For local Syrians, home difficult to recognize

Rhode Islanders with Syrian roots remember childhood abroad, worry about family left behind

News Editor
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
This article is part of the series Syrians in Providence

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

A crowd of anti-regime protesters started to gather around the Sunni Al-Fawaz Mosque in Al-Raqqah, Syria. Yazen Alani ’18 watched from his bedroom window as the group swelled. Years before, his great-grandfather helped construct the mosque.

Protesters yelled chants critical of President Bashar Al-Assad. Syrian police forces arrived, but their attempts to quell the crowd were unsuccessful. The officers fled the scene. Alani was witnessing the start of the civilian uprising that became the Syrian civil war.

Alani has not been back to Syria since that trip in 2011. That year marked the last time he was able to see the family and friends he grew up with during the summers he spent there between school years in Rhode Island.

“It feels like you don’t have a home anymore,” Alani said.

Growing up Syrian

Even as a young child, Alani sensed the effects of Assad’s autocratic rule. He remembers driving with his uncle in Syria. In a plaza stood a statue of Assad with his brother, Bassel Al-Assad, who was expected to assume the role of commander-in-chief before he died in a car accident.

“Is he a good president?” Alani asked his uncle.

Nervously, his uncle responded, “Yeah, yeah — he’s good.” Alani pressed further, asking him what the president had done for his country.

“He keeps peace with our neighbors. He keeps Syria safe,” Alani recalled his uncle saying.

Dissatisfied with his uncle’s answer, Alani later brought the same question to his mother. She got angry. “Don’t say anything about that,” she said.

When Alani’s family returned to the United States, his father told him the leaders of Syria were dictators. “If you say anything against them, you could get killed,” his father told him.

Hasan Alsawaf is a dentist from Greenville, RI who ran for the state senate. He immigrated to the United States from Damascus over 20 years ago, drawn by America’s spirit of ingenuity and the principle of free speech.

Alsawaf’s family also discouraged him from speaking about politics in public from the time he was young.

Alsawaf said he felt like a third of the nation’s people worked as government security agents. “People said that there were ears in the walls,” he said. “You can’t trust anybody.” Those who spoke out against Assad’s regime could be “kidnapped and jailed.”

When he was eight years old, Alsawaf watched as Bassel Al-Assad’s men lifted up women’s burkas, saying they were searching for followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, he said.

The government flooded its citizens with anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda. “Just like how in the United States, we pledge to the flag, we had to pledge that our enemies were imperial America and Zionist Israel,” Alsawaf said.

“You repeat it because you don’t know what it means,” he said. “In order for a dictator to stay in power, there has to be a foreign enemy.”

By the time he was a teenager, Alsawaf began questioning the regime. “I was outspoken, but you can’t be outspoken there. That’s a suicide mission,” he said.

Alsawaf moved to the United States with $200. He worked in Chicago and then in Wisconsin delivering pizza, eventually earning enough to put himself through college. He now has a family in Greenville, RI, but lately thoughts of his family back home have been on his mind.

Leaving family behind

Alsawaf makes weekly calls to his family in Syria. They remain in the country’s capital, Damascus. Assad has “created a bubble” in the city — a bubble that Alsawaf’s sister and mother stay safely inside.

Those who revolted against Assad’s government “are mostly poor,” Alsawaf said. Assad carpet-bombed the surrounding areas of Damascus where those people reside, and his family reports back that the city is surrounded by land mines. Checkpoints block entrances in and out of the city. The government often shuts off his family’s electricity, and they struggle to keep up with the increasing expenses.

“Yet people are still going to nightclubs,” Alsawaf said. “People learn to live through hardships.”

Still, his family has to be more careful than ever these days. “There is no law,” Alsawaf said.

Two of Alsawaf’s nephews have been arrested and beaten, he said. One was accused of passing out pamphlets, the other for looking “suspicious” because of his “long hair.” The former nephew was imprisoned for six months.

“They have considered moving, but how? Where?” Alsawaf said. He added that emigration from the state has become increasingly difficult, as families need money and access to visas to leave.

He has not been back to see his family since 2009. “You always have a homesick feeling, but once you go back, then you start to see the difference,” Alsawaf said. On his last visit, he traveled through several poor villages in Syria and observed the “extreme income inequality” between Syria’s impoverished and wealthy neighborhoods. The disparity was something “you would never even see in America,” Alsawaf said. “I saw that this country was ready for a revolution.”

While Alsawaf’s family in Syria must continually take steps to protect themselves within the nation, some of Alani’s family has been forced to seek safety beyond its borders. Many of Alani’s family members who previously lived in Syria left for Turkey in 2013, displaced by the war. Last summer, Alani’s grandmother moved to Rhode Island to live with his family permanently. Still, other families are stuck inside Syria’s borders.

“My relatives are stubborn,” Alani said. “They don’t want to leave, … or they can’t leave.”

Alani often wonders what has become of the neighborhood kids with whom he used to play during summers past. He doesn’t know whether they have food or are still with their families. “These were kids I used to hang out with a lot, he said. “I don’t know what’s going on with them now.”

Past, present, future

Many Americans first heard news about Syria in 2011, when protesters began demanding Assad’s resignation, which led to the country’s civil war. But before Syria was caught in violent uprisings and the government’s response, it was Alani’s playground.

In Syria, “we played around the street until late at night,” Alani said. Yet in Providence, his mother worried about him wandering too far from home.

Alani said he felt comfortable within the perimeter of his home town, with its “small-town feel.” In the street or at cafes, people often asked him what family he was from and mentioned a relative of his whom they knew.

Alani now sees the same streets he used to play games in as a kid in news coverage of the Syrian civil war. ISIS captured Al-Raqqah in 2013 and named it the organization’s unofficial capital.

“The pictures on the news are pictures of places I used to run around as a kid,” Alani said. “I’m waiting on that day when I’ll be able to see my old house, to walk the streets I used to walk.”

When Alani grew up in the United States, friends and acquaintances frequently asked him where his family was from. Back then, his response of Syria might earn a few nods of recognition or, more regularly, a blank stare. Now, the country’s name is tearing across daily headlines and playing a pivotal role in presidential debates.

“It’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel — to see some group who could govern the nation and bring the country back,” he said.

The news of the seemingly endless fighting among different groups in his home country has worn Alani out. The conflict sometimes fails to resonate with his family as well, he said.

“Because of all these foreign fighters coming in on every side, most Syrians feel like it’s not even their country — or their conflict,” Alani said.

But Alani is doing what he can to support his family’s country. On campus, Alani represents the Muslim Student Association in the interfaith coalition to support Syrian refugees.

“I have a naive dream of somehow going back and helping out in a really intense and focused way,” Alani said. “But I will probably spend the rest of my life over here.”

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