After uniting on Facebook, Syrian Americans travel to war’s edge


Members of the Syrian American Council Nisreen Mobayed, Yisser Bittar and Yasmeen Mobayed with children at the Qah Refugee camp in the Idleb suburbs of Syria. (Courtesy of the Syrian American Council)
February 4, 2013

A journey that brought eight young Syrian Americans to the edge of a war zone for their winter break began on Facebook.

But it was a common urge to witness the turmoil in their parents’ homeland that cemented the bonds among them, as they joined a parade that is bringing volunteers from around the world to the Turkish-Syrian border, each eager to play some role in supporting the nearly two-year-old revolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

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.

One weekend, the Syrian American group journeyed to Aleppo’s northern suburbs. As the members sat in a home in the Tal Refat neighborhood, the building shook and a window shattered. They later learned that a barrel of explosives had landed nearby, killing 18.

Timeline: Major events in Syria’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.

After that, they remained near the border.

Soon after New Year’s Day, most of them returned to the United States. Layth stayed and headed to Aleppo in a beat-up taxi with a shattered windshield. He posted on Facebook: “Things are about to get real.”

He wanted to fight and asked to be taken to the front line. He had one condition: He refused to interact with members of the al-Nusra Front, a militant Islamist group also known as Jabhat al-Nusra that is operating in northern Syria.

Layth said he entered an abandoned apartment in another Aleppo neighborhood and knelt next to a hole punched through the wall. Across a courtyard, he said, he saw the silhouette of a government sniper.

Layth aimed a rusty gun, probably older than him, and pulled the trigger. At first, the gun jammed; then, it released a stream of bullets. The sniper returned a couple of shots.

As one rebel fighter in the room recorded the scene on Layth’s ­iPhone, another grabbed his arm and pulled him out of danger.

Layth said he doubts he hit the sniper, but he’s comfortable with the idea that he could have killed someone.

“That sniper, on the other side, has probably killed a dozen people,” Layth said soon after returning to Turkey. “His hands are covered with blood.”

‘For the long haul’

Winter break is over, and everyone in the group has restarted classes or returned to work. They are readjusting to life with heat, warm showers, cable television and the stresses of being a 20-something in a First World country. They are forging ahead with plans to share what they saw, heard and experienced in Syria.

Layth hopes to finish his business administration degree by the end of the year.

“The regime should fall by then,” he said. “If it doesn’t fall by then, I plan to go in for the long haul. . . . I’m not just going to watch videos on YouTube. That’s what I did for two years. I can’t do that anymore.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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