for the Syrian American Council, which passed the anti-Chehabi torch onto Anteaters. Kahf asked third-year student Sara Halabi to mobilize students on campus. (Halabi requested a pseudonym out of concern for her family's safety.) Halabi has had relatives in Damascus imprisoned since the uprising started; she calls them when she can, but their conversations are guarded for fear of surveillance.
"We can't ask too many questions because the phones are monitored," says Halabi. "Our conversations are like as if nothing is happening in Syria. If they don't give us any news, that's good news."
When school started in September last year, Halabi organized teach-ins about the atrocities in Syria. In January, she asked ASUCI members Michelle Vasquez and Melissa Gamble to pen legislation calling for Chehabi's removal; the following month, Vasquez and Gamble introduced to the rest of the student council the initiative, which states that Chehabi's "continued tenure . . . directly contradicts the values and goals the university wishes to establish as a beacon for human-rights protection." The students didn't vote on it, however, because of issues with the wording.
School officials and student-government advisers then met with Vasquez and Gamble to suggest changes, but, Vasquez says, she felt it weakened the legislation. They were also advised to meet with Chehabi. Vasquez says she started to feel intimidated and stressed-out because the administration seemed to have taken "a special interest" in the legislation.
In early March, the 19-member ASUCI approved the resolution with 12 votes. A few minutes later, however, council leadership said they mistakenly rounded up the vote, narrowly missing the needed two-thirds majority mark; the new tabulation meant the legislation didn't pass.
ASUCI President Vikram Nayudu set up a meeting with Chehabi and the legislative council the following week, a day before the ASUCI's final vote on the subject. Chehabi requested it be a closed meeting and didn't allow any form of audio or video recording, prompting criticism from the council members. ASUCI members who attended the meeting say he told them his consul position is unpaid and that he isn't affiliated with al-Assad. Chehabi also took pains to make it clear he denounced any killing and violence in Syria. But those students also say the doctor called students demanding his resignation "Islamic fundamentalists."
At a meeting of the ASUCI the next day, council member Nicole Hisatomi said, "I'm appreciative of hearing Chehabi's side. But I'm really disappointed because it was undemocratic. [The meeting] was really rushed and secretive."
"He never directly stated he was against the Syrian regime," Vasquez told ASUCI representatives who weren't present at the meeting with Chehabi. "When you vote for this legislation, remember what it says, that we don't want to be represented by a man who represents the Syrian regime."
The vote to call for Chehabi's dismissal from the UCI Foundation board passed overwhelmingly, with 15 students in favor of the resolution, four abstentions and no votes against it.
That victory in the bag, students and community members vow they'll continue to pressure the administration until it actually removes Chehabi, something the school has made no indication it will do or is even considering.
"We could be really happy, but this is not even a quarter of the battle," says Vasquez. "Now, our biggest issue is that these are just words. How are we going to keep administration accountable? Now, we have to make sure they follow through and take action."
As of press time, Chehabi hadn't returned the Weekly's requests for comment.
This article appeared in print as "Meet Bashar Al-Assad's Man In OC: Dr. Hazem Chehabi is a UC Irvine philanthropist, Syria's honorary consul general—and the target of activists who call him an apologist for a brutal regime."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.