Syrian-Americans refuse to sit on sidelines as homeland suffers

While President Obama recently ordered Special Ops troops into Syria for the first time, Syrian-Americans have been working as doctors and activists for the past four years.

Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Residents ride a motorbike near rubble of damaged buildings in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, November 17, 2015.

From her bedroom in Des Plaines, Ill., Alaa Basatneh has helped coordinate the revolution in Syria from her laptop. The 23-year-old spends six to eight hours a day online with people in Syria, mapping escape routes for protesters, connecting activists in different parts of the county, and organizing evacuations ahead of bomb strikes.

Ms. Basatneh was born in Syria, but her family moved to the United States when she was 6 months old. She was a freshman in college in March 2011 and her life revolved around her friends and going to movies and the mall. That changed when news broke that the Assad regime had tortured 15 children in Daraa for writing antigovernment graffiti on the walls of a school.

“It felt like I was hearing something from another planet,” she says. “So I looked around the room and the first thing I saw was my laptop. And I said, I’m going to help using my laptop.”

While President Obama recently ordered Special Ops troops into Syria for the first time since the war began in 2011, Syrian-Americans like Basatneh have been on the battlefield as doctors and activists for the past four years. With the help of modern technology and travel, they have played an active role in the conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people and created 4 million refugees. And they are getting the attention of both the US government and the warring groups in Syria.

“This is my homeland and this is the worst humanitarian crisis in our lifetime,” says Chicago pulmonary specialist Zaher Sahloul. “I cannot tell you that we’re risking our lives when we go there, because we’re like any other physician or nurse in Syria. They are risking their lives every minute while trying to save lives, and I think we should do the same.”

When he was in Aleppo on a medical mission this February, he saved a 16-year-old boy whose parents and young sisters had been killed when a barrel bomb hit their apartment.

Dr. Sahloul says he’s seen many Syrians injured by bombs, bullets, and chlorine gas on the 12 medical missions he’s made to Syria since the civil war began in the spring of 2011. His organization, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), runs 95 medical facilities throughout Syria and treated 1.4 million Syrians in 2014 alone.

Assad's classmate

Sahloul grew up in Syria and earned his medical degree at Damascus University, where now-President Bashar al-Assad was his classmate for six years. Sahloul moved to the US shortly after graduating, but he met with Mr. Assad and his wife several times in the years since. He says that on one of these occasions, Assad told him that he would have preferred to be a doctor instead of president.

Sahloul says he was surprised by the president’s violent crackdowns on protesters and targeting of medical staff when the civil uprising began. As the conflict expanded to a sectarian civil war, Sahloul and other Syrian-American doctors rallied to help their colleagues.

In February 2012, SAMS launched the “Save Syrian Lives” campaign and started taking doctors on medical missions to build hospitals and clinics in Syria and refugee camps in neighboring countries. SAMS now provides 70 to 80 percent of medical relief in some besieged areas and has spent more than $400 million in donations on the conflict. Sahloul says most of that money comes from Syrian-Americans.

Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry praised the “entrepreneurial spirit” of the doctors working on the Syrian conflict with SAMS.

“They are finding ways to reach people who would suffer or die without their help. And that is the very definition of courage and citizenship under fire,” Secretary Kerry said.

Eva Svoboda, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, has studied the work of Syrian-Americans in the civil war. She says that the people in the diaspora “fulfill an extremely important role in the conflict.”

“From the beginning, international aid organizations struggled to get access in some areas,” Ms. Svoboda says. “In the absence of international presence, diaspora organizations filled that gap. They’ve got the contacts, they’ve got the language skills, and they’ve got the networks.”

But Svoboda says that the personal connection that makes Syrian-Americans so valuable in the conflict can also be a burden.

“It can be quite difficult to see your friends and family suffering,” she explains.

Sahloul says that this is a reality that all Syrians, including himself, must deal with.

“I don’t think there is any Syrian that the crisis does not affect him or her personally,” he says. “There is no Syrian without either a victim in the family of bombing, or torture, or prison. Or someone who has his house destroyed or bombed, someone who has had his work or factory destroyed. I think no Syrian is immune from that.”

'I'm going to help using my laptop'

In 2011, Basatneh began reaching out to activists in Syria on Facebook and Twitter and realized she could play a critical role linking activists and spreading information in a climate where Syrians’ actions online and in public were being closely monitored. Basatneh cultivated a list of contacts in Syria, which included people in Assad’s regime who sympathized with the pro-democracy protesters. That network has proved extremely valuable.

Basatneh recalls one time in mid-2012 when she learned from a sympathizer that a village near Damascus was going to be bombed. She contacted activists she knew in the area and warned them of the impending strike.

“We had to evacuate nearly the entire village, because we knew that village was going to be wiped out by TNT barrel bombs,” she says.

More recently, Basatneh has helped prominent activists escape the country. Many of her close friends have been killed in the fighting, and it is becoming more and more dangerous for activists to live in Syria.

Basatneh’s work in Syria has gotten the attention of lawmakers in the US. Last month, she met with members of Congress in Washington, including  Rep. Mike Quigley (D) of Illinois.

“Alaa’s work shows us that social media is not only a casual way to communicate with friends and family, but an avenue to actively influence what is happening in places like Syria,” Representative Quigley said in a public discussion held with Basatneh

The Syrian government and the extremist organizations at war in the country have also taken note of Basatneh’s influence. In August 2011, she received the first of many death threats on Facebook from an Assad operative. The message, addressed to “Chicago girl,” warned her to stop or they would “make an example out of you.”

Later, when she visited northern Syria to deliver insulin and other medical supplies in 2012, she learned that the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front had distributed her name to all their checkpoints and said that they would execute her if they ever found her.

Despite the threats, Basatneh says she has no plans to slow down her work. To do so, she says, would betray her friends who have been killed in the war and their children who have survived.

“I really want to ensure a free and democratic society for these kids to grow up in,” Basatneh says. “These kids should have the privileges that we have here in Chicago and in the US.”

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