Small Lives Engulfed in a Big War
Updated: Jan 25
December 6, 2013
On March 15, 2011, hordes of people swarmed the streets of downtown Damascus as they demanded for greater rights and freedom in Syria. Shouts were heard from every angle of the street. The crowd's chanting came into unison as they began to belch "Weinak ya Suree?!” Where are you Syrians? People clapped their hands to intensify this plea, urging more Syrians to come out of their homes and businesses to join the cause.
They were protesting the arrest and torture of 15 young students who wrote anti-government graffiti on a wall. As Syrians in Damascus progressed further in, their chanting changed to a rhythmic beat, shouting "Allah, Suria, hurriya bus! Allah, Suria, hurriya bus!” God, Syria, and freedom is all we want!
Having spent years under emergency rule since 1963, the Syrians faced repression of expression and detention for dissension. The government regulated the internet and scrutinized web activity, banning websites such as Facebook and YouTube intermittently. During President Bashar Al-Assad's reign, he also implemented a law which gave the government control over anything that was printed in Syria. The key people who held power in the state were those loyal to the Al-Assad family. The citizens of Syria lived in paranoia and were hesitant to speak out against the government for fear of detainment, or even torture.
But as other countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya started demanding for a regime change and toppling their authoritarian governments during the Arab Spring, Syrians caught the fire and gained courage.
We could do it too.
Away from the budding revolution, Bassam Jazairi, 33, was managing workers in his paint-making factory a few miles from downtown. His wife was at home, taking care of their 2-year-old daughter Julia. She was pregnant with another baby girl on the way. Business went as usual as he walked up and down the aisles, ensuring his workers were mixing the paints and operating the machines correctly.
He then received a cryptic phone call from a friend who worked in downtown Damascus.
"Bassam, did you hear what happened?"
"No, what happened?" Jazairi replied.
Jazairi's friend used codes to speak to him over the phone, wary of who could be on listening in on the conversation.
"It was a little crowded more than usual today near where I work. Just go home and check the internet, then you will know."
Jazairi went home that day, read the news, and saw the protest that had happened earlier. As he glared into his computer screen, he tried to analyze what happened. Was this planned or organized? Who had been arrested? What were the police going to do with them? Will these protests continue? What's going to happen next?
At the same time the protest was raging, Fadia Afashe, another woman living in Damascus, was sitting on her thick blue and orange sofa in the living room. The walls of their spacious house were beautifully adorned with Afashe’s paintings and decorated with masks she had collected while traveling to Africa, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Armenia. Sculptures aligned the sides of the living room and the windows were draped with majestic blue and golden curtains.
Afashe, 36, studied criminal law in the University of Damascus and attained her Masters in Public Administration at the French Syrian Institute. She was an artist and an activist for women's rights, frequently organizing art exhibitions that hinted at her dissent with the government. Her husband Jay Abdo, a famous actor in Syria, was also unaware of what was happening that afternoon. She found out about the protests while reading Al Jazeera later that day.
(Fadia Afashe and Jay Abdo, Joyce Chu)
Afashe regularly met with a group of her most trusted girl friends. Afashe didn’t feel comfortable sharing her political views with anyone else for fear of betrayal. But here, she felt safe. These women had one goal in mind: greater rights for women. After the first big protest in Damascus, they had gathered again at Asma’s home, a friend of Afashe’s, to coordinate a demonstration that they would execute the very next day. They planned to meet at the Al-Sahhiyye Market in Damascus at noon to protest. Their courage was once again sparked by the burgeoning protests; they wanted to take part in this growing momentum.
"Run, run, don't come here!" a female voice shouted to Afashe on the phone.
"What happened? What happened? I'm coming, I need to see you!" Afashe desperately talked back on the phone, unsure of what had transpired at the market her friends had agreed to meet the day before.
The cab Afashe was in was approaching the Al-Sahhiyye Market when she spotted Asma frantically running away from the security.
Afashe turned to her taxi driver. "Don't drop me off here. Go farther down."
Once she got out of the taxi, she went in search for her friends. They had all scattered when they saw the police coming towards them and hardly had a chance to protest. The security were dressed as civilians. When they saw the small band of women gathered together and Asma pulling a white flag out, they knew what they were there for. The police came after them, and they all were able to escape—except one. They captured Asma and threw her in jail, stripped her clothes, and put her in a room full of men.
Afashe and her group of friends reconvened in late March to plan another demonstration demanding the release of Asma from prison. Again, they tried to meet at the same market at noon. They marched and chanted for only a couple minutes, but very soon they saw the police coming towards them again. Afashe then fled, frantically running, her heart pounding. She flung herself into a nearby clothing shop, where the owner hid her until she was sure her pursuers had passed.
