Syrian Americans anxiously monitor uprising

By Tara Bahrampour, Published: January 8, 2012, The Washington Post

Every night, as most of her neighbors in Silver Spring are going to bed, Khawla Yusuf opens her laptop and plunges into a revolution.

Using Skype or Facebook, she connects with Syrians who have been trying for 10 months to change their government. She watches footage, recorded on shaky cellphones, of protests in distant towns and listens to her countrymen describe the surreal daily life of a nation under siege.

“Sometimes I tape them, because it’s a part of our history,” said the 43-year-old mother of two, who took a leave from her job as an Arabic teacher to help the uprising that began in Syria last spring and has been met with a violent crackdown. It’s a family enterprise: Her husband, Ammar Abdulhamid, 45, a longtime activist, and their children, Oula, 25, and Mouhanad, 21, also spend their nights as virtual revolutionaries.

“Our Facebook pages are like media agencies,” said Yusuf, who has 7,000 Facebook followers. “Sometimes I have 10 people on a chat.”

Syrians around the world have reacted to the events in their country in a variety of ways, a fact dramatized in the summer when two competing groups of Syrian demonstrators — supporters and detractors of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad — converged in front of the White House on the same day.

An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Syrian Americans live in the United States, according to Faraj Sunbuli, president of the Chicago-based Syrian American Council. They represent Syria’s complex melange of religions, and many have been here for generations.

Some feel unconnected to the events in Syria. Some stand assiduously by Assad, warning that his departure would lead to chaos. Others rail against him, citing more than 5,000 deaths that human rights groups have tallied in the crackdown since March and calling on the international community to intervene.

Sunbuli estimates that about 10,000 Syrian Americans are involved in helping the uprising. They lobby lawmakers and diplomats, disseminate information about arrests and killings, send money covertly into Syria and provide funding and medical supplies to refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan, which border on Syria.

It is a change for a diaspora community accustomed to keeping a low profile.

In the United States, as in Syria, a substantial silent majority stays out of the fray. These include members of religious minorities who are unsure what their rights would be in a post-Assad Syria and many who want to travel to Syria or have families there whom they fear to endanger.

Living in the United States does not provide immunity from reprisal, they say, noting the case of a Syrian pianist living in Atlanta who played at a July rally in support of the opposition. Afterward, his elderly parents in Syria were badly beaten by thugs.

In October, a Syrian American from Leesburg, Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, was arrested in Virginia for compiling video and audio recordings and other information about protesters for Syrian intelligence agencies in order, the indictment said, “to silence, intimidate and potentially harm’’ opponents of the regime. Soueid also was accused of providing Syrian intelligence with phone numbers and e-mail addresses of protesters in the United States.

An Amnesty International report the same month said that Syrian protesters in Europe and the Americas had been “systematically monitored and harassed by embassy officials and others . . . and that their relatives in Syria have as a result, in some cases, apparently been exposed to harassment, detention and even torture.”

The Syrian Embassy in Washington has denied any association with Soueid and called the Amnesty allegations “totally fabricated.”

The Abdulhamids say that they have received unsettling messages, including death threats, and that the warnings are getting more brazen.

“For you and your group here in Washington we will liquidate you one after another, wait and see,” a post from an unknown sender to Yusuf’s Facebook page said recently.

“Usually they send private messages,” she said, “but this was public.”

The threats have not deterred the family, whose activism began years ago in Syria. In 2002, they founded a minority-rights organization in Syria that criticized the government. In 2005, after the organization accepted funding from abroad and Abdulhamid publicly called the president “an idiot and a Fredo Corleone” — a reference to the spineless middle son in “The Godfather” movies — the family fled to the United States and received political asylum.

Once here, Abdulhamid worked with the State Department training Syrian citizen journalists. He is currently a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy.

The family has started the Syrian American Network for Activists and Dissidents (SANAD), which has raised nearly $10,000 to send to refugees and families of those arrested or killed. The Abdulhamids also have sent cameras, satellite phones and smartphones to activists in Syria.

Before this year, Syrian Americans tended to see political activism as dangerous. When the uprising started in March, support here was sparse.

“At one point you could count us on one finger, the ones supporting the revolution,” Abdulhamid said. But as the crackdown continued, more Syrian Americans came forward.

Mazen Hamad, 56, a doctor in Raleigh, N.C., who moved to the United States 30 years ago, initially hesitated to use his name on a pro-opposition Facebook account.

“But then I saw people getting killed, going to prison and disappearing, and then I felt sort of guilty or silly that people are paying a bigger price than anything that would happen if I used my name,” Hamad said.

Others are still reluctant, even as they contribute money to the opposition. “I was supportive in my heart,” said another Raleigh doctor who did not want his name used. “I support them secretly.”

Nazih Zarif, president of the Syrian Arab League of America, a 300-member pro-regime organization formed in Allentown, Pa., in September, says most Syrian Americans oppose the uprising. “We believe in the reforms that Bashar al-Assad is doing,” he said. “Syria will be soon a measurement for others in the Middle East for democracy.”

Syrian Christians in particular have been divided about the uprising. Some fear they could be persecuted under a new regime, said Bassam Bitar, chairman of the board of trustees of the Washington-based Syrian Christians for Democracy and a co-founder of SANAD. “We try to preach to every single Christian and we try to convince them.”

Recently, the Abdulhamid family sat in their home’s sunroom, where Mouhanad’s iPhone periodically burst out with the sounds of cheers, screams and whistles from a rally that day in Syria.

Yusuf often speaks with people who can hear bullets outside their houses. Sometimes a regular correspondent will disappear without warning.

It is, she says, hard to be so far away.

“I need to be with my people, my friends,” she said. “Here in America I have no role, I’m just one person who sleeps, who eats and so on. . . . I want to be there, even if I get killed.”

“Stop!” her son said. “We’ve lost enough. We’ve left everything behind. Your brothers were in prison, your father was killed [decades earlier, when Assad’s father was Syria’s president]. It’s enough. You keep saying you want to go — it’s hurting me, it’s hurting us. Please stop saying that, please!” Tears welled in his eyes.

“Okay,” his mother said quietly. This was not the first time this argument had erupted.

Oula, too, said she wishes she could be in Syria. Instead, she has been connecting with other young Syrian Americans via social media.

She brought her face close to her laptop screen and, with a big smile, spoke to someone in Syria as if she was addressing the entire country.

“Happy New Year! Hopefully we’ll get our freedom, and hopefully you’ll be fine, and