For these Syrian American men and women, determining that role posed difficult questions. Should they venture far into Syria? Should they take up arms? And how should they address the fact that the opposition forces they firmly support include Islamist extremistswith views antithetical to their own?
The group — mostly college students from California and the Midwest — met on Facebook and organized the trip over Skype. They collected $15,000 and packed extra suitcases with medical supplies, clothing and blankets. For nearly two weeks, they immersed themselves in the crisis of a country that most had visited only before the uprising erupted.
“To actually be on the ground and to talk to the people and to see everything and to be witness to a massacre is a lot different,” Yisser Bittar, 23, the trip organizer and a recent college graduate who works for the Syrian American Council in Washington, said after the trip. “All of your feelings are multiplied and magnified.”
Amid a humanitarian crisis
In southern Turkey, sometimes within earshot of the fighting, the group met many who were injured in the conflict. They taught English to refugee children and performed a skit about the revolution.
They made several trips into Syria, showing their U.S. passports at the border. They visited a refugee camp where families packed into drafty tents and had only a few boiled potatoes to eat. They donated several thousand dollars to a village’s flour fund and met with local leaders, asking how they could continue to help in the coming months.
“It looks like what I would imagine a movie about a humanitarian crisis would look like,” said Kenan Rahmani, 24, a law student at the University of Notre Dame who frequently visited Syria while growing up. “That’s not really the Syria that we knew.”
The group also collected video footage for a documentary that they hope will show Americans how dire the conditions in Syria have become.
Layth, a senior at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, said he has difficulty explaining the Syrian revolution to classmates. During one class discussion, he said, he firmly supported supplying the opposition forces with weapons. No one else agreed, because of worries that the rebels have ties to terrorist groups, said Layth, who did not want his full name published for fear that the Assad regime will target him or his Damascus-based relatives.
Layth, 21, had ventured into Syria twice since the revolution began. Many of his professors are fascinated to hear about his adventures, he said, but his friendships at home have faded as the number of his “revolution friends” grew.