After a taste of death, she was afraid to gather at any other protests.
During the first month of protests, Jazairi kept his distance, weighing his options to join or to stay put. Unlike the majority of the protestors who were younger, he had a business to run and a family to take care of. His wife voiced her concern. If he ever did join, he would be risking his life. He would be putting her and his baby daughter, soon to be two daughters, in danger.
One afternoon in April, Jazairi came across a video of a demonstration that had happened in Baniyas the day before. Men who had protested were forced to lay on the floor face down with their hands tied behind their backs. The police, armed with guns, stomped on the men’s faces, their cold boots hitting their jaws.
"This is what's going to happen to you if you think of doing this again!" one of the policeman shouted in Arabic.
"You are animals; you are our slaves in this country,” another said. “We do what we want to do and you have to follow our orders."
Anger raged inside of Jazairi as he watched the treatment of his fellow Syrians.
I need to do something, something needs to be done.
Next to him in the living room, his baby daughter Julia was playing with her toys. He looked over at her, watching her happily entertain herself with endearment. Suddenly, something clicked inside of him. He realized that if the police were treating the people so poorly in Baniyas, they could also treat the people in Damascus—and his family—in the same way.
Either I can be a coward and wait and act like nothing is happening, or I can go and face it.
He grabbed his keys and got in his car, making his way to the city of Douma where another protest had been organized for that day. The face of his daughter burned in his mind.
Jazairi arrived in Douma at around 4:00pm and parked his Honda on the street. He then joined the mass that had already gathered. They marched their way across to the city of Harasta, Erbine, Zamalka, and then to Jobai—their end goal was to get to the capital in Damascus. As they paraded down the neighborhoods, they chanted in unison "Huriyya! Hurriyya!"
The crowd of protesters swelled as they went on; people came out of their houses and buildings to join in. By the time they reached the city of Jobai, there were over 120,000 people gathered as they proceeded to Damascus. Before they even had a chance to reach the capital, police came and barricaded the streets to prevent them from advancing. They fired gunshots in the air. The people who were close to the front saw what was happening and panicked, trying to get away. Those near the back were still unaware, so they kept pushing to advance. Very quickly, the scene turned to chaos as the police started shooting. People screamed and ran away in every direction to avoid being captured.
Jazairi ran into a nearby ally, making his way back to Douma where his car was parked. When he reached his car, he decided to drive back to Jobai to see what had happened. Coming back around, he spotted five people who had been caught, sitting on the floor with their hands cuffed. The police were stopping every car that passed through and interrogating them. Jazairi continued driving past them and the barricades.
They never stopped him. He had literally come face to face with death. By luck, it wasn't him that day—it was someone else—but it could have been him. Jazairi arrived home that night but did not say a word to his wife about what had transpired.
Afashe continued to limit attending protests, but still believed in the revolution. She later received a one-year Fulbright scholarship to study public policy at the University of Minnesota and left Damascus in June 2011. As she boarded the plane to America, her thoughts elevated into high hopes of the things she would do for Syria upon her return.
"I believed that when I came back, the government would fall shortly,” Afashe recalled. “Then I would be able to run for office and start my own NGO. I wanted to help build the new Syria.”
During her stay in Minneapolis, Afashe carried a notebook as she roamed the streets, jotting down everything she saw and gaining inspiration for the new methods she would implement in Syria. She saw impressive facilities, grand buildings, and classrooms that allowed open discussion. She interned in the Center for Victims of Torture and also organized three protests to raise awareness for the Syrian crisis during her time in Minneapolis.
Although she was physically in Minnesota, her mind and emotions were still fully invested in Syria. She read any tidbit of news from her country. This month will be the month that the regime will collapse! She continued to hope for the imminent fall of Assad's government.
However, the struggle in Syria did not die down. Instead, protests continued day after day and continued to grow more violent. On July 29, the rebel group formed the Free Syrian Army, which marked the beginnings of the protestors’ attempts to take arms against the government.
"After September, I no longer thought the regime would fall as quickly as I thought,” Afashe said. “That’s when I started to feel so scared; I wanted my husband to come here."
She urged Abdo to come to America during one of their phone calls. They spoke to each other in codes.
"How is our cat? Are they still home?" Afashe asked.
"No, they are still there." Abdo replied. One of their friends had been captured by the police, and was being tortured in prison.
"I miss you, please come visit me,” she said.
"No, don’t worry. I'm doing okay, just finish your studies and come back and everything will be fine. I am 100 percent sure," he replied.
"No, please come here. I am so depressed. Just come visit me, then we will talk some more," Afashe said pleadingly.
