“If you do anything for yourself, you feel guilty. . . . You have so many more things to do,” said Nakhla, 29, a political asylee who is working as a program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Until last year, he had been a political science student living in an Alawite section of Damascus.
For many asylees who come to the United States, their political engagement dries up as they lose their connections with home and struggle to earn a living. But Washington, with its think tanks and politically engaged expat communities, offers more opportunities for involvement for people like Nakhla, who is still deeply entrenched in the war in Syria.
For eight months, through the auspices of the institute, Nakhla has been putting together “The Day After,” a nongovernmental organization that connects Syrian dissidents worldwide to develop a blueprint for what should happen once al-Assad is ousted. The NGO is funded mostly by the State Department, with additional funding from some European governments and NGOs.
Nakhla and others on the board of the 50-member organization unveiled the 130-page plan Tuesday at a news conference in Berlin, where the group’s meetings have been held (many of its members live in the Middle East or Europe). The plan offers suggestions on how to address issues often inherent in a regime’s collapse, such as dealing with armed groups, restructuring the economy and reforming the security sector.
It is the kind of public appearance that would have been impossible last summer, when Nakhla was hiding in Beirut. Syrian intelligence agents were scouring the city for him and threatening — via e-mail, via Twitter and via Facebook — to kill him.
Having slipped across the border just before the Syrian uprising began, the Damascus University political science student had become a well-known social media connector for the revolution, feverishly collecting videos, tweets and Skype updates from protesters and disseminating them to the outside world. He subsisted on nicotine and caffeine, flitting from one apartment to another, as recalled by fellow activists and a Washington Post reporter who visited him at the time.
One by one, his activist friends were arrested. Last August, he said, he was tipped off that Syrian government agents were closing in. He contacted the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where he had already applied for asylum, and it spirited him out of Lebanon.
Nakhla’s transition to life in the United States was jarring. At first, “it was really like another disaster — like leaving Syria — ‘What am I doing here?’ The one thing I was really so happy about? The Internet is so fast here.”