Sunday, September 8, 2013


Should the U.S. mobilize to quash the Assad government,at the risk of prolonged entanglement in another Middle East war?

Roanoke area Syrians divided over war, intervention.

Should the U.S. mobilize to quash the Assad government, at the risk of prolonged entanglement in another Middle East war? It’s one of the questions keeping area Syrians awake at night.

In the northeast Roanoke home of a parishioner, an orthodox Syrian priest plays a disturbing YouTube video on his cellphone: A rebel commander stands over a dead Syrian Army soldier, knifes him in the stomach, extracts his liver and then triumphantly eats it.

Forty-five miles away, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech has grim stories of his own to tell — but with a diametrically opposed point of view about how to respond. His great-uncles, Christian shopkeepers in a region where the Syrian uprising began, were killed by soldiers working for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — for refusing the soldiers’ demands for free food.

At Elon University, a Syrian-born professor has horror stories, too. A cousin was kidnapped and tortured, and a close friend was raped for days on end.

No one denies the horror in Syria, which began as a quiet protest for democratic reforms in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring and turned into a full-on civil war. But sorting the bad guys from the good has turned into a foreign policy snakepit — especially for Congress, now debating whether to support the Obama administration’s proposal to attack Syrian forces for using chemical weapons against civilians.

Should the United States step forward to quash the Assad government, at the risk of slogging into another protracted Middle East war?

It’s one of the questions keeping area Syrians awake at night, as they take to Facebook and cellphones to check on loved ones back home, weighing every new detail and story line.

Syrians living in the United States are as divided about what to do about Syria as the American public.

* * *

Father Andrew Bahhi feels guilty every time he eats, every time he sees water flowing from his tap. The priest of St. Philoxenus Church, a small Syriac Orthodox church near Cloverdale, Bahhi was communicating daily with his relatives in Syria via Facebook — until their power went out, along with their water, for many days.

Food prices have skyrocketed, and he can’t wire his relatives money because the banks and money-transfer businesses have crumbled in the chaos.

“It’s hard for any of us here to eat. You think, ‘Are my mother, sister and brother having food now?’ ” Bahhi said.

St. Philoxenus is one of about 50 Syriac congregations in the United States. According to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau figures, there are 159,000 people of Syrian ancestry living in the United States, the bulk of them in the Northeast and California.

Bahhi’s Roanoke County congregation is small, with 15 Syrian families or roughly 60 members, in addition to 20 families from other countries in the Middle East. Most of his Syrian parishioners live in northeast Roanoke and north Roanoke County, including several who run convenience stores and other small businesses and shops.

They have large extended families who help out, along with women elders who cook for regular church fundraisers, including the group’s inaugural St. Philoxenus Festival, held last month.

The church began in meeting space borrowed from the St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church in 2007. It grew slowly and, thanks to money earned by selling Mediterranean food at Local Colors festival events, developed its own building fund.

But as parishioners established their own space, their churches back home were being bombed and torched.

Among the Christian minority that has found support from Assad, these Syrian immigrants believe the Syrian government has been unfairly maligned by a media that has miscalculated the situation. They believe the rebels leading the revolution have been taken over by Islamic extremists, including outsiders from places like Chechnya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Wearing a traditional phiro cap and a long, heavy cross, Bahhi said rebels kidnapped and killed two Syrian friends who are church bishops, including a close friend who was tortured and beheaded — after his eyes were plucked out.

“Bashar has always protected us,” said Bahhi’s cousin and church member, Ayeda Sati, who immigrated to Virginia in 2001. “He always took care of our little Christian villages,” she said.

Sati and other congregants are firmly against U.S. military intervention, and joined a group of about 80 to 90 peace protesters Saturday from Plowshare Peace and Justice Center, most of them American-born, outside the Poff Building in downtown Roanoke.

“We love Assad!” the Syrians chanted at one point, creating mixed feelings for some Plowshare activists in the crowd.

“Love for Assad wasn’t in our plan,” one said.