After some resistance, Abdo consented and flew to Minneapolis in October 2011.
Jazairi continued to stay in Damascus, unwilling to leave his country and would continue to be in Syria for another year. Around the same time that Abdo left Syria, Jazairi had brought together four of his closest friends to coordinate ways they could contribute to the revolution. When rebels took arms against the security forces, Jazairi did not join the Free Syrian Army.
"I just couldn't fight or kill anyone," Jazairi said. " So I took the humanitarian route."
By January 2012, violence had escalated. President Bashar al-Assad began large-scale bombing operations to discourage the rebels, resulting in the destruction of countless homes and lives of innocent civilians.
Jazairi and his friends worked tirelessly to help displaced families and wounded victims. They provided medical supplies, food, blankets, toys, mattresses, money, and even lodging. Jazairi owned another house in Damascus, which he used to give displaced families a temporary place to stay. He fed each of them and provided for their basic necessities. At one point, there were as many as 20 people living under his care.
Every time Jazairi helped another victim, he put his life in danger. Providing aid for rebels was strictly prohibited by the government and would result in detainment. Thus, Jazairi limited his interactions with them; never did the victims know who he was, what he did, or where he lived. They just knew him by his face, like an unknown angel appearing mysteriously in their midst to provide comfort, help, and hope.
Despite all the precautions Jazairi took, the police found out. They caught him in July, threw him in prison, and tortured him. Jazairi eventually cracked psychologically under the intensity of their interrogations and gave the names of his friends who were also involved. His friends, to avoid being caught, had already fled the country.
Miraculously after two months, Jazairi was able to escape, wherein he followed his family to Jordan. Since his wife also had Jordanian citizenship, she decided to take their two daughters there to leave the instability in Damascus. By then, the International Committee of the Red Cross had labeled the situation in Syria a civil war.
Jazairi fled the border and met his family in Jordan September. He stayed with his wife and his daughters for two months but still feared for his safety. He then decided to take a month-long trip to Los Angeles to visit a friend he had met while touring Egypt.
As the fighting escalated in Syria, Afashe and her husband stood by and watched the news from America. They applied for asylum in January 2012 as a safety precaution, but still clung onto the hope that they would still be able to return to their motherland. After Afashe's Fulbright program finished in April, they came face to face with the harsh reality—they could no longer return to Syria, and the fighting was not going to end anytime soon.
"If I knew, I would’ve prepared myself," Afashe said. "I didn’t bring my things with me. But when I came here and realized I had to stay, I thought, 'Oh my God, how come?’ I was scared to death."
They began to devise a new plan: Abdo suggested that they move to Los Angeles. Since he was an actor in Syria, he thought the famed metropolis would give them more opportunities for work. They bought an old Toyota Corolla and stuffed as much of their belongings as they could in the tiny vehicle: clothes, shoes, some pictures, and a few of Afashe's paintings.
For three days and three nights, they drove from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, passing through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada in search of new opportunities.
Jazairi arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 27, 2012 lugging a small red carry-on and a big brown suitcase filled with clothes, books, gifts for his friend, two badminton rackets, and other necessities. He also carried a piece of paper that had a long list of all the things his daughters wanted him to bring back from America: Hello Kitty collections, Barbie dolls, Smurf puppets, Strawberry Shortcake costumes, and toys.
As he stepped out of the plane and headed towards the pickup area, he saw a sea of unfamiliar faces brush past him: Caucasians, Africans, Mexicans, Asians. He heard English being spoken everywhere and did not fully understand the conversations people were having with one another. It was his first time in Los Angeles.
"For a moment it was scary,” Jazairi recalled. “I felt lost in this huge world.”
Three weeks into his stay, Jazairi realized that he could not go back to Jordan. He could not risk getting deported back to Syria, where he would inevitably face arrest and torture. Jordan was also unstable at that time and did not provide him the economic opportunities he needed. Though he did not want to be separated from his wife and his two daughters, he reluctantly made the decision to stay in America.
"I was forced not to go back,” Jazairi explained. “I had no other option."
He applied for asylum the following January, and is still waiting to see the final outcome of his case. He received his work permit in Aug. 2013.
The night was dark when Afashe and Abdo arrived in Los Angeles on May 3, 2012. They booked a hotel room and fell onto bed exhausted, like shipwrecked survivors who had battled through the storm. As they set out to find a more permanent place, they came face to face with their first major problem. Rejection after rejection from landlords mounted when they applied for an apartment due to their lack of credit and income.
Why are these people so cold? Why don’t they trust us?
