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.
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.
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"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.
There are no exact numbers on how many Syrians have arrived in California, which has the largest Middle Eastern population in the U.S. outside of the Detroit area, but local activists say there is a noticeable increase in their numbers in Orange County, home to a well-established and burgeoning Arab community. Since February, Munmeeth Soni, an immigration attorney with the Santa Ana-based Public Law Center (a nonprofit, pro bono law firm), has conducted asylum screenings once a month at the Access California Services office in Anaheim. She searches for pro bono attorneys or takes on select cases herself.
To gain asylum, an individual must demonstrate that he or she is unwilling or unable to return to his or her country of origin because of persecution or a well-founded fear of suffering persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Soni says she often meets with Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians, but lately, the majority of her clients has been Syrian. And most of them have strong cases for asylum.
Asylum status, however, is a difficult concept to grapple with, especially for those individuals who came without their family, a scenario Soni often comes across. Foreign nationals who receive asylum status are eligible to become U.S. citizens if they obtain their green card, which takes a year. But until they receive citizenship, a process that generally lasts four years, they are strongly advised to not return to their country of origin, or they risk losing their status. The thought of not being able to see one's family for a total of five years is daunting, at best.
As mounting violence and increasing fatalities severely diminish the prospects of returning home, however, more Syrian nationals apply for the halo of safety and security that is asylum status, says an immigration-services coordinator* for Access California. The deadline to apply for temporary, protected status, under which U.S. Customs and Immigration Services allowed any Syrian who arrived before March 29 the ability to work and travel for 18 months, expired on Sept. 25.
It's no surprise then that the number of Syrians seeking asylum on a national level has nearly doubled, from 124 applications in the 2011 fiscal year to 236 in the 2012 fiscal year since March, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Los Angeles.
Even Syrians who hold a dual citizenship find it difficult to face the prospect of permanent resettlement in the U.S. Hamdi Bassemy fled to Jordan after he found out he was wanted for questioning by the Syrian Army's intelligence unit. The day after he arrived, Bassemy's cousin told him that 74 soldiers had raided his business. "I didn't want to come here, but I had no choice," says Bassemy, who now lives in Anaheim.
Bassemy is from the city where the uprising started, Daraa in the south of Syria. On March 16, 2011, civilians took to the streets of Al-Balad, a poor historic neighborhood in Daraa, to protest the torture of students who had written anti-government graffiti on their school walls. The army violently responded to the protests, killing scores of people and cutting off the district from the outside world. After discovering the news, on March 18, 2011, Bassemy and a few other friends started to march from their neighborhood toward nearby Al-Balad to break the blockade. They chanted, "Silmia, silmia"—Arabic for "peaceful, peaceful"—to show the army they were unarmed and unready to fight.
"We started out as 100 people," Bassemy says. "And by the time we got to Daraa, we were thousands. And this is where the first massacre happened."
When they arrived at the gates of Al-Balad, the army unleashed heavy rounds of sniper attacks. Bassemy's friends and neighbors fell—one shot in the head, one in the abdomen, one in the chest. Those who survived retreated back to their outlying villages. Over the next week, they continued to walk to Al-Balad in order to break the siege. The fire of machine guns greeted them each time.
As he tells his story at a local coffee shop, Bassemy nervously switches from fluent English to Arabic. He repeatedly glances at two strangers sitting nearby, then takes out a cigarette and lights it. I offer to switch our seats from the patio to the inside of the shop, but he doesn't answer, still watching the two men. After a few minutes, the pair begins speaking in Spanish. Bassemy exhales a sigh of relief. "They're Mexicans," he says.
Many Syrian community members, including Bassemy, believe Bashar Al-Assad has spies in this county. Throughout our conversation, Bassemy continues to check out everyone who comes near enough to hear him speak—even watching the cars driving past the shop.
Bassemy says he initially doubted the wisdom of Daraa's fight for freedom. "When people started shouting, 'Down with the regime,' I got scared," he recalls. "We didn't have confidence that we were going to continue." But his fears burned away the moment he saw bloodshed on his first civilian march, lending itself to a feeling Bassemy never felt before in his homeland. "When you taste freedom, and you know what it feels like, you're not going to give it up."
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.
"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."
* * *
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."
* * *
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.
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."
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.
"You have one hour to come with Basel [Shami] to our office, or we will go after your women," they told his father.
Ten minutes later, Shami's family and relatives drove to Lebanon with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They are among more than 74,000 Syrians who have so far fled to the tiny country of 4 million, which is fraught with its own instability and sectarian division.
"They don't have anything in Lebanon," says Shami. "They're trying to register my [younger] sister in an American school, but her English is not that good."
Shami also has an older sister who was supposed to get married six weeks after she fled to Lebanon, but with her husband stuck in Syria, she had to postpone the wedding indefinitely. His family recently tried to obtain a visa to the U.S., but to no avail.
Shami and Soori—both of whom are here on student visas that will eventually expire and are terrified of returning to Syria—recently met with a private immigration attorney, who told them their circumstances bode well for attaining asylum. Soori now takes English classes at a local community college. Shami had been about to enter his senior year in college when he left Syria.
Now he is starting all over again. They, along with the rest of the Syrian exodus, are trying to move on, but memories of the violence and continuing worries over their families and their country haunt their minds. "He feels like he doesn't have a relaxing moment in his brain to study and search and learn," Soori's relative says as she translates for him; he often switches to Arabic when asked to elaborate on his experience. "He feels disturbed."
As the number of refugees surges, as rebels increasingly gain ground in Syria, as the government continues to express its will to stay, hope wavers for some Syrians and is reinforced in others. "I have seen enough blood and death to last me a thousand lifetimes," Bassemy says. His eyes well up. There's a long, heavy pause. He looks down, rubs his eyes and inhales deeply, then looks up again.
"But I'm still standing on my feet."
*Name was removed, per request.
This article appeared in print as "Straight Outta Syria: Thousands are fleeing Syria's civil war—and growing numbers of refugees are heading to Orange County."
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