After an hour of protest outside the Poff Building, the group walked en masse then stood with anti-war signs in front of the nearby office of Sen. Tim Kaine, who has voiced support for U.S. intervention.

“It was wonderful to be joined by the Syrians,” said Plowshare participant Joan Wages, who coordinated Facebook efforts for the hourlong vigil, planned for eight consecutive days. “We were thrilled to have them with us because it just shows that we’re all one, and none of us want those people to be destroyed, which is what we know will happen with the war.”

Today, Bahhi planned to begin his church service in Aramaic as he usually does — with special prayers for suffering relatives in Syria.

If America enters the war, “ it will just result in more bloodshed, more people losing their homes and jobs,” Bahhi said. “With our experience from the Iraq situation, we know it’s easy to start down the path of war, but it’s very hard to end it.

“The people who will be hurt? Our families, our churches and our poor people, who will hurt worst of all.”

* * *

Joseph Najem is a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, where he’s studied for the past three years. A native of Lebanon, he has several relatives in Syria, including two great-uncles who were killed by Assad’s regime in the town of Namer, he said.

About the only thing he agrees with Bahhi and his congregants on is this: The rebels attack. The regime sends in airplanes to destroy the towns. And the civilians are hurt in the crossfire.

“Imagine two scientists each with a theory, and they each have a bunch of mice,” Najem says. “The mice are the people in Syria, and the mice will die while the scientists are just trying to prove their theories.”

Like President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, Najem, 27, believes Assad ordered the chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people, many of them women and children. He faults Obama for not acting as soon as the “red line” was breached.

Both the Assad army and the rebels have initiated massacres, he conceded, leaving him with what he believes is the only ethical inference: not supporting either side, but rather advocating for an end to the suffering.

His relatives in Syria disagree with his support of U.S. intervention, he says — “they don’t use their minds; they use their hearts” — but Najem believes American intervention is the country’s best hope for an end to the chaos.

“I want America to remind all the bad people on earth that, ‘Hey, we are here. You can’t use these weapons. We are watching you.’ ”

He worries about his 85-year-old grandma, Syrian-born but now living in Beirut. The family hasn’t told her that her brothers died in the war.

“They’re scared she’ll die if she hears the news,” he said.

* * *

Damascus-born Haya Ajjan is a professor of management information systems at Elon College who writes op-eds and speaks out about the situation in Syria. Her husband is a Syrian-born physician. Their extended families live predominantly in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Lattakia, and the couple is in touch with them several times a day.

Most of her relatives support the revolution — including a cousin, a 40-year-old businessman who was kidnapped for three months last November and accused by Syrian Army soldiers of organizing demonstrations against Assad. She says he didn’t.

Nonetheless, he was detained and tortured for four months. By the time they released him, he was so weak and had lost so much weight that he couldn’t walk, and his 4-year-old son could not recognize him, she said.

An artist friend Ajjan grew up with was imprisoned for trying to organize a protest and raped so violently by her Syrian Army captors — with rifles — that she can no longer have children. “They want to break your spirit and who you are as a person,” Ajjan, 33, said.

When the revolution began, it was peaceful, she said, inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia. But Syrian friends and relatives say the country is now in jeopardy of being overrun by Islamist extremists.

Many of her relatives have had to abandon their homes, in some cases doubling and tripling up with other family members. They travel rarely and with great paranoia, and pool resources for food: A loaf of bread that used to cost 30 Syrian lira before the uprising now costs 150; a tank of propane costs 10 times its former price.

Last week, her husband’s grandmother died at the age of 103. Not only couldn’t Ajjan and her husband attend the funeral, but many of their Syrian relatives couldn’t either, because it’s so dangerous to travel between cities.

In the basement of one friend’s apartment building, Ajjan learned recently, Assad’s troops were storing weapons, hiding them in anticipation of an American attack.

Like Najem, Ajjan believes American intervention is the only chance for ending the civil war and paving the way for a democratic, transitional government. “It’s not easy for me to say I want another country to bomb Syria,” she said. “Syria is my home.” source

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