Every day presented new obstacles as the couple grappled with a multitude of unforeseen obstacles. They ranged from seemingly simple tasks such as not knowing how to use the banking system, where to buy the items that they needed, or what the medical process to see a doctor was, to more critical dilemmas such the grueling process of gaining asylum and the inability to work because their permit had not been approved. They were strangers in a foreign land, struggling with feelings of fear, hostility, loneliness, and the need for belonging. In addition to the external pressures, a psychological war raged inside of Afashe.
"I am not doing anything here and I am dying of sadness, so why not just go back to Syria and die?” she lamented.
“I could not accept that I was a refugee, that I had no papers, I didn’t know what would happen to us, that I probably I will never get back to my home. For one and a half years, I was suffering from severe depression. I feel so guilty for leaving my family and friends in Syria. I miss everything in Syria, every little thing. We had a good life, and coming here where people treat you like that and don't trust you—it's very painful."
It was a rather warm November when I first met Jazairi at the Levantine Cultural Center in 2013 where he now works. By this time, he had lived in Los Angeles for a year. Every day, Jazairi opens the Center at noon and closes the shop at midnight. He faithfully works his duties as a shop tender, taking café orders for customers, watering the garden, or setting up the tables and chairs. He greets everyone in the shop with a hug or handshake. Jazairi flashes a warm smile, putting the people he meets instantly at ease as he strikes a conversation with them. However, those who come in and out only see one side of him.
"I feel frustrated every day," Jazairi states in a matter-of-fact, nonchalant way.
Hardly anyone who sees him would be able to discern the tumultuous thoughts buried deep inside. He lives three separate identities simultaneously.
"Yes I'm the guy who comes here and opens the café and I have to smile at everybody and be nice," Jazairi reveals. "But I'm also the guy who is suffering every day because I am away from my family and my country. And thirdly, I am the guy who is physically here, but my brain and everything else is in Syria. I'm living there. Literally."
Jazairi still lives his life in his two suitcases. He only buys groceries for the next day, uncertain of where he will be tomorrow. If something happens to his family in Jordan, he will have to leave America immediately. He talks to them on a daily basis and anxiously waits for the day that he will be reunited with them.
"We had a perfect life," Jazairi recalls. "It was full of peace and understanding. My daughters… they are beautiful."
He looks outward, lost in his recollections. His eyes light up with joy as he drifts back and pulls the memories of his wife and his daughter out of the oceanic abyss. He is back in Syria, envisioning the adventures he took his daughter on as she sat perched on top of his shoulders.
"Julia is quiet kid, she loves painting and dancing. We had a special relationship because she was my friend; wherever I went, I took her with me. I'm happy that she still remembers that."
Jazairi cannot be reunited with his family until he receives his asylum status. If he leaves without attaining it, he cannot return to America. But once he has received it, he is eligible to apply for his family to join him.
In the meantime, all he can do is wait.
"Every day I am frustrated with the world," Jazairi confesses. "This country can end what is happening in Syria in 48 hours but I don’t know why they don’t. And my status. I don’t know why it's taking so long. At times I get sad and upset because I want to do something but I can't. But patience is a virtue. I try to keep myself patient and I hope. Maybe tomorrow is going to be a better day."
Afashe and Abdo eventually found a lady who was kind enough to lease her apartment to the frustrated couple in June 2012. They waited for another year before receiving their asylum status. They now live about a mile away from where Jazairi works.
Afashe's family is still in Damascus. They live there while bombs are falling, missiles are flying, explosions are sounding, while friends, family, neighbors, and strangers are dying around them. The area reeks of sewage and slime; rats crawl everywhere due to the broken pipelines that have been destroyed by the bombing. Clean water is scarce. Homes have turned to complete rubble.
Still, her dad refuses to leave his home.
Luckily, his house is still standing even though many of their neighbors have been displaced. However, Abdo's uncle's hometown was shelled in late November and they still have not been able to contact him, to see whether he is dead or alive.
"I want to go back just to see my father, just to see his face," Afashe softly spoke. "I don’t want him to die without me seeing him first. Sometimes I have this feeling of guilt that maybe I will never see them again."
Afashe continues her activism here in the United States, giving presentations, speaking with the media, and organizing events to raise awareness for the crisis in Syria. The problem remains present, an ever-growing catastrophe. The UN reports that the death toll has now exceeded 100,000 people, with more than two million refugees—and over one million of them are children.
"I think I am too demanding," Afashe vents." But I think we should do more. It's not enough. We have to race against time. The more time we waste, the more problems we have and the more people that die. During Rwanda the whole world was watching and they said that they will never allow this to happen again. But it's happening again in Syria, and no one is doing anything about it."
"We just need to find ways to stop the killing. This is the answer, we have no other options."