A hunted Syrian activist begins his work anew in Washington


Rami Nakhla is a Syrian expat working with a new nongovernmental organization through the U.S. Institute of Peace. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Last Thursday, Rami Nakhla met some friends after work at a Starbucks on Dupont Circle. They sat outside, and the sun glinted off a glass building and lighted their faces.

For months, Nakhla and his friends, Syrian dissidents who in the past year fled the regime of Bashar al-Assad, had lived shrouded in darkness. Now, meeting openly at a cafe in Washington evoked mixed emotions: bemusement, relief and a twinge of survivor’s guilt for being safe when so many are still in danger.

“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.”

But he quickly learned that in Washington, “ you cannot do anything if you do not have income.” He crashed with a friend in Rockville and received some donations from Syrian dissident organizations, but it wasn’t enough to live on. He spent four days in the hospital with a spontaneous lung collapse, the result of a poor diet and high stress.

Then he got a call from Steve Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle Eastern initiatives at the institute, who had met with him in Beirut and been impressed.

“When I heard he was in Washington, I thought he’d be the perfect person for the institute,” said Heydemann, who joined Nakhla in Berlin this week for the NGO’s kickoff. “His political maturity, his sophistication, the extent to which he understands the importance of building something. Here was this young man who had such a solid grasp of what it takes to build a movement.”

Nakhla welcomed the transformation from technological to ideological connector. “I am a political activist. . . . I am not just a social networking geek,” he said.

Since coming to the United States, Nakhla said, he has traveled to California to meet with Twitter and Facebook officials and explain how they can save lives by tightening Web site security. But most of his focus has been on “The Day After,” whose members include prominent philosophers, religious leaders and activists. They represent Syria’s broad spectrum of secularists, Muslim Brotherhood members and ethnic minorities, such as Alawites and Druze. “We got people talking across the table who would not have talked to each other,” said Nakhla, who is from Alswaida and of ethnic Druze descent.

Nakhla acknowledges the risk of not seeming legitimate to conspiracy-minded Syrians because the NGO is funded by the State Department and other Western governments. He said he, too, initially worried that “they are just using us.” He changed his mind after he started an Internet-based fundraiser to help Syrian families. “In the first 24 hours, I was so amazed. All the people I know in the State Department, people who work on Syria, were donating — $100, $200, $300 from their own pockets — while the leaders of the Syrian community were not. I realized you can trust these people. They really mean good for your country.”

While the group’s members don’t agree on everything, they are united in the belief that advance planning can forestall some of the friction that arises when a dictatorship topples, friction that has already begun to fray Syria’s Arab Spring ideals.

“Really, what we considered a dream all our life had started to become a nightmare with sectarianism, al-Qaeda, the uprising starting to become more violent,” said Nakhla, sitting in the institute’s soaring atrium and wearing the dark suit and blue oxford shirt he wryly calls “the Washington uniform.”

“The Syrian people have really no experience, nothing for a transition plan,” he said, noting that more that 15 Syrian dissident organizations have emerged in the United States since the uprising began but that hardly any of their members had ever played a real political role inside Syria.

Nakhla said his attempts to bring the groups together fell flat. “They’re worried that if they merge together, they will lose power.”

To avoid personality contests, the organization focuses on what Nakhla calls technical planning in such areas as security sector reform and rule of law. “We made it very clear that this is not political. . . . We are not trying to tell the Syrian transitional government what to do,” he said. “But we want to be sure that we start the debate in the Syrian community about what the transition might look like.”

In order to be near dissidents who are freshly arrived from Syria, Nakhla plans to move to Istanbul this fall to open a Syrian Transition Support Network, under the auspices of the institute.

It will also be his own unofficial reintroduction to the limelight. “People have been going, ‘Where are you, what have you been doing?’ ” he said. “I think I’m ready to go back and say, ‘Hey, guys — this is what I’ve been doing the last eight months.’ ”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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