by Zaher Sahloul
Four months after I arrived to Chicago in 1989, my colleague at the hospital, Dr. Nancy Nora, invited me to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. I was homesick in a new country after graduating from medical school in Damascus. Nancy Nora was an Irish American from a large Catholic family. Her father was a respected local physician.
Nancy told me that it was a tradition in her family to invite a newcomer to the city. After all, Thanksgiving, I learned, celebrated Native Americans welcoming European refugees who fled their homelands due to religious and political persecution.
I came to Chicago from the ancient Syrian city of Homs to pursue advanced medical training. Syrians look to the US as the best place to pursue this training. In fact, almost half of one percent of American doctors are of Syrian origin. There are also famous Syrian actors, playwrights, rappers, chess players, entrepreneurs, scientists, businessmen, and even Republican governors. Every Syrian American is proud that Steve Jobs is the son of a Syrian immigrant. Syrian immigrant Ernest Hamwi invented the ice cream cone during the St. Louis World fair in 1904.
“Everyone who enjoys ice cream and an iPhone should feel indebted to Syrian immigrants,” I remind my children. All three have been born in Chicago. The eldest, Adham, ran his first marathon this year—to raise awareness about domestic violence—and aspires to a career in politics. Mahdi is involved in his university’s Students Organizing for Syria (SOS) chapter as well as the Black Lives Matter campaign. Marwa, a high school freshman, is a budding pianist and ran for her school’s cross-country team. They all volunteer in local charity events and for Syria. My wife, Suzanne, the daughter of a Syrian civil engineer and Canadian mother with Irish-Scottish roots, founded the Syrian Community Network (SCN) to help support newly resettled Syrian refugee families in the Chicago area.
Darkness in Syria
To many Syrians, America symbolizes the values that we lack at home: freedom, rule of law, and the respect for human rights. In Syria, my generation knew only one president, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for 30 years with “iron and fire,” as they say in Arabic. He detained and tortured thousands of people who dared to speak out against his rule. He committed massacres, the worst of which in the city of Hama the same year I graduated from high school.
I still remember the atmosphere of fear in Syria. We dared not speak. We were told that the “walls have ears.” My family even prevented me from going to the mosque to pray. Many of my high school friends and relatives disappeared into the dark cells of the infamous Palmyra prison, the site of another infamous massacre by Assad’s ruthless security men.
When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar, a classmate of mine from medical school, was appointed to the presidency by a token parliament. People expected change. After all, Syria had a well-educated middle class, a diverse economy, and a reasonably vibrant nonprofit sector. It also had a tradition of democracy, which had its ups and downs between 1920 and1970. Bashar, inexperienced but equally ruthless, disappointed us all. When hundreds of thousands of young Syrians demonstrated peacefully in 2011, thinking naively that the Arab Spring had turned at last to Syria, Assad and his cronies responded with what they knew best: brutality and oppression. More than 250,000 people have been killed. Tens of thousands have disappeared into the prisons. Half of the population has been displaced. And barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and all kinds of weaponry have leveled entire cities and neighborhoods.
Besides meager humanitarian assistance and empty rhetoric, the international community has stood by mostly idle, watching darkness descend on Syria. It has become one of the worst humanitarian crises in our lifetime. In the ensuing chaos, extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Hezbollah filled the vacuum. But the snowballing refugee crisis only captured the world’s attention when it reached the shores of Europe. With the drowning of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, who tried to flee with his family to Greece from Turkey across the Aegean Sea, suddenly Syrian lives mattered.
With the Refugees
I just returned from my last medical mission with my organization, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), to the Greek island of Lesbos. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are making the desperate boat trip from Turkey to Lesbos and other Greek islands. The unfortunate ones are drowning, while the lucky ones must carry on through another 1,200 miles of borders, humiliation, and misery to reach whoever opens the door to them. Germany and Sweden have been the most hospitable, while others are building walls and barbed wire fences along their borders. The Syrian refugees I met were fleeing the recent Russian bombings and Assad’s barrel bombs, while some are fleeing the brutality of the Islamic State. I saw several women, some with toddlers Aylan’s age, who lost their husbands to the war. One woman was crying as she described a public execution by IS that she was forced to witness with her five-year-old son. He has had nightmares since then.
I heard from a Syrian volunteer doctor about a boat with a capacity of 30 people that was stuffed with more than 80 refugees. Each refugee had to pay the smugglers 1,000 to 2,000 euros. It was a cold night when the boat crashed onto the rocky shores and split in half. Children got stuck underneath the boat. Many simply drowned. The Syrian doctor, himself a victim of Assad’s torture and now a refugee in France, described to me how he performed CPR on two small children. One was dead, and one died later. The US presidential candidates and governors who slammed the door in the faces of helpless Syrian refugees should hear these stories. These refugees deserve our sympathy and hospitality.
Since 1975, Americans have welcomed over 3 million refugees from all over the world. Refugees have built new lives, homes, and communities in towns and cities in all 50 states. Since the war began, however, only 2,034 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the entire United States. This is a shameful number, considering that there are 4.2 million Syrian refugees. The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would impose additional security measures on refugees from Syria, making it nearly impossible to accept more refugees from Iraq and Syria. A similar bill is awaiting a Senate vote.
Nancy Nora’s father, surrounded by his large extended family at the dinner table on that Thanksgiving many years ago, explained to me how Irish Americans were demonized when they first arrived to the United States as refugees. They were maligned by politicians and by the public, and were perceived as a threat. During dark times in our history, the United States has treated newly arriving Jews, Italians, Japanese, and Latinos as a threat.
As I was leaving the Nora household after that memorable evening, her family wished me good luck with my studies and my new life in America. Suddenly, the cold Chicago night felt very warm. I felt at home.
Photo courtesy of Freedom House via Flickr.
M. Zaher Sahloul, a medical doctor, is the former head of the Syrian American Medical Society, @www.sams-usa.net. Follow at Twitter @sahloul. This article cross-published with Foreign Policy In Focus.