Metro, University News

A country in ruins, an education disrupted by war

Syrian scholar at Brown reflects on homeland, media perception after being forced to leave

By
News Editor
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
This article is part of the series Syrians in Providence

This story is the third in a three-part series about Syrians in Providence and at Brown.

Tarek was pulling up to his apartment building when he heard the missiles. There was no siren — just the sound of mortar shells soaring into the ground in front of his building and the dull thuds that followed.

Tarek — a scholar who came to Brown in February to resume his research and whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity — had just arrived home from the Syrian university at which he taught before his studies there were interrupted by the country’s civil war. It was 4 p.m., and Tarek was caught in crossfire.

The neighborhood fell into a blackout for 15 minutes as rebel missiles rained down on Tarek and his neighbors. People lay in the streets, “blood everywhere,” he said. Tarek grabbed a man who had been struck by shrapnel and drove him to the hospital.

The fighting in Syria has resulted in a mass migration out of the war-torn state. Since the conflict began, 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and over 3 million have fled to bordering countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Tarek left Syria at the point at which he felt that — due to the constant bombings and threats from both the Assad regime and rebel groups — he had the least control over his life.

“I had my apartment, my car, my students,” he said. “I was able to change my environment before.”

Now, his family in Damascus lives without fuel or heat, receiving only an hour of electricity every eight hours and constantly remaining under the threat of rebel crossfire.

The United States has offered several rebel groups humanitarian aid and military communications gear. In 2014, Obama asked Congress to fund a program that allowed American personnel to train rebels in marksmanship, navigation and other skills. Turkey partnered in this project, which aimed to train 15,000 rebels within the borders of Jordan who would then return to Syria to fight, according to the BBC.

The plan ultimately failed. Tarek was not surprised.

“When we say that we are going to give arms to the moderate opposition, I laugh,” he said. “We don’t have a ‘moderate opposition.’ That’s no longer true.”

“Instead of sending arms, you should send those intellectuals who are living outside of Syria, in Europe, to try and create a basis of change in Syria,” Tarek said.

Intellectual freedom in Syria

The tensions in Syria had been building long before they erupted in civil war.

Adnan Adrian Wood-Smith, the University’s associate chaplain for the Muslim community, spent 10 months in Damascus between June 2010 and April 2011 for a graduate program.

As tensions slowly crescendoed underneath the surface, Wood-Smith tried to focus on his studies, but even those seemed to be under governmental influence. In one lecture he attended, a Muslim lecturer directly addressed an Egyptian scholar who was speaking out against Assad’s government. “Why doesn’t he come here and see that everything is good?”

At the time, Wood-Smith was shocked by how heavily the scholar pushed the clearly pro-government propaganda. He left the lecture.

But Wood-Smith’s opinion has since changed. Nearly two years later, the same scholar whose talk Wood-Smith walked out on was killed by a suicide bomber who attended his lecture. His story travelled back to the American-Muslim community, where it became the subject of much discussion.

Wood-Smith reflected on his traditional Islamic theology for an explanation as to why his professor had bowed so easily to Assad’s propaganda.

“We, as Muslims, stand up against injustice, but we don’t rebel against leaders,” Wood-Smith said. “Because every leader — no matter how unjust he or she is — is keeping something down. And once you open that up, then you’re opening it up for all corruption to come out, and all hell breaks loose.”

Wood-Smith said that he was better able to appreciate that theory, given the aftermath caused by the Arab Spring and various countries’ revolts against their own leaders.

As demonstrations escalated and Wood-Smith feared that the situation would reach its climax, he began to tell teachers that he would be leaving his graduate program early. “Our teachers would act like nothing had happened at all,” he said. When he told them he was leaving, they asked, “Why?”

“You could tell that things were not going to go any better because people weren’t listening to each other,” Wood-Smith said.“You could no longer functionally operate in society because everyone was just like a robot,” Wood-Smith said. “It’s like a twisted nightmare. You know that, beneath the surface, people have legitimate concerns. But all you see is that people are happy.”

But despite the corruption within the Assad regime, people found ways to reason around the Syrian government’s abuse of power. “People there for the most part felt that power is power at the end of the day, and there’s always going to be oppression from those in power — that we always have to stand up for injustice but not fool ourselves into thinking that we can have stability without a certain amount of oppression.”

Americans, Wood-Smith said, tend to believe that the government can play a role in saving its citizens from oppression, but are slow to recognize the part power plays in that shift. The West considers democracy the best form of government for all countries, but more than any certain form of government, what Syrians want most is stability, he added.

Syrian stigma in Rhode Island

Closer to his new home, Tarek pointed out the stigma that surrounds Syrian refugees in Rhode Island.

Syrian immigrants have been subject to Islamophobia and xenophobia for years, said Hasan Alsawaf, a dentist from Greenville, R.I. who immigrated to the United States when he was 21.

Though Rhode Island welcomed its first family of Syrian refugees last week, debate has still ensued around whether or not the state should admit more refugees.

Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond and West Greenwich, has spoken out against bringing refugees to Rhode Island. She stressed the importance of “keeping them in their own region and culture,” in an email to The Herald.

“Shipping them to all parts of the world is not a service to them,” she wrote.

Americans of Syrian ancestry already make up a notable portion of Rhode Island’s population. According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey 2009-2013, Rhode Island has the highest per-capita population of people with Syrian ancestry of any state.

Within Rhode Island, 1,071 people listed that they are of Syrian descent with single ancestry. Including those of multiple ancestries, the Syrian population already living in the state adds up to 2,325 people, according to U.S. Census data from 2010.

Alsawaf said that he has personally felt the stigma of being Syrian while living in Rhode Island’s more rural and suburban regions. Despite that, he continues to run for the Rhode Island Senate seat in his district.

“I want to raise up the Syrian name,” Alsawaf said. He ran as a Republican for District 22 of Rhode Island last year, personally funding much of his own campaign. He believes the reason for his loss is the stigma behind his Arab name.

Alsawaf said that he knows many Syrian-Americans who have changed their names to blend in with the greater population.

“I want my children to be proud of their name,” Alsawaf said. “They are embarrassed.”

He said that his dental practice has received calls from patients looking to schedule a first appointment who cancel upon hearing his name. The same effect occurs for voters at the poll, he added.

“I want to enable and empower Muslim-Americans in this nation — not just Syrians — to hold these same positions,” Alsawaf said.

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